“It seems like he’s trying to sabotage me,” Jenn said with a tone of anxiety as she sipped her chai and stared out the coffee shop window. She was referring to her long-time colleague, Rick. “Every time we have a client deadline he promises to get his work in on time, but he keeps dropping the ball. He didn’t use to be this way.”
I could see than Jenn felt stuck, and I inquired as to how she’d dealt with the situation thus far. “I’m so tired of burning the midnight oil to pick up Rick’s slack. Just yesterday I confronted him, but all he does is get defensive or shut down.”
“What exactly did you say when you asked Rick about his missed deadlines?” I prompted gently.
“Something along the lines of, ‘Why didn’t you get your part in to me on time?’” Jenn replied with an indignant shrug.
Ah, there it was. Jenn asked Rick what I refer to as a non-question. Sure, the grammatical structure may sound like a question, but the message is all statement – “Rick, what you did was wrong, and you better have a good excuse.” Although Jenn’s frustration may be fully warranted, a sentiment like this one is bound to be met with defensiveness and withdrawal. Jenn won’t get the information she’s looking for, and Rick will just feel persecuted.
Instead of leading with blame or anger, I suggested that Jenn use a tool that I call objective inquiry. The key to this strategy is structuring your questions around the other person. “Make the question genuine; make it really about Rick, not about what you think of Rick’s behavior. Try using my favorite objective inquiry question: ‘What else is going on?’”
Jenn took my advice and was surprised by what she learned. Rick’s father had recently fallen ill and Rick was helping to care for both of his parents every night after work. Distracted by day and exhausted by night, it was obvious that Rick was having trouble keeping his head above water.
Rick’s story by no means justifies his performance slump, but the new information Jenn gained allowed her team to move toward a solution that worked for everyone. By using objective inquiry, Jenn was able to remove her personal motives and get to the bottom of the issue. Greater understanding and enhanced connection – it doesn’t get much better than that!
The next time you are flummoxed by a colleague’s behavior, ask “What else is going on?” and see where objective inquiry can take you!