by Allison Rimm

“Oh no, here comes another one of those conversations,” you say to yourself.

You know what I’m talking about — we all have to face them from time to time, and they can be the bane of a leader’s existence. Imagine that you’re leading a project and one member of your group has been aggressive and counterproductive in team meetings recently. The first time you saw this behavior, you were stunned. It seemed so out of character that you let it pass. After all, even good people indulge in bad behavior now and then.

But the next week, the same thing happened. Now you’ve just experienced the third outburst, and you can see the rest of the team losing patience. If this behavior continues, you risk losing the esprit de corps that you’ve worked so hard to create. The very idea of confronting this aggressive person fills you with anxiety and dread, but the longer this goes on, the greater the damage. So how can you go about addressing this situation?

Several years ago, I faced a similar scenario that was especially tricky because the person who was disrupting my project was senior to me in the organization. I couldn’t let him continue to undermine my group’s work, but this was a powerful person, and inflaming him further would be dangerous. So I dug deep into my experience and thought of something unexpected that just might work: compassion.

As a student of meditation, I’ve researched many traditions and have always been intrigued by the Tibetan Buddhist practice of compassion, which is based on the recognition that everyone suffers and has a desire to relieve that suffering.

Regarding my colleague, I thought: He wouldn’t be acting like this if he weren’t suffering in some way. He must be threatened, worried, or offended. If I can confront his behavior with compassion rather than confronting him, we just might be able to have a productive conversation.

So off I went to his office. “This project seems to have struck a nerve with you, and you’ve made your discomfort very clear,” I said. “Your support has always meant so much to me personally and professionally. I’m sorry if I’ve done something to upset you. Can we talk about what is bothering you and try to find a solution?”

To my surprise, he began a 20-minute rant about how angry he was with one of his superiors, who had undermined his ability to get traction on a project that he was leading. As we discussed his situation, it became clear to both of us that his acting out in my meetings was really due to his anger with this other individual. As I started to take some deep breaths to relieve the tension from this intense conversation, my senior colleague thanked me for listening and helping him to see that he needed to confront his senior colleague’s behavior. At the very next meeting of my project team, he was back to his collaborative, witty self, and he has contributed productively ever since.

Will practicing compassion guarantee this result? Likely not. But cultivating an intention to reduce a colleague’s suffering and to address the offending behavior as the symptom of a larger problem can create a graceful, non-confrontational way to begin a dialogue that may well result in a workable solution. By contrast, when you accuse your colleague (or friend or family member) of some nefarious intent, you put that person on the defensive, which will likely perpetuate the negative behaviors.

Here’s an action plan:

  • When someone in the workplace (or anyone in your life, for that matter) is acting in a counterproductive manner, take a step back and ask yourself what might be motivating that behavior.
  • Recognize that if the person is acting that way, he or she may be suffering somehow.
  • Take the time to think about what might be causing this negativity.
  • Approach the other person with a genuine desire to help reduce the suffering and to find common, constructive ground to move forward.

The word compassion has the word compass embedded in it. Even though, etymologically speaking, there is no linguistic significance to the similarity, I still think it’s wise to use compassion as your guide when dealing with others. What better compass is there to help you navigate your team through the storm of bad behavior and stay on course to reach your destination?

Compassion is also a great equalizer. When you approach others with genuine concern for their well-being, your standing in the organizational hierarchy is less of a barrier to a productive conversation.

Kindness, in other words, is rarely inappropriate.