Counter Toxicity with “I”Messages

Challenging employees often diffuse their toxins under the radar which makes the negative impact difficult to contain.

Last post we looked at getting the behavior out in the open.  What if your colleague avoids you and slithers out of setting a meeting for constructive discussion?

YOU can still positively catch their attention in one or two minutes with an “I” Message.

A man or a woman who stands up to a boss or colleague with forthrightness and respect has balls!  “I” Messages are a tool to position protective boundaries or remove unnecessary fences.

Address YOUR Needs with “I” Messages

When we address the challenging behavior of someone else, the tendency is to begin the sentence with “You.”

“You make me feel uncomfortable….”

“You cause problems when….”

“Your attitude…”

To Whom Does the Problem Belong?

This implies that “You” has (or is causing) a problem.  However, toxic behavior may serve the perpetuator’s purposes.

In the previous article, we looked at an example of a boss who inappropriately touched female employees.  His behavior confirms his belief in deserving preferential treatment; he can touch…without it touching him.  A complainer can be confirmed in her victim mentality; woe is she!  No one helps her by removing her burden.

It’s other people, like you and me, that experience the difficulty; our goals are not met.  It is the woman’s sense of security that is violated when a man chooses to touch her chest at his whim.  It is the manager’s need for respect that is undermined when a team member arrives late for meetings with a cup of warm coffee topped off with fresh whipped cream.

Take Responsibility for YOUR Unmet Need
Give Responsibility for THE Consequences of THEIR Actions

How to address inappropriate behavior so that the person acts on it positively?

An “I” message establishes limits without making judgements.

As humans and as professionals, we each seek to belong and to contribute positively to a group with a worthwhile purpose.   As managers, we hope our team members will find that meaningful community at work!

What are the differentiating qualities of an environment which builds meaningful purpose (the kind we all dream of finding at work) and an engaged sense of partnership?

  • Trust
  • Trust
  • Trust
  • Security, Responsibility, Initiative, Commitment, Understanding, Acceptance, Cooperation, Welcome of differences, Joy, Laughter

Clear and respected boundaries foster these respect-building qualities.

“We act this way….  This is not what we do….”

“Because I know my manager has my back, I am on the lookout for ways to improve our business.  I ask our customers more insight-seeking questions.  I regularly propose and test out ideas to tweak our service quality.  I do it because she is going out of her way for me too.”

When a manager takes credit for his group’s work, he has crossed over the line from teamwork to toxic.  The boundary has been broached and employee needs are unmet.

An “I” Message helps communicate a breach in constructive behavior without resorting to blame or shame.

The Three Parts of an “I” Message

There are three-parts to an “I” message.  The order is not important.  Covering all three elements matters.

1. Briefly state the undesired behavior

“When you arrive late in team meetings with a steaming cup of coffee with fresh whipped cream in your hands….”

2. Share your feelings (one word per feeling)

“…I feel resentful…”

3. Express the consequences

“because others suffer for your comfort.  Someone, me or a team mate, spends extra time to bring you up to date with what we already covered.  It is a waste of company money and a lack of consideration for the team member’s workload.”

OR

Express what you wish

“I would like you to arrive on time.”

With regards to Part 3, I prefer to focus on the consequences of the disruptive actions and allow the other person to come up with his own solution.  They might and come to the meeting on time with fresh coffee for everyone!  Expressing a wish can sound directive.

“I” Message Example

A management professor shared how he used “I” messages with university students when the group became unfocused.  People talked without listening to each other.  The group became dissipated.  One particularly challenging young man rolled his eyes and, mumbling over the unfairness of life, noisily moved his about during their meeting time.

Thinking, “When will they grow up?!” and feeling his temper rising, the professor decided to wait for the next class to respond.

The following week, during a session on global business, he addressed the topic of reaping the benefits of diversity by using “I” messages.  People from different cultures behave in ways that could be unsettling to the other.

