Stay in Touch

Subscribe to my monthly e-zine and get blog posts and other leadership resources delivered to your inbox.
What If It’s Not Personal?

What If It’s Not Personal?

Last night at dinner my husband asked me: How do you get two people on a project to get along? I immediately responded with lots of questions: What’s the context? Whose project is it? What are the reporting relationships? How do you know they’re not “getting along?” What’s happening as the result of them not “getting along?”

Of course, it turns out that his simple question was just a doorway into a much more complex scenario, with lots of moving parts, fuzzy roles, and unclear authority. I didn’t have any simple answers for him, but I was struck by the frame of his initial question: How do you get two people to get along?

This tendency to frame things as personal is something I see in organizations all the time. As human beings, we start with the personal. When something goes wrong, the most common interpretations we make have to do with the people involved, ourselves included:

  • “Tammy and Sheila just don’t get along.”
  • “Clyde feels threatened by Bill.”
  • “He’s an INFP and she’s an ESTJ.”
  • “My boss is out to get me.”

I don’t know exactly what it is about the way our social, mammalian brains are wired that gives us this tendency (any evolutionary biologists out there reading this?), but over years of coaching and consulting to human beings within organizations, I can say definitively that it’s a clear pattern.

How do we make things personal?

team in conflictWe make things personal by assuming that whenever people are in conflict, their behavior has to do with their personalities or character traits. For example, not long ago I was working with a client organization in which two members of the executive team were barely speaking to each other. Everybody, including them, was interpreting the problem as interpersonal. Most of the team perceived one person as defensive and somewhat of a prima donna. She, in turn, perceived the other person as a cold manager who wasn’t supportive of or connected to staff.

We also make things personal when only one person is involved, by assuming that their behavior springs from an internal source. If someone is not performing well or doing things we don’t like, we tend to describe them with words like “threatened,” “incompetent,” “uncommitted,” or “power-hungry.” We might say, “he has an anger problem,” or “she’s narcissistic.” Regardless of the details, our frame of reference has to do with their inner motivations or psychological state.

Why is it a problem?

When we make things personal, we become blind to the possibility of deeper, more systemic problems in the organization. And what we don’t see, we can’t fix.

We also, in some situations, create self-fulfilling prophecies. Research shows that when I believe something to be true, I see things that confirm my beliefs and I don’t see things that challenge my beliefs. If I believe you are power-hungry, then I will interpret your behavior through that lens and literally not see any signs of collaboration on your part.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that things are never personal. Sometimes it’s true that Tammy and Sheila just don’t get along. Sometimes it’s true that Clyde feels threatened by Bill. But more often than not, the “personal” element of the situation is not the most relevant (or fixable) problem.

If it’s not personal, what is it?

When you notice that you or others are making things personal, ask yourself these three questions. They might lead to a different (and more useful) perspective.

1. Is decision making clear?

Another recent client engagement involved a leadership team that was experiencing frustration and conflict in getting their collective work done. To their credit, they realized that part of the problem was that they did not have an effective decision making process. There was no agreement about what decisions should come to the entire team, or who had the authority to make which decisions.

As a result, the reasoning behind decisions was not always clear, and some decisions were changed without everybody being aware of it. No wonder they began questioning each others’ commitment and motivations.

2. Are roles and expectations clear?

clarityThat executive team in which two people were barely speaking to each other? It turned out that underneath all the drama there was a distinct conflict in their roles and expectations. Their departments depended on each other to get the work done, but they had no shared understanding of the process by which they and their employees would communicate. They also had different ideas about what roles they should play with each others’ employees. When they clarified their expectations and stopped making it personal, they were able to work together more effectively.

3. Is everybody working toward the same goal?

If people on your team or project are working toward contrary goals, conflict is inevitable. Again, we often interpret the source of the conflict as interpersonal. In fact, those people can’t help but be in conflict. You could replace them with two completely different people, and you’d still have conflict. In that sense, it’s not personal at all.

A classic example of this is the frequent tension between people in sales and marketing and their colleagues in product development. The first want to bring a product to market as quickly as possible and with as many bells and whistles as possible, because their goal is to excite the consumer and sell the product. The engineers want to scale back features and avoid over-promising, because their goal is to ensure that they can deliver the product within specifications. These goals aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but the team needs to acknowledge the different priorities and value them equally.

What you can do

So what do you do when conflict or disagreement arises in a meeting or during a project, and you suspect it stems from one of these underlying issues? Here are some examples of things you might say to make a difference.

  • “ I think the two of you might be working toward different goals. Let’s figure out if that’s true, and then decide how to prioritize.”
  • “I’m not clear what our decision making process is here. Whose call is this?”
  • “We don’t seem to be on the same page about our expectations of each other.”
  • “You’re both sharing this work, but it seems like you disagree about who is responsible for what. How can we work that out?”
  • “It doesn’t seem like we have the right person to make the decision in the room. Who do we need to include?”

These sorts of statement can serve to defuse tension and point the way toward a possible solution. People tend to respond less defensively – because it’s not PERSONAL. As a result, it’s easier to reach a resolution. People are also less likely to make interpretations about each other that then turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.

So, next time you see yourself or someone else in your organization making something personal, stop and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is decision making clear in this situation? If not, what can I do to make it more clear?
  • Are roles and expectations clear in this situation? If not, what can I do to make them more clear?
  • Is everybody working toward the same goal in this situation? If not, what can I do to raise that issue and help the group clarify priorities?

Going back to the question that started it all, I’ll show this article to my husband and see what he thinks. I hope it will be helpful.

But if it’s not, I won’t take it personally.

What about you? How do you see yourself or others making things personal in your organization? What are the results? How do you find yourself responding, as a leader? I’d love to hear your comments!

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.