In this episode of In-Ear Insights, the Trust Insights podcast, Katie Robbert and Christopher Penn tackle a common workplace challenge – how to keep teams focused on priorities instead of getting distracted by drama or interpersonal issues.
As Katie explains, acknowledging that some level of gossip or emotional venting will happen is key. Trying to forbid it entirely tends to backfire. Instead, managers should set aside appropriate times and guardrails for indulging in that talk, while firmly redirecting it the rest of the time.
Chris and Katie discuss tactics like:
- Having regular check-ins on team expectations and ground rules
- Helping individuals pinpoint milestones and tasks to stay focused
- Setting boundaries on what is and isn’t appropriate for a manager to handle
- Respecting limitations and avoiding overstepping into therapy/counseling
- Bringing in HR or consultants when needed
The bottom line? Handling people is complicated. But with empathy, emotional intelligence, and healthy boundaries, managers can acknowledge feelings while keeping teams productive. This insightful episode is essential listening for anyone managing teams or dealing with workplace interpersonal challenges.
(Summary generated by AI)
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What follows is an AI-generated transcript. The transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the episode.
Christopher Penn 0:00
In this week’s In-Ear Insights, let’s talk about communication and productivity.
One of the things that is constantly a challenge for managers and for individual contributors, I’m raising my both my hands on this one is staying focused on what’s important.
One of the things that I’ve observed in my work, and we talked about this on the, on the previous livestream about with Save Warrior Nun folks is getting people to focus on the things that are important that are going to move the needle and push the ball down the field, whatever analogy you want to use, and not get distracted by either shiny objects or things that are emotionally impactful, but not results impactful, you know, drama and gossip and the rumor mill things that you’ve experienced in the office all the time.
So Katie, when it comes to managing people, when it comes to being a good leader? How do you help people stay focused, particularly if you have all this emotionally interesting drama over here, but you have the dry but boring, but yet incredibly important results oriented work over here?
Katie Robbert 1:05
Well, I do have to say part of me misses the emotionally interesting drama of working in a larger office, because, you know, at Trust Insights, it’s me, you and John, and we don’t have the emotionally interesting drama anymore, which is a good thing.
It does help us stay focused.
Christopher Penn 1:24
the most drama we have is whatever John had to fix in his rental apartments.
Katie Robbert 1:29
That’s right, you know what? Right, but we’re not like at each other’s throats or gossiping behind our backs.
And so I would say, you know, first and foremost, you have to acknowledge that it’s going to happen, you have to acknowledge, and this is why I manage people and not you, Chris, is that you have to acknowledge that we’re human, and that this is going to happen.
And so where I’ve seen a lot of managers go wrong, is to try to decree that you’re not allowed to gossip, you’re not allowed to have feelings, you’re not allowed to interact with your co workers, unless it is work related.
And that is, it’s like telling a little kid, they can’t do something.
And then they’re like, Oh, well, I’ll show you I’m gonna go do it anyway.
And I’m going to do it five times worse than I was going to do.
The first time I did this, as a kid, my dad said, you can’t climb that tree.
So immediately, I went over climb, the tree fell out, broke my elbow.
Because he said, You can’t do it.
I’m like, I’ll show you.
I’m five years old.
And so it’s the exact same thing, when you are in a workplace environment or any kind of environment where you have a group of people, a community, a workforce, a team, naturally, people are going to have emotions about things, people are going to sometimes not get along, they’re going to have conflict, you just have to acknowledge that this is going to happen.
So that’s the first thing is one, you know, don’t pretend it’s not going to happen, or don’t try to enforce that it can’t happen.
If you can’t acknowledge it, like telling your co workers, you’re not allowed to talk to each other about your weekends or after work plans, because it’s not productive, is absolutely going to kill morale.
So that’s number one.
Number two, is knowing that it’s going to happen, you have to set aside time to deal with it to allow people to indulge in it a little bit, but put guardrails around it.
So if you think about, you know, we as humans, we have a lot of emotions.
And you know, for good or ill a lot of us will say I can’t deal with this right now, I’m just going to have to bury it and deal with it later, but later never comes.
And then whatever has been bubbling up inside of us manifests itself in very unhealthy ways.
