You’ve probably heard of Fight/Flight/Freeze—the catchier nicknames used to describe the Acute Stress Response. Today I want to share with you a story about a fourth response that I see happening in business settings: Appease. It deserves special attention, especially as it relates to employee engagement. Appease is the most subtle and dangerous stress response in a work setting, as it’s designed to elude your attention.
Erik was one of my earliest clients, and I worked with him on and off since I began coaching. As a high-end broker, he was hard-working and knew how to hustle to take care of business. So imagine my surprise when after a half-dozen reminders, he still did not take care of a billing issue he created. He’d contested a credit card charge for no reason, causing me the hassle of my bank fining me and investigating.
When I first brought it to his attention, he assured me there was some mistake and he’d correct it. After six weeks and as many reminders and excuses, the investigation closed in his favor, leaving me to pay the fine and relinquish his fees.
At this point, I was done being polite. I called him, determined to ask questions until I got to the truth. It made no sense. I knew he had over a million dollars in cash alone, and while sometimes he got busy, he had never dropped a ball like this. I cut through excuse after excuse and finally he broke.
“This conversation is exactly why I did this. I don’t like this accountability thing you do with me.”
I was in disbelief. “Are you saying you contested that charge to get back at me for holding you accountable, which is one of the foundations of my work that you signed up for? You did that rather than directly telling me something wasn’t working for you?”
“Yep. That’s it,” he retorted, steeling himself and ignoring his own immaturity.
“Erik, where is your integrity here?” I pleaded.
“You’re right. I have no integrity. I’m a terrible person.” He went on like this for a while, not meaning a single word.
It was at that point I realized what I should have spotted much sooner. I had allowed Erik to deceive me for over a decade. I knew he resisted change, but I was in denial about the depth of his resistance.
There’s a part of all of us that wants to be fooled, and Appeasement hooks into that part and holds on. But make no mistake—it takes two to tango.
People like me, who can see the best in others, are easy prey. Even though Erik’s actions had consistently said, “I don’t want to change at all,” I wanted to believe I could help. I listened to his words rather than his actions, and that’s all on me.
Funny how the truth always reveals itself eventually. Erik was too proud (underneath, mortified) to apologize, despite having admitted to stealing from me for spite. And I was left asking myself, Was the relationship ever real at all?
In a manager-employee dynamic, the Appease response is often even stronger. What motive does an employee have to be uncomfortably honest with their boss? Usually, not much. In most business cultures, it’s not in a person’s self-interest to tell their boss something difficult. They carry fears of upsetting the boss, losing their job, and possibly a lot more after that.
As a manager, you must always assume your people are blowing smoke up your butt, and then proactively dig for the truth like a detective. [Click to Tweet]
This changes the way you listen, counteracting the desire we all have to believe that people are who and what they tell us. They’re almost always not. This is not cynicism; it’s reality. The sooner you face it, the less you’ll suffer.
It’s quite possible that some of your most engaged-looking employees are actively undermining your efforts. They may not even realize they’re doing this.
If this scares you, you understand. How often does someone quit or get fired—and then all the secrets and evidence of their disengagement surface?
I often think of the TV anti-hero, Dr. Gregory House, who used a combination of critical thinking and cynicism to solve near-impossible cases. He says, “Everybody lies” in almost every episode, and he’s always right. It’s not necessarily a cynical view, though, if you understand that people are doing the best they can.
We all know Jesus’ words: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). But forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean sparing people from the consequences. How else will they learn?
How else will you?
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