He walked into my office and said, “You hurt her feelings last week!”
I looked up from my work with a question mark clearly on my face. Hurt her feelings?
The reference was to a situation where I had actually helped the employee in another department, at least in my view. I served as director of project management and had identified an area where one particularly well-meaning employee was paying the price for the delayed work of other departments. She was absorbing the time crunch all by herself. She was nobly trying to “save the world” for the entire company and becoming visibly stressed. Being a manager, my goal was to alleviate her stress and to help her to know that she has a support system in place, especially in light of the fact that her direct manager was not in the office for the week. Besides that, part of my role as director of project management is to ensure that the project goes along smoothly, not destroying staff in its path.
How on earth could she interpret this as anything but encouragement?
I sat and thought about it at length, after explaining to her manager that I did not see where his employee had done anything wrong and so there would not have been any point for correction. Obviously, there was a misunderstanding somewhere.
On my end, I took this personally, like somehow I had done something wrong. Here I was, a graduate student in psychology, on my way to my doctorate, with a focus on organizational psychology. My mission in life was to embrace the strengths in each and every human and to encourage their personal growth, while still keeping an eye on the best interest of the company or companies.
A Limited Dictionary
Then it hit me. While I was viewing that she was taking my “encouragement chat” too personal and somehow “corrupting” the message into something that it was not, I was also being too personal by expecting that somehow I mattered enough to be the sole focus of the equation and that I should always be understood because my motives were so pure.
In reality, we do have responsibility, as managers. We have a responsibility to understand our audience. In other words, even though we have used every psychological tactic in the world and practiced our eloquent communication skills, that does not mean that the audience is going to understand the message.
In this case, I had used logic and time management verbiage to explain how I was there to help this particular employee. In hindsight I could see that she got lost in the verbiage of logic and since she did not have a built-in translation program, she assumed that it was a reprimand, when it was not (in fact, polar opposite!). Now, in light of that, what should I expect? I had actually erred on the side of expecting her to understand more than she was capable of understanding. So, she translated what I said by attributing it to the closest translation she could find.
It would be like having a dictionary. If your dictionary only has 10 words in it and you are presented with an 11th word, you are going to find the closest translation, even if it doesn’t apply at all. Well, I should say, there are those who will do that. There are also those who will find out what the meaning is, but just because I may be that type of person, I cannot expect that the entire population of the world is also that type. That would be an unrealistic expectation on my part.
So, out of confusion, she translated what I meant for encouragement, as a reprimand.
What could I have done?
I should have realized that I needed to be less academic. I needed to remove the “higher thinking” portion of my response and kept it simple. Simple would be, “Hey, I’ll take care of it for you.” She may not have grown in her capacity, but I cannot force that growth. It has to be something she personally desires for herself and if she does not, there is no point in encouraging growth that is not desired.
In my efforts to implement transformational leadership, I drew her in, to be empowered when it came to her own time management. I offered her tools to help her fly, to soar over the landscape of her life and grow in self-validation. But, since she did not understand, she thought it was an indicator that somehow she was *not* succeeding.
Who are we to reprimand others because they choose not to soar? It is them who have chosen to remain grounded and complain, rather than rising above and reaching for the stars.. and their dreams.
So, before taking it personally, step back and realize that much of life is a reaction. It may not be YOUR reaction, but you are likely to be affected by a reaction somewhere. And, be sure to study your audience. Understand that just because it is kind-hearted on your end, the audience may not have the capacity to receive that kindheartedness. Even sugar can become too much and cause a dispelling from the body, when consumed in levels that the body cannot handle.