Article: Blogosphere: The devil you don't know

Life @ Work

Blogosphere: The devil you don't know

Historical experiences may affect employee behaviour

An employee who has worked with the backstabber, the office gossip or the irritating manager, brings memories of hellish experiences


I’m a big fan of behavioral interviewing and have been for virtually my entire HR career. I use it, I preach it and I train others in the process. While I think there’s room for a bit of hypothetical questioning during the interview/conversation, I still come back time and again to behavioral interviewing as my preferred go-to-model.

As anyone who uses BI knows, the style is based on the premise that ‘past behavior predicts future performance’ and relies on the fact that humans are creatures of habit, so that if they’ve done something one way in the past, they’re fairly likely to do the same in the future. The perfect solution? No; of course not. But I’ve interviewed thousands upon thousands of candidates using BI and have found it to be pretty accurate – the proof (if you will) coming when the person is actually hired and you can see them in action.

But in addition to one’s own past behavior predicting how one will react in a future job, there’s other stuff people bring with them, which affects their performance and their adaptation to any given work environment – the lessons they’ve learned from how other people behave and treat them. An employee who has worked with the back-stabber, the office gossip or the irritating manager brings the memories of hellish experiences and some hard-earned battle scars with him into every subsequent role, organization or interaction with co-workers.

Once upon a time, when joining a new organization, I inherited a team, which had reported to one such irritating manager. Over the course of her tenure managing this department, she had bullied and belittled; she had yelled and screamed. She expected her staff to be in place from 8am to 5pm (not 8:01 and not 4:59), yet she came and went as she pleased. On one occasion, when the office shut down early due to inclement weather, she high-tailed it out the door without passing the word on to all her team members that they should go home. Another manager happened to stroll into their office when he saw the lights were still on and asked them, incredulously, “Why are you still here? Everyone else in the building has left.”
They were afraid to ask her for anything – terrified to ask to schedule vacation time or request time off to attend to medical appointments, because, as you could imagine, those PTO days were sometimes denied because the Queen Bee wanted to be out of the office. The mood was “let’s keep our heads down, stay quiet and maybe she won’t notice us.”

The little dictator eventually left. The team breathed a sigh of relief, but wondered, quite naturally, is it better to face the devil you know or the devil you don’t know?

And in strolled the unknown – me. I went about my usual way of operating – communicating with the team members. Asking for their ideas and input. Learning their jobs so I could back them up; showing them more and more of the things I did, so they could not only assist me but learn, grow and develop. It was, in many respects, wildly successful.

But one long-tenured employee never quite got over her trepidation about how to deal with a manager – any manager. She had been burned a few times too many and I found myself constantly reassuring her that I was different. I never wanted to be the person who said aloud how crappy my predecessor was and therefore, wasn’t I just marvelous by comparison. But over time – via my actions, my words and my treatment of this employee (and the others), I believe I showed them how I valued them through my behavior.

There’s an important lesson in all this: it is critical for managers and leaders to be aware of the historical (past) experiences of their staff members. It can be a mental shorthand for incoming managers to jump to conclusions or categorize employee behavior as obstinance, resistance or plain-old insubordination. When it can be much more than that.

Had I not taken the time to understand what had occurred in their past, I would have been unable to assist in their present... or their future.

Robin is an HR professional who has travelled through a variety of industries, geographies and organizations. She is the Vice President of Human Resources, Louisiana Lottery Corporation

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Topics: Life @ Work, Watercooler, #Blog

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