In a Crisis, Don't Confuse Loud with Worse

March 26, 2020

It's a great feeling when you see someone's strengths come out in the middle of a crisis. You see them find a way to tune out the distractions, to move the necessary forward, and reprioritize without a lot of noise.

It's equally frustrating when you see someone's weaknesses come out in the middle of that crisis. You see them drag others down the fear rabbit-hole, hijack the conversation to make a point that's not currently actionable, or negotiate for more time, resource, or clarity when nobody has any to spare.

Managing the folks who are showing up with their best self is easy right now; give them more and watch them run. Managing the people who are struggling, which is always more difficult, is even more so now.

Now you need to have an accountability conversation with someone who is not in a good place. They're on edge, more likely to be defensive or hide what's really going on, and you need demonstrable change fast. It's a tight spot to find yourself.

How do you manage this? Start with one rule: Don't mistake louder for worse.

While you might find yourself muttering, "Why are they doing this?" "Don't they get what's needed right now?" the reality is, they don't. If you pause for just a moment, you'll realize that they're showing up in the same way as they did three weeks ago. Nothing fundamental in their behavior or approach has changed; it's just louder now. Their weakness is more prominent. It's not because it's a new weakness or a worse one, it's because you can't cover for it or ignore it like you used to.

Here's a three-step process for how you can engage with this person and turn things for the better:

  1. Show care even if you may not want to or feel like it. Start with curiosity. Ask how they're doing. Seek to understand. Try to accept, as hard as it may be, that this is something that you probably should've been coaching them on long before this moment.
  1. Stoke curiosity even though you feel like you shouldn't have to. Ask them to share their perspective on whatever you're seeing. Follow that with more questions to see what other options or approaches they can come up with that might be better. Listen and consider the merits.
  1. Be courageous, even if it might mean things get worse. Be honest about your concern. Be clear about what it is you need and don't need from them. Protecting this person from the truth will only keep them guessing about where they stand and what you need. Hint: #3 is likely to backfire if you skip steps 1 and 2.

Everything you've ever heard me say — that real-time feedback creates safety, that people leadership is about relationships, and, most importantly, that personal and professional growth is one thing, not two — was all in preparation for this moment.

Today's weakness was there before. What's different is that you've never had a better moment to help them change it.

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