Excuses, Excuses: The Ghost

I once served a business owner, let’s call him Aaron, who lead a cohort of his employees through my Clear Workspace, Open Mind course. While the course is on the surface about getting organized, it inevitably challenges the way people relate to work itself and calls them to a higher level of productivity and excellence. Because resistance to change is inevitable, I always tell managers that the course won’t work without accountability. They need to ensure their people are trying the new ideas on and making effort to change less productive habits.

The cohort had a slack channel for the course and I monitored it. Near the end of the course, one of the participants, let’s call her Jill, wrote:

“I’m grateful for the course. I learned a lot about myself. I’m just not ready to make dramatic changes and prefer to stay set in my ways.”

I replied:

“I appreciate your honesty and it sounds like the prospect of change is causing some overwhelm for you, in which case the solution is not to take on dramatic changes, but one small easy thing at a time.”

She never responded.

I followed up and still nothing. I asked her what small changes she was working on. Still nothing.

Ahh! It’s a g-g-g-ghost!

I’ve learned from experience that ghosting is usually hiding, and her phrase “stay set in my ways” practically said so. She trumpeted her fear of change, and when invited to take a small step to dealing with it, her defenses said, “Closed. Come back later.”

I emailed the owner, Aaron, who saw the exchange, sure he’d be moved to act. He and his brother were co-owners. Aaron was the ceremonial “president” who sort of acted like an HR manager and his brother was the actual CEO who ran the company. Aaron wrote:

“I’m worried about what I should do about accountability for those not doing do the work. Like Jill, for example, but there are many others. It makes me want to cower behind my #1 illusion about my role at the company—which is, I’m not really the president of this company with quite a lot of experience and power, I’m just helping out…”

I wrote:

“You’ll remember what I said in the very beginning about the course requiring accountability for people to get the most out of it. It requires change, change is uncomfortable, and accountability is what people need to do what’s uncomfortable for them sometimes. Jill basically stated that change overwhelms her, and on two different occasions in communication with me has not answered direct questions, which means she’s resisting.

Who has the authority to hold them accountable to use what they’ve learned? Did you establish that in the beginning?

And if you know your ‘I have no power’  is an illusion, what could you do to challenge that illusion and re-enter reality?”

He never responded.

Ahh! A g-g-g-ghost!

I understand why: the last question challenged him to face an immense opportunity for growth, which his defenses declined.

About a month later I decided to call him on it, forwarding the email thread. He insisted that he’d responded, saying “I would never ‘ghost’ you. I value you” but couldn’t find the response. Hmm.

This is because the ghosting was unconscious, of course. And behold, his employees were a perfect reflection of their manager. A manager usually won’t hold people accountable to what they themselves do. His alternative would be to challenge his illusion of powerlessness and exert the authority he actually has, with likely positive, but unpredictable outcomes. This is how dysfunction works in an organization.

Dysfunction trickles down from leaders who avoid the unknown of positive, personal change, enabling and ensuring their people to do the same. They complain that their people won’t go beyond their comfort zones, when they themselves are the same way, nor do they provide the accountability and support necessary to help others to do so.

Eventually, after a number of emails spiraling around the issue, I got the two brothers on the phone and very carefully named the behavior. They agreed that lack of accountability was a serious issue in the business that they’d both been avoiding for a long time. Now, the real work could begin.

Want to learn how to identify and cut through excuses like a pro (without a machete)? Learn more about becoming a Clear and Open Member.

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