He shared two ways to address an issue of generational disparity in their class:

Option “You” Message: “You are causing problems for others by talking in class.”

The class smirked.  They had heard similar comments before.  It went in one ear and out the other.

Option “I” Message: “When you speak in class while I am teaching, I feel robbed because the additional noise takes away the opportunity for me to connect with interested classmates and for them to learn.”

The class went silent and eyes popped open.  “I could see them thinking…and realizing they made a difference in the success of the entire class!” he shared.

Tips for Success with “I” Messages

1. Prepare in Advance, When Calm

Good news:  An “I” Message is quick to say.   If the person with disruptive behavior dodges attempts to connect, a one-minute “I” Message will catch his attention.

Reality check: It takes time to prepare.

A big challenge lies in identifying a work-appropriate emotion.

When our boundaries are crossed, our brain goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode.  In flight or freeze, we do not retort on the spot.  In fight state we do… with words intended to wound.
“I feel violated…ridiculed…crushed…usurped…”

The emotions are real and valid.  At the same time, these judgement-filled words can backfire.

When our brains are in fight mode, we respond with words intended to hurt.  Calming down allows us to re-access helpful language.

Give yourself time to calm down from experiencing a toxic situation before responding to it.

2. Be Specific

Bring to mind an actual toxic situation.

Avoid “always _____” and “never ______”

Consider these questions:

  • What was said or done?
  • How did it make you feel? How did others respond?
  • What was the negative trigger?
  • What were you expecting?
  • How does the actual behavior differ from the desired actions?

Try and define the bothersome gap. It is helpful to identify the qualities of a constructive workplace you seek to build. Were you hoping for trust and found mockery instead?  Are you seeking learning and are relegated menial tasks?

3. Use factual language

When describing the behavior, replace judgmental language with a neutral description.

When you insulted Jane…” invites a defensive response.

“When you told Jane that she looked like …” relays facts.

4. Prepare Written Drafts

The clearer your “I” Message, the more likely it will invite a positive response.

You might only have one minute to catch the attention of the “toxic employee.”

“I” Messages, like any new language, takes practice.  Imagine you are speaking to a representative from another planet (Thinks-Waaaaay-Differently-From-Me-Ville).  Try your message out by speaking at your image in the mirror.

Expect to write several drafts…of each of the three parts: the behavior, your feelings, and the consequences.

Review.  Do the feelings relate to the consequences?  If not, reconsider what bothered you and try again.

Think of your “I” Message like an elevator pitch.  Attention-grabbing.  Inviting collaboration.  10 rough drafts!

5. Choose Occasions

Sharing and receiving “I” Messages involves vulnerability and courage.  Use these precious resources, wisely.  It would be a shame to create a reputation of fault-seeking.

“When you leave the cap off the pen….”

“When you take the last Kinder at the cafeteria…”

Trust to Respond

Some people include an additional element in the “I” Message:  a request for a specific action.  I like to trust the person to respond productively.

The university professor above shared “the rest of the story.”

“The following week, I arrived in class early and the student with the most disruptive behavior was already there.  I went up to him, noticed his timeliness, and shared how I appreciated his effort for punctuality.  He smiled, chuckled and remarked, ‘Yeah.  I think this is the first time this year!’

He contributed positively throughout the class.  As he was leaving, again I commented noticing his helpful participation.  He exclaimed, ‘And, you know, I paid attention even though the student behind me was sticking her pen in my back during the entire class.  I’m not sitting in front of her again!’

I had thought he was a toxic person.  He taught me otherwise.  His behavior had been reprehensible but he proved capable of positive contributions even under adverse circumstances.  He performed beyond my expectations.”

That’s why I like to present an “I” Message and allow the other person to surprise me with their own constructive response.  It happens in most situations.

 

…and if challenges persist, then it’s time to seek yet a different approach.  We’ll address that next week.

Read: “What is a Toxic Employee”?

Read: Alternatives to Firing Toxic Employees – Acknowledge the challenge…and your role in it

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