Focus on the Pattern, Not the Problem…

Does this sound familiar? Imagine you have a person on your team (or maybe one of your kids) who consistently ignores a rule or maybe they consistently apologize for breaking the rule and always have some kind of creative excuse for falling short.

This came up the other day when I was talking to a business owner about one of his employees who consistently showed up late for their morning meetings. The meeting starts at 9:00 and this person will consistently roll in at 9:10 or sometimes even 9:20. If they’re questioned on it, they always have a ‘reason’ for not making it on time.

For just one meeting, it’s not a big deal – but when it happens over and over again, it quickly becomes infuriating.

What can you do about it? That’s a question that’s specifically answered in the book Crucial Conversations. If you’re not familiar with this fantastic book, the authors do an excellent job of laying out a framework of ideas and behaviors that will help you learn how to effectively and productively deal with difficult situations.

Even better, in one of the last chapters of the book they give examples of a dozen or so really challenging situations and how to deal with them. A couple of the examples match up really well to the very common situation described above.

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Dealing with the Pattern not the Problem

The real difficulty in dealing with someone who consistently does something small (but frustrating) is that you’re likely to either end up ignoring the problem at the time (it’s not a big deal after all), or you end up blowing up at them because this is now the 5th time in a row that they’ve ignored the rules and something needs to change.

If you ignore the issue, then you’re tacitly giving approval that it’s okay for them to ignore the rule. If you blow up at them, then your response is going to come across as way out of proportion to their behavior: “I was only 10 minutes late – why are you yelling at me?”.

The better answer? The next time the behavior happens (i.e. late to a meeting), call them out on it, make sure they understand that it’s not acceptable and ask for their commitment to do better. Have them give you ideas on what they can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Then… when they end up repeating the issue (which is what they’ve done in the past), talk to them about not living up to their commitments rather than the specific but small issue of being late (again). The behavior that you’re really upset about is the pattern of not following through – not so much any given example of that problem.

The benefit of this approach is that you don’t get caught up in whatever creative excuses they might have for being late that particular day. You don’t care about that, what you care about is the much larger pattern of not living up to commitments… and that’s what you want to help them fix.

It’s still going to be a difficult discussion, but at least it’s now focused on something that will actually have an impact and it’s less likely to fall into trivial excuses and a perceived over-reaction to a single small issue.

As an example, consider a discussion with your teenager who consistently forgets to take out the trash on Wednesdays. When asked about it, they always have a creative (and often reasonable) excuse. Asking them to do this one thing consistently, when it needs to be done, is very reasonable. So when they don’t do it, instead of focusing on the creative excuses, let them know the outcome you expect (to get it done on time) and have them come up with ideas on how they can make sure that happens.

Focus on the commitment (the pattern) and not the task.

What do you think? Has this kind of situation ever happened to you? How did you handle it? Does this approach work for you? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach

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