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  • Vanessa Anstee

What’s the most avoided conversation at work that kills the productivity and team morale?

I’ve been working with GP’s and Practice Managers within the NHS and there’s a recurring theme that is showing up that’s very human but when ignored becomes toxic for the whole team.


The theme is one of avoidance and the best way to highlight it is through example.


Let’s imagine you are responsible for managing a small team. As a small team two things are really important: people need to complete the tasks within their roles well and in a timely way and they need to get along i.e. have an environment that’s supportive to doing great work.


As the manager of the team you notice that a few people are challenging to deal with. One person is highly sensitive. They come into work and everyone can tell from the moment they walk in the door if it’s going to be a good or a bad day. If they’re in an angry or frustrated mood, it’s like they spread their negativity within minutes. This negativity is infectious. Pretty quickly they’ve rallied people around their mood, and everyone is talking about how frustrated they are with the customers, their pay etc.


You notice that today this person has walked in and is in one of those moods. You notice it from her body language: the slam of the door, the sigh as she takes her coat of, the way she ignores the client in front of her and goes to make her coffee before doing anything else. You decide to go up to her and ask, “how are you?” The response is standard, “I’m fine.” You know she’s really not fine but rather than create more a problem you step away and leave her to get on with her day. But things don’t improve. Someone in the team asks her a question and she snaps back at them. Then you ask her about a deadline that she’s missed on a piece of work that you know she doesn’t like doing but is vital for the functioning of the team. Her response is to defend herself with all the reasons why she couldn’t do it. As the manager you just want your team to be happy and you feel responsible for that, but you don’t know how to help this person because they keep telling you they’re fine. Pretty soon everyone is walking on eggshells around this person and now you are feeling frustrated and powerless.


What’s getting avoided and why?


As a manager of a team it’s easy to get confused about what we’re responsible for. Stephen Covey’s circle of concern and influence can be really helpful here. We may have a concern for the team’s overall happiness, but our influence as their manager is over their productivity and engagement and not their happiness. Happiness really is their business and it’s reliant on their own self-awareness and choices.


If as the manager you get caught in the trap of wanting your team to be happy, you’re likely to find you’re chasing your tail overworking the relationship side, getting derailed trying to please but with little effect. The conversation that’s not happening in this scenario is your observation about the individual’s mood and attitude and how that is impacting the team.

In my experience this is the conversation that feels most confrontational and can get defensive really quickly.


For example …


Manager asks: “how are you?”

Respondent: “I’m fine”

Manager: “well you don’t seem fine”

Respondent: “I’m fine” (said louder and more emphatically)

An alternative way to have this conversation

Manager says: “how are you?”

Respondent: “I’m fine?”

Manager: “what kind of fine is that?”

Respondent: “what do you mean?”

Manager: “I sense that something’s going on for you as when you walked in this morning your shoulders were hunched over and you were sighing a lot. What are you feeling?”

Respondent: “I’m angry. This place expects too much of me.”

Manager: “Ok so let’s break this down. I understand you’re angry. What is it you need to help you be with that anger because I know it’s not your intention but what happens is that the anger unintentionally impacts everyone else around you.

Respondent: I just need 10 minutes to get myself clear.

Manager: OK how about you take 10 minutes, go outside, get some fresh air and clear your head.


The temptation with a conversation like this is either to avoid it or to get hooked on the statement, “this place expects too much of me.” It’s very easy to get into a debate that will never be constructive because the conversation is coming from a mood of anger or frustration. The key is to help people recognise their emotions and be self-responsible and not unconsciously inflict them on the team.


The conversation that may want to happen about role expectations need to be held in a constructive, clear and fair way. It may well be that the expectations are too great, and it may also be that the individual is lacking competence, skill or willingness to do some aspects of the work. These conversations need to happen in a mood of positivity because that’s when people will be able to hear what’s actually being said and not interpret it.


This is the work that the Fuel Brilliance Coaching Programme does. I help managers and leaders develop the confidence to stop hustling to prove they’re a great manager by having people like them and be happy and start leading from a clear and constructive perspective.

If you want more information and to explore how this programme could support you in your role, why not book in for a 30 minute complimentary coaching session to help you get clear on your next step for your leadership.

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