Leadership Skills / Workforce Development / Change Management

Leadership best practices: Dealing with counterpunches

Tom Moriarty say learn how to defuse tense situations when you’re trying to correct behaviors.

By Tom Moriarty, Alidade MER

Leaders need to have thick skin. You need to be accountable for the performance of other people. You must be involved in their initiatives at some level but also demonstrate trust in the team. There are times when you must act.  When you need to correct a person’s behaviors, always keep in mind that doing so is more about supporting everyone else who does their work the proper way.

When you’re being assertive, you can sometimes run into hostility. People tend to get defensive when any criticism comes their way. Instead of focusing on what you’re trying to convey to them, their mind searches for a counterpunch. You’ll recognize when someone is counterpunching because they try to put you on the defensive. In addition, counter-punches usually don’t even deal with the issue that you’re bringing up. They punch back with some other comment that is intended to make you feel bad while deflecting the responsibility they have for the issue at hand.

Here’s an example:

Supervisor: When you take extra time for your lunch break, it makes three other people wait on you before they can begin working again and that makes us lose three hours of productive time in one week.
Team member: It’s just like everyone says: You’re heartless and you don’t remember what it’s like to work in a plant anymore.
Supervisor: You think my concern for low productivity means I don’t care about the hot working conditions.
Team member: I don’t think that, I know it! You don’t care.
Supervisor: It’s hot at the job site and you don’t want to spend any more time out there than you have to.
Team member: You just sit up there in your air-conditioned office and don’t give a damn about how hot it is.
Supervisor: You feel like I should spend more time at the job site so I remember what it’s like.
Team member: I sure do. You need to get back out there so you remember what it’s like.
Supervisor: I hear your concern about the hot work environment. I need us to follow the policy on lunch breaks. When you take extra time, we lose more than three hours of productive time every week.

There are three big takeaways from this example. First, there’s no reason to get agitated and upset by a reaction that is predictable. If you are the supervisor, you should prepare for the reaction. Think about what you’re going to say and how to say it. Your objective is to get the team member to comply with policy so the entire team is not wasting time. Your objective is not to put the person down or punish them. Plan your words. Anticipate the reaction. Don’t get emotional or let the discussion become an argument.

The second takeaway is that when a person is counter-punching, he or she is usually getting an actual frustration off his or her chest. A supervisor should listen closely to what the other person is saying and then paraphrase it. When you paraphrase, you’re summarizing the other person’s issue. The act of repeating the stated issue shows that you have heard and registered the team member’s words. This allows the person to blow off some steam and provides the satisfaction of letting you know that you’re not perfect, either.

The third takeaway is that the supervisor returned to the original issue without getting sidetracked into a protracted argument. If the counterpunch is something you can fix, you can address that separately. After receiving the counter-punch and letting the person get the issue off his or her chest, you should return to the objective. If the supervisor did not return to the issue at hand, the team member would take away that you are easily distracted and not an assertive leader. Always remember that you correct people’s behaviors because you need to support everyone else who performs their duties the way they are supposed to. When people are individually asked to change a noncompliant behavior, you should expect a defensive counterpunch designed to get you agitated and to deflect the issue you’re addressing. Expect the reaction and be prepared to listen and show them you heard what they said. But do come back to the behavior that needs to be corrected.