Employee Relations, Leadership, Motivation

Be the fuel, not the fire

Two months ago on a particularly slow afternoon, I noticed a squirrel sitting in the tree outside of my kitchen window.  It had a chip in its left ear. Black fur, patches of brown here and there. I scrambled to find some trail-mix before it moved on to another tree. I slid the window open, quietly, trying not to startle it, and dumped sunflower seeds, peanuts and dried cranberries onto the window ledge. An hour later I returned to the window and the trail-mix was gone. I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to tell my partner about my new friend when he got home.


“WHAT!? YOU FED A SQUIRREL?”… “What if it comes into the apartment!?”… “IT’S GOING TO BE LOOKING FOR FOOD HERE NOW”…”BAAAABE!”… Well, it wasn’t quite the response I was expecting, but I quickly began to list all of the great contributions the squirrel could make to our daily routine.

In my first year as a manager I was told to always defend my employees. If a customer issued a complaint or an employee made a mistake, it was my job to defend them. But I quickly began to re-think what it meant to defend someone. “Defend” is a tricky word and can easily be misunderstood. Being on the defence doesn’t necessarily produce a solution, nor is it a great way to de-escalate or progress a situation in a productive manor. The last thing you want is to hit a wall or even worse, become one yourself.

So let’s change a word and see what happens…

Always support your employees. The best way to support your employees is to create perspective. Whether it’s for yourself or the customer on the phone, take a moment to look at the bigger picture. People will make mistakes (including you and me), but as a leader it is not only your responsibility to hold your employees accountable, but to inspire them to make improvements and take on future projects with confidence. Here is one simple thing you can do to immediately create perspective in a challenging situation:

  • List 3 reasons why that employee is a great contributor to your team

Recite them in your head, write them down on a piece of paper, or say them out loud. As a customer is giving you an ear-full or you see someone press the wrong button, remind yourself of what makes that person a great employee. Trust me, sometimes this will be easier said than done, but dig deep and start listing.

Having that employee’s contributions fresh in your mind will change your approach to communication and inevitably, your approach to management. You will address the contributions first, then the feedback, then next steps.

Perspective is the difference between coming in HOT; “Bob, I just had a customer scream at me for 25 minutes! There are no product pictures on the website. Fix it!” And coming in cool and collected; “Bob, thank you again for all of the hard work you’ve put in to the company’s website. I just received a phone call from one of our customers and they’ve noted our product photos are missing from the website. Can you look into it right away? Thanks!”…Which Bob do you think really wants to fix that website?

So before you hang up that phone or walk in to your employee’s work space, make that list, create perspective and take the heat down a notch. Feed the squirrel some peanuts and be the fuel, not the fire.

– Brianna

Featured Images: ©Brianna MacLellan




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