Once You’ve Diagnosed Your Clients, Don’t Be Surprised When They Act the Way You’ve Diagnosed Them

When we work with our clients, we spend a considerable amount of time analyzing them to understand their goals, missions and visions. We learn their governance structures, organization structures and business models. While doing so we gain insight into their problem solving, values and decision making skills and experiences as well.

As a result, we are able to understand how they parse a situation and how they are likely to respond to various issues and opportunities. At their request, there are times we are working with them to help them make strategic changes in how they manage and interact with others, and how they present themselves. It’s this last part that can get tricky.

Regardless of how well we have diagnosed the client’s needs and areas for improvement, when we see the trouble spots rear their heads again and again, we tend to get surprised. “How could he do that again?” is the most frequent expression. Or, “I can’t believe he spoke to me that way again”. Of course, the “again” is the operative word. Usually, the behavior in question is out of step with the individual’s other ways of interacting and so each time it occurs, it comes as a surprise. I experienced this with my former partner, who retired a few years back, and who is one of the most intelligent and experienced professionals I’ve worked with. Yet in many of our Friday meetings, when we’d review the week’s work, he’d bring up, with some surprise, how one of his clients AGAIN acted in a way that just didn’t make sense. Or was reactionary, or overly punitive. Each time I’d remind him– it was exactly the way in which he diagnosed his client and therefore there was no reason to be surprised. Indeed, it presented a good opportunity to concretely highlight the behavior in question by using the current circumstance and its consequences to illuminate the improvement needed to the client–thus helping them see move to the new behaviors he desired. Live data is often a great change agent.

This is an important concept for us consultants to grasp. It’s equally important that it’s understood by everyone you work with–and beyond. Whether it’s a boss that frustrates you with certain predictable behaviors, a subordinate you are trying to get to change their interaction skills, or even somebody in your personal life, when you hear yourself saying or thinking “again.” It’s useful to remember that these recurring behaviors should not come as a surprise and the real question is how to use the experience to help the person make the changes they want to make.

Of course, there are times when you’d like the person to change and they are not seeing the need to do so. This is a more complex interaction. For instance, if you’ve observed a tendency for some narcissistic behaviors in the person with whom you are interacting, the odds are that they do not perceive their behavior the same way. In their mind, the behavior is justified or even positive. Narcissistic tendencies lean toward a belief that the person is almost always right and any admission of the opposite could break apart the full support systems they’ve developed to reinforce that belief. One admission of error is equivalent to admitting all the ones refuted in the past might have been errors as well. Too costly.

Narcissistic personality styles will look for people around them who are both competent, in their judgment, and who reflect back to them that they are the superior being they propose they are. People who don’t do so have little to no value and need to be undermined so that their opinions carry less weight than otherwise.

When you’ve diagnosed somebody in your life like this, why be surprised when they act that way? Changing that sort of behavior pattern is particularly difficult, particularly if your client (or other person) is a relatively successful business person. So how do you approach changing these behaviors? The best approach is to offer feedback in a way that is both flattering and offers opportunities for the person to be even better–liked more, respected more highly, seen as smarter, or more attractive or….you get the idea. In the vernacular of the “transactional analysis” world, it would be called “stroking”. This is where you recognize that the person is acting from a “parent-child” ego state and you want them to get to an adult, fact-based and rational problem solving mode, so you stroke their ego, tell them how great it is to work with them, how much you can learn from them and how often you are impressed with how right they are. Then, after this stroking, you can offer some alternative possibilities to get at the problem at hand. Assuming their ego has been stroked enough, they can engage with you in a higher plane of problem solving leading to more well considered decisions.

The books on transactional analysis from the eighties and nineties, like I’m Okay You’re Okay, or Getting to Yes offer a plethora of examples and ways to make the change. It’s not easy, as it requires the “stroker” to be able to bite their tongue while doing the stroking, and to keep the greater good of a better and more rational decision outcome as the goal that leads their behavior.

That same former partner of mine came up with a brilliant phrase for understanding otherwise irrational behaviors in organizations: characterlogical traits. This is where a person (or even a whole organization) has certain characteristics that they always follow and that those characteristics, after a long enough time, become logical. A new person coming into the organization is often alarmed at what seems like irrational behavior and is told “that’s the way we’ve done it here for years and we’ve been successful so it must be right.” After long enough the new person, now no longer new, adopts the ways of the organization and they seem logical to them too. Those who cannot adopt usually leave, unless they’ve been good enough at stroking and leading change efforts that the person/organization becomes less irrational. Those are the change agents within an organization that bring the most long term value.

It’s often far simpler for a consultant or other “outsider” to point out these characterlogical traits as they have been brought in to create change and improve the problem solving and decision making of the organizations or individuals. Their role is not to conform and learn the ways of the organization, but to understand which work well, which need tweaking and modifications and how to help the organization make those changes.

Sometimes it can feel like one is living out the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Early in my career, while supporting a week-long management workshop for a very large insurance company being held at an off-site location, it became clear to me how impactful the hierarchy in an organization can be on the rationality of decision making. A young man with virtually no knowledge of wines and high end restaurants, I was asked by the very senior executive at a high class dinner party of people reporting to him and at various other lower levels in the company, to select the proper wine to go with the meal. I deferred to the waiter who presented a bottle to the senior executive who sniffed the cork, took a taste and proclaimed it a good choice. What a relief. Then, as the waiter poured the wine, I watched the expressions of the other diners as they sipped it and it was clear that something was very wrong. The senior exec took a sip and toasted the table and a few people commented on how special the wine was or how well it went with the meal and even toasted me for the selection. It was almost pure vinegar and hard to imagine how so many of them drank down their glassfuls. Mostly it taught me the power or hierarchical power and how readily people will see new clothes on the Emperor.

Clearly, they had diagnosed the senior executive as somebody that would not appreciate to learn that his judgment on the wine was faulty and, as it wasn’t a critical issue, they all agreed to an irrational response that was a character logical one for that organization.

We, consultants, are paid to help create change. Understanding the need to diagnose, respect the diagnosis and use it to help the person change as they desire is our goal. One of my recent clients, a CEO of a billion-plus dollar company, was not performing as his Board hoped. He hired me to work with him to make the changes that would enable him to enhance his performance in such ways as would please them. After a few months of our working together he made a number of subtle and meaningful changes that have been recognized and lauded by all the people with whom I met to gather the initial data for feedback to him. They have expressed their pleasure with his changed behaviors. But he, when he and I met to evaluate the changes, didn’t think he’d made any significant changes and believes that the others who see his behavior, knowing that he is working at the changes, only perceive him differently. To me, this is evidence of a great success as the changes fit into his view of himself and he is clear that whatever he “changed” wasn’t because he had to but because he wanted to.

Don’t take the bait. When you feel frustrated with repeated negative behavior, rather than allowing yourself to try to fight it out, point it out, or force change, remember to get beyond it and keep focused on the bigger picture. Getting to the best solution to an issue, path to an opportunity and resulting decisions is the goal. Use the live data, use the stroking, keep your diagnosis of the behavior in mind and use it to work out the best approach.

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