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Zip It and Listen

First, a little story.  Last week, I was speaking with the chairwoman of a board.  She was having a whole bunch of issues with one of her team members.  This particular team member was creating all sorts of problems in board meetings, fighting with other board members, and just in general was being a huge pain in the a$$.  The chairwoman had been soliciting opinions from a number of different external advisors to figure out what to do with this problematic team member. By the time I chatted with the executive, pretty much every strategy had been proposed and discussed.  We spent the first hour of our discussion talking through the potential reasons why the woman was acting out, and how to address each hypothetical reason (which were identical to all of the other strategies her other advisors had proposed). I knew the conversation was unfulfilling to this executive as I wasn’t able to offer her the silver bullet that would solve the dilemma of her problematic team member. 

Right before we were about to part ways, in one last Hail Mary attempt to be somewhat useful, I asked the chairwoman if she had simply asked the problematic team member how she was doing in an attempt to better understand why she might be acting out.   My brilliant strategy was to take the team member out to coffee and simply hold the space for her to talk about what was going on in her life. 

My suggestion was met with…..silence.  After what felt like an eternity, the executive quietly and reflectively stated that she, at no point over the tortuous few months of this behavior, had taken the time to ask (and truly listen) to what was going on with the team member. 

I share this story not to illustrate that I won! That I solved the problem of the tough team member that no one else could figure out! Rather, I share this story as a little reminder of how, as managers, we often forget the power and importance of a simple coffee and a simple question before we make assumptions about our team members.  And, I share this story as a reminder of how important it is to truly listen when you do ask those questions and be open to whatever your team member might say in response.  

Okay, so here comes the complex, research backed guide on how to take your team member out to coffee and create space to listen to what’s up in his / her life.  Here we go:  

  • Step 1.  Ask your employee to get coffee. 

  • Step 2. Ask him / her what’s going on and how he / she is feeling about things. 

  • Step 3.  Shut up. (Like truly shut up.  Don’t follow-up with additional context, don’t jump in after 5 seconds of silence.  Just shut up, embrace the silence and listen - he / she will eventually talk. Trust me). 


Last year we talked about the importance of onboarding and making sure, as a manager, you get to know your new employee as a person first and take the time to truly welcome them.   Well, the same goes for your existing employees. Make sure you take the time to step away from the craziness of the deliverables, and presentations, and sales pitches, and show that you care for your team members.  Ask about how they’re doing, what’s going on outside of work, and what’s holding them back or helping them out. Don’t put it off. Don’t wait until they reach out to you. Find the time and commit to it.  


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