While working with supervisors over the last 10 years, some have shared a similar sentiment during introductions:
“How can I get my former peers to respect my position as their boss?”
“I manage my father’s company and I need him to stop treating me like his kid! People will think I’m weak!”
“I use to behave like a tyrant, but I swear I’ve changed. Yet my staff still respond to the “old me”. How do I clear that slate once and for all?”
The participants struggled with the associations that link people-to-people (or people-to-things); their foregone conclusion was that associations don’t budge. This article is dedicated to supervisors (or anyone else for that matter) asking the following questions:
Can you change the way people associate with you? If you can’t change other people, how can you possibly change the way they associate with you? If you do succeed in changing the relationship, how do you stop both parties from reverting back to former patterns?
Each time I offer advice on this matter, my mind is drawn to Muffy (my childhood beagle from the 70s) whose experience with the family vehicle taught me all about dissolving counterproductive associations. It also answers the question: “How long does it take for people to trust that you have really changed?”
Muffy was six-weeks-old when she showed up on our property. One of a large litter, she strayed from a nearby farm and to our delight the farmer (and my parents) let us keep her. With several acres surrounding our house, Muffy had plenty of space to run and play. The only times she left our property was for an occasional trip to the vet for a shot in her backside. Apparently dogs have great memories; no matter how infrequent the vet appointments, she remembered those shots and began associating “car” with “PAIN!” The mere jiggling of car keys made her tremble. Regardless of the destination, when Muffy was required to be a passenger, a frustrating chase would ensue as she’d sprint towards the nearest out-of-reach space and nip any fingers that would attempt to retrieve her and get her into the car.
My parents came up with a plan. They decided to include Muffy on our weekly family outing to Scotty’s drive-thru for burgers and fries. Based on her previous enthusiasm for Scotty’s leftovers (especially the fries), we figured changing her attitude about the car should be easy. We knew once she’d realize that our destination was Scotty’s and not the veterinarian’s office, her fear of the car would end. To the contrary, she wanted nothing to do with the warm, salty fries we held up to her nose and mouth. Quivering, she continued to cower in the seat anxious to get the heck home. My parents said we’d try again next week.
Week 2 – A rerun of the previous week. Muffy tried desperately to escape our clutches as we pushed, pulled and carried her to the car. She also refused all fries and even bits of burger we offered her.
Week 3 – Ditto. (Associations die hard).
Week 4 – Finally, some progress! She put up less of a fight getting into the car, but retained the skeptical-dog-look and refused to engage in Scotty’s kid-meal.
Week 5 – Success! Her tail wagged when the muffled voice from the giant menu said, “Welcome to Scotty’s, can I take your order?” and she wolfed down a small order of fries. Victory was ours!
Week 6 – “Muffy, time to go to Scotty’s!” She was nowhere to be found. Had she’d regressed back to old habits? Nope, she was standing by the garage door waiting for us! The former association was dissolved. Car no longer represented “pain.” Car now represented “delicious.”
Side-note: Unfortunately…Muffy’s cholesterol level skyrocketed so we had to take her back to the vet for a shot. (Not really, but I’m not one to pass up a good punch line 🙂 Through Muffy’s experience, I developed the…
3 P’s of Improving Working Relationships
P1 = PERSISTENCE: We had to persist with our plan in helping Muffy overcome her fear. We couldn’t expect her to relate differently just because we felt different! We couldn’t expect her attitude or behavior to change after 1, 2, 3, even 4 tries, when the only thing she could associate with a car was the painful experience it had formerly led to! Until she could associate Car with Delicious, we had to stay the course.
Trying to improve a relationship or association without persistence is like trying to develop strong biceps by staring at them in the mirror. Imagine joining a gym, paying a monthly fee, never working out, and yet complaining that your body still looks like crap. When we give up because people didn’t respond to the “new me” we send the message that our intention and actions were misaligned. And that damages trust.
Supervisors: You can’t expect people to respond to your new way of supervising just because you experienced an epiphany while reading a leadership book or attending a seminar. It takes persistence of habit on your part to change their thinking about you. So start by asking yourself what they think about you. Do they associate YOU with Pain? Favoritism? Lacking Integrity? Over-The-Top-Criticism?
Occasionally, I receive a post-training email from a supervisor who participated in a program. One I’ll call “Jim” comes to mind. His self-evaluation opened his eyes to areas of necessary growth, and he left training empowered and optimistic. He implemented new behaviors to his supervisory repertoire. But after 2 – 3 weeks, he was extremely discouraged. “I don’t understand! I feel better about myself. My boss is thrilled with the change in my attitude. Even my wife says I’m easier to get along with. Yet things between me and my staff is at an all time low! Their behavior and attitudes and overall response to me is worse than ever! If I didn’t know better, I’d say they want the old “unapproachable me” back! Help!”
I reminded Jim about a point I’d made during his training, a point that many don’t retain until it happens… According to psychologists, when we try to alter an association, even in a positive way, the person(s) being affected will resist, even if they like what they see! Why???
—They doubt your ability to change (especially if former attempts have failed).
—They don’t want to get their hopes up (only to have them dashed later).
—They prefer ‘familiar’ over ‘new’ (because change can be uncomfortable).
So they test the process, they test you, or they ignore your attempts to change. “But here’s the thing,” I told Jim, “If you quit now and resume your former management style, you will expose your Achilles heel! They’ll know your breaking point and it will take double the time and effort next time you try.”
People begin to relate to you differently when they believe you mean business. Persistence is the key.
P2 = PATIENCE: We had to be patient with Muffy while her former fear of the car subsided. We couldn’t force her to be unafraid or take the food when she wasn’t ready! For her, it was an emotional process and our willingness to support her trumped any impatience that came to the surface.
Trust takes time to be restored. The greater the damage, the more time to restore it. Habits take time to change. For humans, the most difficult habits to change are emotional habits (mindsets). That means some of us have higher success rates with physical habits (changing diet, exercising, quitting smoking) than saying NO to a family member, overcoming a financial obstacle, embracing diversity, etc.
Supervisors: You can’t rush people’s emotions. You can’t force them to like you, trust you, or relate to your new habit, until they are ready! Will they ever be ready? The chances are much higher if you exercise P1.
P3 = PROCESS: We had to refine our process where the Muffy/Car association was concerned. We thought we had achieved our goal, but later realized that by striving to help her overcome car phobia, we set her up for disappointment when the destination wasn’t fast food. We inadvertently let the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other. A car is separate from the destination and shouldn’t represent “delicious” anymore than “pain”. It should represent exactly what it is, a vehicle to a destination. When we realized this, we struck a balance by taking Muffy along for the ride to the post-office, park, fast food chain, and vet. She became comfortable in the car despite the destination.
Supervisors: A process is a series of actions or steps taken to achieve an end. It requires faith and respect, without which, you’ll opt for a quick-fix, and quick-fixes never work where relationships are concerned. Leading others is an ongoing process. A great leader understands continual improvement begins within and models that philosophy for others to see. That means constant refining of your process and it’s much easier to do when your pendulum isn’t swinging too far in either direction. When it comes to supervising, FIRM and FAIR is a perfect balance to strike. (More about FIRM and FAIR in an upcoming post!)
SUMMARY: Be Patient and Persistent with your Process (and with others) and you will change the way people associate with you! You’ll also change their lives for the better!
Johnny, signing off…
Johnny Supervisor is a platform dedicated to strengthening the weakest (yet most important) link in the chain of command — through developing superior supervisors who are committed to the company’s smooth succession. Follow Johnny for articles, resources and recent trends in healthy succession at the supervisory level. By the way, Johnny travels well!
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