The same is true of workplace drama, and gossip and conflict and emotions, you’re just dealing with more individuals.
And so you have to set aside time to allow people to indulge in the gossip or indulge in the emotions or whatever the thing is, and then rein them back in because they have to get it out of their system.
It’s it’s healthy to do so.
But you as the manager, need to make sure that you’re putting those parameters and guardrails in place to keep it healthy.
Christopher Penn 4:14
How do you do that, though, when people are emotionally engaged with it, but it’s counterproductive, like it’s you can see it’s actually physically harmful to their own mental well being.
In this particular example, there’s there’s obviously the group of folks who are working, you’re working on the campaign.
And then there’s this whole group of people outside a bunch of which well, not a bunch of a few of which are trolls, right? They just there’s non productive human beings, but they create a lot of drama.
Even though if you look from a data perspective, which is what I always do, and you see like, wow, this person is so unimportant that their keyboard is probably covered in Cheeto dust, because they never leave their desk and they never actually see other human beings in real life.
So you have these troublemakers who even outside the organization imagine like, just a small set of really bad customers that you can’t just kill.
And but it’s impacting the productivity and the mental well being of your team.
How do you help your team focus? Not to say, you’re not allowed to feel things, but more like, right, these people over here are really bad for you.
And they’re really unimportant.
Could we try paying less attention to them?
Katie Robbert 5:32
It’s going to be a different solution for every individual.
And that’s where management of people gets really, really hard, because there is no one size fits all solution.
You know, so Chris, if we take you, for example, I know you well enough to know, like, if you step on stage, and you give a talk about something, and then you get your speaker feedback, 99% of it is going to be positive.
And then you’re going to have that one person who’s gonna say, I hated it, I didn’t get it.
I know you, as an individual are going to look at that one person and go, no, they don’t matter.
Someone else who isn’t you, maybe me perhaps, or someone who isn’t as self assured or confident might skip over that 99% glowing review and focus only on that one and say, why does this person hate me? Why does this one person, what do I need to do to win over this one person.
And it doesn’t mean that that’s what you need to do.
You don’t need to win that person over.
But you as the manager need to recognize that that’s the train of thought going through your team members head and say, Okay, I know if this one person gets this one piece of negative feedback, regardless of the other glowing, positive things that are happening, they’re going to fixate on that negative.
And that’s where you as the pupil manager, not as a therapist, let’s be clear, you have to draw those boundary lines, you also need to be comfortable saying, perhaps this is inappropriate for me to help you deal with.
But I’m acknowledging that this is something that needs to be dealt with, but I am not the person to help you.
Because I am not a licensed therapist, you know, I am not, you know, your best friend, I am your co worker, whatever the situation is, but you know, back to the point of you need to understand what is likely happening.
And then, you know, say to your team member, hey, so Chris, you know, I thought you did a really outstanding job.
With that talk that you gave on stage, can you help me understand why you’re not feeling so great about it? This opens up the conversation for the other person to say, well, you know, I thought I did really good too.
But you know, that’s one person, Katie is just totally tore me apart and told me that, you know, I just, I really suck wind, and that it was completely unusable.
And I worked so hard at it.
As a manager, that’s your cue to say, Okay, I hear you, I understand.
And I acknowledge that this one person made you feel really crappy.
And then you start to explore, like, what would you like to do about it? Is it something that like you want to work harder at? Do you want to go after this person, so starting to understand where that individuals head is at.
And this is when it gets harder to do at scale? So I’m talking about and interaction one on one, if I have a team of 30 people, and I have to do this interaction one on one, this is where people management gets really, really tricky.
And where a lot of companies do it poorly, because they just mass manage, they have here’s the one solution for everybody.
And if you have feelings too bad, go to take it to HR, oh, we let HR go six months ago.
All right, well go for a hike, oh, we don’t give you that personal time off anymore.
Well, good luck soccer.
And so that’s where a lot of companies fail to acknowledge that each individual person is going to have a different reaction to the same situation.
And so when we were working with agency, Chris 100%, of my time was spent managing the team 80% of that was spent managing the team’s emotions, to help keep them productive, to remind them to refocus them.
And that’s why you need to have a people manager, not just like a technical manager or individual contributors.
