The art of getting along depends on being sensitive to what people are saying even when their words say something else.
“How is your project going?” my manager asked.
Both of us knew that I was required to submit project reports on a weekly basis, therefore her actual question presented one of two possibilities.
Either she was confessing that she did not read my reports, or she was simply breaking ice before launching into something unpleasant.
“We will meet our deadline,” I assured her.
“Are you ahead of schedule?”
“Despite having to produce progress reports and manage a worthless team member whose only talent is to take everyone else off task, we are still on track.”
“So you are not ahead of schedule?”
“Why do you ask?”
She gave me the look that says, here comes the unpleasantness.
“I have signed both you and Doug up for mandatory training.”
“Because you accused him of being a worthless load.”
“Are you suggesting that Doug is not a worthless load?”
“You can’t say things like that.”
“It is bad enough that he refuses to work – but he spends his days ‘visiting’ and I get a lot of complaints. So I called him on it.”
“You called him a load.”
“I did. Are you saying it is okay to be a load but not okay to be called out on it?”
“Not around here.”
My conversation with Doug had forced her hand. He complained to HR and they were making demands. So I put on my big-boy pants and went to sensitivity training.
I imagined it would be bad, but I could never have imagined how bad it would be.
“If you were a tree,” the sensitivity consultant asked me, “what kind of tree would you be?”
“Do they still ask questions like that?”
“Yes, it has a purpose. What kind of tree would you be?”
“A thorn tree.”
“Why would you want to be a thorn tree?”
“Because they’re cool.”
“Pick another tree.”
“Because you can’t be a thorn tree.”
“It is not on our list of acceptable trees.”
“Okay, what trees are on your list?”
“Are you trying to be difficult?”
“I rarely have to try.”
At that point, the consultant gave up on me and turned to Doug.
“If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”
“You must have a favorite tree?”
“I dunno,” he said.
That floored me. Those two words from Doug were the most productive thing I ever saw him do.
Further questioning only elicited two shrugs, a grunt and not so much as another “I dunno.”
At the end of the session, the HR consultant handed each of us a packet to fill out and instructed us to return it the next day.
I handed mine in the following morning and forgot about it.
A few days later, my manager inquired again, “How’s your project going?”
“We are ahead,” I told her.
“I figured as much,” she said, “after I transferred Doug out, your team is back on task.”
“How exactly did you manage to do that?”
“He failed to turn in his sensitivity training packet. It was his third strike and all we needed to send him packing.”
“I was wrong about something,” I told her.
“Have you become a more sensitive person?”
“Not in the least,” I told her, “but seeing how effective it was at getting rid of Doug, I am recommending it to all the other team leaders.”