Getting Real: Just How Neutral Are You?

This week’s entry was inspired by a conversation with a leader about dealing with difficult people—not just any difficult people, but the ones who have disappointed you to the extent that you are really wondering if you’ll ever effectively manage or motivate them.

We all have that One. The person whom you just can’t seem to reach. To whom you have given the same feedback, over and over again, to no avail. The employee who has missed deadlines repeatedly, damaged your team’s reputation, maybe even damaged your reputation through a formal grievance. The one you struggle to say anything positive about, whose mere presence evokes some combination of eye-rolling, blood-pressure-raising, don’t-make-eye-contact-with-him behavior from you.

A client of mine struggling with an employee like this recently told me that she was completely neutral about the person, that she had found a way to minimize contact, disappointment, and conflict with them and that she was really okay with it. But how she talked about the person belied her assertion of neutrality. So it led me to wonder, is it actually possible to feel “neutral” towards anyone that you have had significant contact with? And if not, what is the implication for leaders?

You’ve likely heard about the impact of “expectation” on your ability to lead individuals—expect negative outcomes, and you’ll get exactly that. Many leaders, like my client, do their best to shift to neutral with difficult employees, just try to let it go.

My conclusion so far is that it is not possible to feel completely neutral about a person with whom you’ve shared any history. If it’s a history that leaves you feeling happy, then you likely have positive feelings about them. If it’s a history that leaves you feeling lousy, and especially if you believe that person is partially to blame for the lousiness of it, then you likely have negative feelings about them. If it’s a mixed bag, then you probably have mixed feelings towards them, not neutral or zero feelings.

Here’s the eye-opener: How you feel towards someone will show up in your actions. Kidding yourself about how you feel (“no really, I’m over it”) will just bring more of the same results. If you are serious about opening up new possibilities in your relationship and/or work with a person, you’ve got to be willing to take an honest look at your current orientation towards them and consider which orientation will yield the kind of change you want to see.

Your coaching assignment for the week: When you come into contact of any sort with that One—you get an email from him, see her talking with someone in the break room, someone mentions his name, etc—rate your state from -5 (your blood’s boiling) to +5 (absolute glee). The goal is not to get yourself to zero (neutral) or into positive territory; for now, the intention is just to notice where you are—to take that honest look at your orientation.

What is your experience in being neutral towards people with whom you have a shared history? Can you really do it? How do you manage yourself so that negative feelings towards someone do not affect your expectations and actions?

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