Have you ever had to contend with a demanding developer? A testy tester? A cantankerous customer? Why oh why do people act that way? Rather than wondering why they act that way, it can be helpful to consider the circumstances that might account for their behavior.
Have you ever had to contend with a demanding developer? A testy tester? A cantankerous customer? Why oh why do people act that way?
When people behave in a troublesome manner, it could be that their behavior is intentionally troublesome. But it could also be that their attitudes and actions make sense when considered in terms of their particular view of the world. Rather than wondering why they act that way, it can be helpful to consider the circumstances that might account for their behavior.
When you consider what might account for someone’s behavior, you do two positive things for yourself. First, you avoid automatically judging others based on their overt behavior. Second, you may come to see the person in a different light, and as a result, become open to others ways of working with the person that might lead to more positive outcomes.
Here’s an example from an IT team that had a customer who nearly drove them crazy. To hear her tell it, she could do nothing wrong and the IT team could do nothing right. Her favorite phrase was “Why do you always….?” She was a complainer extraordinaire.
When I asked the IT team to brainstorm about what might account for her behavior, here are some of the things they came up with:
- She’s passionate about her work and unintentionally comes on too strong.
- She was raised to believe that if you don’t use a domineering style, people won’t pay attention.
- She desperately needs to have her views acknowledged. The harder she tries, the more people shut her out, so she tries even harder.
- She doesn’t realize how she comes across, and no one has ever given her helpful feedback.
- The prospect of a big bonus is driving her to exhibit behavior she hopes will ensure her success.
- She uses a belligerent style to mask her feelings of incompetence about technology.
- She’s under pressure to deliver results or join the unemployment line.
- The last IT group she worked with botched a major project and she’s determined not to let that happen again.
- Beat-‘em-up behavior was the norm in her department, and so it’s what she’s accustomed to.
- She had a troubled childhood and ever since has been quick to find fault with others.
- Contending with her teenagers affects her behavior at work.
Even though you’re unlikely to learn what truly accounts for someone’s behavior, acknowledging the possibilities will (if you’re open-minded) lead you to explore alternative approaches for working with that person. And those approaches might turn things around.
When I asked the team to select one of the items on their list and discuss how they might work differently with the customer based on that item, they selected her need to have her views acknowledged. Accordingly, in subsequent interactions with her, they let her tout her ideas and voice her grievances. They listened without interrupting and tried to find the positive points in her ventings. They asked questions and empathized. They didn’t always find it easy, but they were determined to see what would happen.
To their amazement, her aggressiveness gradually diminished and then vanished. Furthermore, she started becoming attentive to the pressures they were facing and, for the first time, empathized with their challenges.
Was a failure to have her views acknowledged at the root of this customer’s stress-inducing behavior? Who knows? The important point is that if the team hadn’t changed their behavior, it’s unlikely she would have changed hers. But they did, and the outcome was positive for all concerned.
Try it yourself with those who seem driven to destroy your sanity. Consider the possibilities that could account for their behavior. Modify your approach based on what you came up with. Don’t be surprised if the troublesome aspects of your relationship give way to mutual respect and collaboration.