I feel like I’m sort of rambling, but I hope How do you get a job
Christopher Penn 9:16
though? Because I mean, I understand that fixation, right? That fixation, when you get one piece of negative feedback is essentially it’s a threat response biologically.
And biologically, we are wired to pay more attention to threat responses than we are to positive responses.
Because if it’s a threat response, you know, in the old days, when we were just going wandering around the plains of Africa with like, oh, shit, that’s a threat response.
There’s a zebra, that’s, you know, that’s got five horns run.
And zebras don’t have points that I know of.
But as a result, we evolved so that greater priority is given two threat responses.
Well, today, you know that negative feedback on speak form still triggers the same biological cascade of events, but we’re not actually under threat, right, that person who gave me naked feedback on my speaking evaluation whatever, is not holding a loaded gun in my head that I know of.
And so how do you help somebody transcend that say, Okay, I understand what’s going on and what’s going on is perfectly understandable because it’s wired in your biology.
But how do you then help that person make a Healthy Transition to say, Okay, we acknowledge that this is the case.
But here’s what you can do to work around, here’s some ways to possibly work around that to say, Okay, let’s defuse the threat response somehow, and get you back on track.
Katie Robbert 10:36
Depending on the person and what they have going on, personally, you may not be able to, because again, it’s people manager, let me sort of step back people, managers, good people, managers are sympathetic and empathetic and want to help people they are basically people who decided not to pursue, you know, psychology and decided to pursue management, instead, I’m one of those people.
The key to success with a people manager is knowing that you can’t help everybody, it’s the same thing with being a therapist.
And so in that situation, you may not be able to help that person move past the situation.
And what you need to be able to do is have the awareness to recognize the limitations of your skills as a people manager, but also the healthy boundaries.
And an emphasis on boundaries are the capital B, of you being able to help this person, you cannot heal their trauma, you cannot, you know, be their therapist, because that is not your role.
And that is a dangerous road to go down.
If you are not a licensed therapist, and so you may be trying to, you know, you think you’re helping out a friend, well, they’re your co worker, they you might be friendly with them, you might be friends with them outside of work, but I am emphasizing three more times, boundaries, boundaries, boundaries, because you may be trying to help them but inadvertently giving them unhelpful, unhealthy advice.
But you don’t know that because you’re not a trained professional.
And so I wanted to emphasize that but back to your question.
You can do exercises that are within sort of the scope of your job of being a people manager, you know, okay, so Chris, it sounds like the this person’s feedback really bothered you? Maybe we do an exercise where we pretend that you know, I’m the person who gave you the bad feedback, what would you want to say to me and let them get it out of their system? It’s like, okay, great.
Can we move on from this now? Or do you still, are you still holding on to those negative emotions? Or do you feel like this feedback impacts other parts of your work, you aren’t able to be as productive.
And so it’s really, it’s less of you providing solutions and more of you, helping the other person come to their own solutions, as long as they stay transparent with you about what those solutions are, and that they’re healthy and productive.
But let me emphasize one more time healthy boundaries with a capital B, there are limitations for you as a people manager of what you can and can’t help someone with.
Christopher Penn 13:20
So in this situation, how do you also prevent contagion? So one of the things that tends to happen is when one person sort of spirals, yep, in cases, and we saw this with our old team as well, they kind of drag other people along with them.
Katie Robbert 13:35
That’s it’s hard, because we’re pack animals, you know, we, we find our communities we stick together we want to support and so you know, let’s say for example, Chris, you know, this one piece of negative feedback has you spiraling, and you start confiding in John and saying, John, like, I’m really having a hard time with this.
And John, you know, not realizing sort of the bigger picture is like, you know, what, yeah, that guy really is a jerk.
I can’t believe that they gave you this piece of feedback.
And they are trying to be supportive, but really what they’re doing is fueling that negative self talk of, yeah, that guy really is the worst.
And so you go from being self pitying to being really angry, and Rayji.
And like, Okay, I gotta get this guy, I have to show everybody that I am better than this guy thinks I am.
And to your point, Chris, this guy’s inconsequential.
Their feedback is one of 1001 of a million, you know, it doesn’t matter, because it’s one person’s opinion.
And not everybody is going to like you.
And so the way to help stop that contagion is to, again sort of back to the beginning, acknowledge that it’s likely going to happen, and sort of setting those ground rules with your team on a regular basis of, we’re human.
We have emotions, shit happens, we’re going to feel things about it.
But let’s make sure that we are finding time and space to talk about it.
collectively and productively.
And then we can try to let go of it.
And if you can’t let go of it, if you’re still struggling with it, then let’s find other solutions.
But one of the things we don’t want to do is, you know, bring down our other team members, or involve them in things that they don’t necessarily need to be involved in.
Now I’m saying all of this, knowing that it’s never gonna work that way, knowing that everyone’s gonna go behind my back as a manager be like, Katie, such a nerd, I can’t believe she thinks that we’re not going to talk about this, we’re not going to talk about our salaries, we’re not going to talk about her.
You know, I absolutely 100% acknowledge that that was happening and going to happen.
But my job is to hold the line and keep repeating this is what my expectations of you are as the team, that you will not bring these conversations to other people.
But then you also need to help them understand if you start to bring these conversations to other team members.
Here are the negative consequences, not like a slap on the wrist, not like a reprimand.
But here are the negative consequences, we then start to be less productive with our clients.
If we’re less productive with our clients, we can no longer service them as well, we can’t service them as well, they will fire us, if our clients fire us, that means that we will no longer have a need for you at this company, and not in a threatening way.
But helping people understand the ripple effect of spreading gossip, basically, you know, and so if you keep people unfocused and unproductive, then it’s going to have a negative impact.
The flip side of that is then you say, here’s what we can focus on, here’s all the positive productive things.
So you need to not only show them what’s negative, but you need to offer them the alternative of almost I hate to even say like, here’s the shiny objects over here that you can focus on, here’s the things that you can be passionate about the things that you can delve into, that aren’t, you know, unhealthy, like this thing over here.
Christopher Penn 16:53
Oh, that makes total sense.
That’s something that, you know, I’ve certainly seen play out with varying degrees of success, depending on the person throughout my career.
And it is one of the things it’s like, sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s not even that it does, it doesn’t help on a per person basis.
But even just on situational basis, some things people resonate, resonates with people, some it doesn’t, but it’s it’s annoyingly complicated.
My first instinct is just commission some drones to go deliver high explosives to the person’s house.
But apparently, only Ron Perlman can say that.
Katie Robbert 17:28
Yeah, no, and this is the thing and you know, it’s, I’m gonna keep repeating it, because it’s so important that you can’t help everybody, period.
And you shouldn’t, because there’s boundaries to be respected in terms of, you know, the type of advice that you’re giving someone, if you recognize that you’re giving somebody advice that goes beyond the scope of the job that you’re doing, that’s when you have to say, am I crossing that boundary line? Am I possibly doing more harm than good, even though my intentions are really, really, you know, good, and I want to help them.
But I don’t know if I’m actually helping them, I don’t know if I’m feeding their negative thoughts, or if I’m helping them get out of it, because I’m not a trained professional.
Christopher Penn 18:15
Does that get complicated as someone who’s a trained professional?
Katie Robbert 18:20
Christopher Penn 18:21
Suppose like, you know, you as a, maybe as a CEO, or a CMO, whatever, in your past, you were, maybe that was a job that you held.
Katie Robbert 18:32
So in that sense, you know, you need to be up front.
And sort of it’s a different skill set.
It’s a different context.
So let’s say Chris, for example, you know, you were really struggling with this one piece of feedback.
And you said, Katie, I just, I can’t move on from this thing.
You know, if I had been a licensed, you know, psychologist in the past, and my license was still valid, then it’s okay for me to acknowledge that I understand what you’re going through.
But my job is to refer you then out to a different colleagues that I would then trust, because it’s a conflict of interest, as your boss, and then also as a licensed professional, and so I can acknowledge but then say, this is a conflict of interest, I want to help you.
And the best way that I can help you is refer you to somebody that I trust that I’ve worked with, and I think this would be the best for you.
But the other sort of thing to sit to know is that if someone’s struggling, just throwing out the word therapist and say you need a therapist you need therapy is also a bad move.
Like that needs to come from that person.
You can’t just say, You know what, you’re kind of messed up and struggling with this.
I think you need a therapist, and I can’t help you.
Like, that’s a terrible idea.
And that is a fireable offense.
Christopher Penn 19:47
How do you deal with it in situations where you do not have role power, so you are not a person supervisor? You’re not in the chain of command and things that you will have relationships or maybe your peers, maybe you work in different departments.
Maybe you have lunch together, whatever.
But you all are still working towards that common purpose of you know, moving the company forward moving your goals forward things of that, but this person clearly is struggling, or these people are struggling.
And you do not have any kind of supervisory authority to even enact of change in focus.
How do you use relationship power, personal interactions and relationship power to deal with the situation, not even to resolve it, but just to deal with the situation.
Katie Robbert 20:30
If you have a good rapport with the person, if they trust you, then it’s worth having that frank conversation of like, I can see that you’re struggling.
And unfortunately, there isn’t anything I can do to help.
So I think this is when we need to bring in your boss or HR or whoever the appropriate person you think might be.
And, you know, if you’re in a situation where that supervisor is the problem, then you need to go above and beyond that, or talk about Super eyes and be like, Look, Chris is struggling.
And Chris is struggling, because he feels like you’re the problem.
Now that can go a bunch of different ways to the person is, you know, and again, this is where being a people manager is just as important because you’re dealing with inconsistent and unpredictable results.
If you think you know, someone, and then you say the wrong thing, and they flip the switch on you, you have a whole new set of issues that you have to deal with.
And it’s this is why a lot of companies get it wrong.
This is why people feel like it’s a toxic work environment, or that it’s abusive, or that it’s unhealthy.
Because they weren’t respected, or they weren’t heard or not listened to, because it’s hard.
It is exhausting.
And it is difficult.
But it is so important.
Because at the end of the day, humans are still doing the thing.
We’re not going anywhere, despite our efforts to self destruct.
Do not ruin that we’re not gonna entertain that conversation right now.
That’s a different show.
Christopher Penn 22:04
Well, that’s, that’s an AI show.
We’ll talk about that in the other episode about AI.
Katie Robbert 22:08
But to your question about, you know, role power versus relationship power, take the word power out of it, because it already kind of puts you the person who’s trying to help you feeling like you have the upper hand in a situation.
And so it’s really human to human, I see that you’re struggling, these are the options where I can help you.
And then let’s sort of like, once you go beyond that set of options, you have to recognize like, I can no longer help you, or it’s inappropriate for me to try to help you.
So let’s find someone who can
Christopher Penn 22:40
guide you, I guess capacity would be a good word.
So you have a role capacity as a manager to enact change.
Whereas in relationship capacity, you really don’t in it within the context of the workplace.
Like you can’t tell someone else’s boss how to how to manage their team, but it’s, particularly if you’re on in the hierarchy subordinate to them, it’s it that does not go well, usually, but okay.
So, you have you have a few different tactics to help, I guess, divert or redirect people when when they are not performing optimally? Or when they are, you know, severely impacted with, at what point do you say, Okay, this is how do you know when that line is? Because, you know, you talk about the boundaries? How do you know, like that, yeah, that’s the boundary because there is, much to my dismay, as a person who works with AI and natural language processing, there is no technical indicator, this is okay.
After this threshold, this is the boundary like, okay, you know, in natural expressiveness, you could say, okay, the top P parameter can’t go up point seven, if it does, it’s gonna be a problem.
You can’t do that with humans yet.
Katie Robbert 23:47
So it sounds like you want some sort of little indicator light that goes off on the person that says, I’ve hit my threshold, I’ve hit my boundary, like if I had a little blinking red dot, forehead, that like thing, and you’re like, Okay, hit the threshold.
can’t do this anymore.
Christopher Penn 24:03
But for someone, say, like me, who is less aware of other people, how do you how are you? What are some some suggestions for recognizing like, yeah, that’s a boundary, don’t go past it.
Katie Robbert 24:14
It’s, uh, it’s, you know, it’s like anything else, if you think about it in terms of requirements gathering, you know, setting those expectations up front with a team member with someone who reports you with someone who’s appear.
You know, it’s just good practice to do when you bring on a new employee.
It’s basically you’re following, in some ways, their job description, like let me outline the expectations of your job.
But then let me also outline the expectations of my job as it relates to your job and that becomes the blueprint of when you know, you’re crossing a boundary line.
And so, you know, Chris, in that situation, in that example, if we said, okay, Chris, your job is to speak on stage and bring in new business and my job Is your manager is to make sure that you have all the things you need to do that, you know, that’s still pretty vague, because that could be therapy that could be, you know, whatever it is some sort of counts.
Like, I don’t clearly specify that that is not what I’m doing.
And that’s, you know, just like in requirements gathering, you need to say, these are the things we’re doing, these are the things that are out of scope.
And that can help the team members who are less people aware, have some sort of clear guidelines like, Okay, this is out of scope of my professional relationship, this is out of scope of my responsibility to keep this perfect person safe and healthy.
But then you also need to know like, if it’s out of scope, but this thing is happening, what do I do about this? Do I bring in human resources? Do I bring in a supervisor who’s even above me? Do I bring in a licensed professional, so all those, you need to have those things, and a good company is going to have an understanding of what that looks like.
A few jobs ago.
You know, I sort of I always complained that I worked with a bunch of academics.
But those academics were all in the social work field.
And so we actually had a really good, healthy set of boundaries in terms of what isn’t, isn’t appropriate in the workplace in terms of helping someone navigate their emotions in a situation because all of these academics were psi, DS, they were all in the social work field, they were all psychologists.
So they very clearly understood what those boundaries were, they didn’t know how to run a business.
That was a whole different situation, but they knew how to deal with people, which was really interesting.
And so, you know, if, if you feel like you’re running into situations, you may want to bring in a consultant who has a Saudi background and say, what are the boundaries that I need to be setting up with my team members, I have a lot of, you know, impressionable, emotional, you know, high, strong humans, that I want to make sure I’m not doing more harm to what should I be doing? What is appropriate, what is not? Humans.
Whereas, you know, so it’s funny, because you’re sort of like, humans, and I’m like, that’s the part that I love.
I love the psychology of it.
Because when I start to see people winning and succeeding, that’s when I get the most, you know, benefit from the work that I’m doing.
And so if you have someone back to your original question about how do you keep people focused and productive, again, I go back to thinking about it’s like requirements gathering, you set up milestones.
And so if someone is feeling, you know, overwhelmed or stressed out or exhausted, whatever the thing is, you do for them the same thing you kind of do for yourself, which is, okay, so you have this big task ahead of you, rather than getting overwhelmed by it, let’s set up milestones for you to be hitting on a regular basis on a day to day, even hour to hour.
And if that person still can’t hit those milestones, then that’s when you know that the focus and productivity is out the window.
And that becomes a different conversation.
And so you give them the tools to set them up for success and say, What do you feel you are capable of doing? And this is what we as the company need for you.
So is there a middle ground? Is there a way that we can work together to keep moving things forward? And if not, that’s a different conversation.
Christopher Penn 28:25
So it sounds like there are tools, but the first set of tools that anyone in any position, whether you have responsibility, needs to build, if you don’t have those tools already is those boundaries.
And then once you have those boundaries, you can understand what you can and can’t do, then you can bring out the various different tools like coaching or milestone setting or variable task management, to help those people accomplish as much as they’re capable of doing in the situation that they’re in.
Katie Robbert 28:57
And with that, and this is where a lot of people managers fall down themselves is my expectation of what you’re capable of Chris, and what you’re actually capable of might be two different things.
And so recognizing that, me as a people manager, putting my expectations on, you might also be detrimental.
And so I as the pupil manager really have to take my feelings, my opinions out of the conversation, and really just focus on you as the individual contributor to understand here’s what you are actually capable of.
Now, easier said than done, the company may have expectations that they expect you to be meeting, and that does need to be part of the conversation.
But you also just need to recognize like maybe this person is never going to be an A plus player.
Maybe they’re a B player, maybe they’re a C player, but that’s okay, because there is still value in that because it moves things forward, just in a different way.
Christopher Penn 29:57
Well, I think I have enough things to at least give some thought to regarding a particular group of people.
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I will talk to you next time.
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