TERRY PRONE: Judge people on how they act — not on what you assume they think

I MISSED out on a gig recently. Lost a neat little bit of business.

A management bloke wanted to send one of his team to me for training. Because she’s such a problem. It’s not that she doesn’t meet targets.

She does. It’s not that she doesn’t manage her people. She does. It’s not that she turns up late or drunk. She doesn’t.

It’s her attitude. Underneath the obvious job specifications that she more than meets, her manager knows her to despise the organisation he leads, to fundamentally reject its values, and to hold him, personally, in contempt.

The obvious question is why the hell she ever joined them, but that question has to come after the one that goes “And how, exactly, do you know this?” Pen poised, I waited for the examples. Where she had written an email rubbishing the company and everything it stood for. Where she had tweeted a briefer note of derision. Paper trail seemed there to be none. Undeterred, I went looking for nasty things she had said aloud in his hearing. Her manager became vitriolic. I wanted examples of her verbal obstructionism? Now, I hadn’t actually called anything this unmet woman does as verbal obstructionism, but, never missing an opportunity to borrow a good hostile phrase, I nodded.

“’I would have issues with that,’” he said, triumphantly.

Apparently the problem employee talks a lot about having issues with proposed actions. Which would be tedious, admittedly. People who talk about issues are about as much fun as those morons who tell you to wake up and smell the coffee, which always makes me want to say that I’ll stay asleep and smell the cowdung if I want to, so I will.

Her boss then somewhat pulled the angry rug out from under himself by admitting that she usually followed this up by coming up with reasons to back up her issues, but that wasn’t the point, he said, busily retrieving the angry rug and getting himself comfortable on it. The point was the way she raised her issues. Sanctimonious.

“She’s absolutely sure she is right and anybody not agreeing with her has to be wrong,” he said, beginning to get mad at me for not seeing how absolutely right he was. It didn’t seem a good time to point out that most of Ireland, most of the time, is sure it’s right and equally sure that anybody who doesn’t agree is wrong. In the case of the abortion issue, each side sees anybody who doesn’t agree with them as not just wrong, but evil, crazy, cynical, fundamentalist and probably supported financially by some dangerous and dubious filthy rich and secret entity.

The curious thing about this demonstrably problematic employee was that she has developed a remarkable skill in conveying complex messages without ever saying anything. Her boss couldn’t produce a word, written or spoken, that amounted to anything worse than her having issues with policies he liked.

“It’s the body language,” he said, after a long, baffled silence. “That’s what it is. The body language. She doesn’t quite throw her eyes to heaven when I say things, but she nearly does.”

I tried hard to imagine someone nearly throwing their eyes to heaven.

“She sighs, too,” he said, with an air of having landed a killer blow. “She sighs all the time.”

You have to agree that constant sighs would get to you after a while. Like constant sniffing. Or people who drum their fingers on the desk when they’re thinking. Or what constantly happened in an office I worked in, years back, where one of the executives said “Back to the saltmines,” whenever he left the main room. (This was a bit confusing to newcomers who thought “saltmines” was our euphemism for the gents.) All of these habits are irritating, but it’s a bit of a stretch to take them personally, see them as corporately subversive and find the money to have their perpetrators fixed by me.

The prospective client got really cross when I mentioned sniffers and saltminers to him. This woman’s sighing, he stated through gritted teeth, was quite different. It was an outward and visible manifestation of her inner attitude.

With a sense of letting the Christmas money fly out of my hands, I told him that as a trainer, I concentrated on skills, rather than inner attitude and that he should do likewise.

“You buy behaviour, not attitude,” I suggested. He left shortly afterwards. He left in such a marked manner that it was tempting to read all sorts of things into it, but I didn’t. You have to be consistent. Or at least try to be.

Trying to manage attitude, rather than behaviour, is lousy management. It’s even lousier government, as exemplified by the removal, in Britain, of three children from their foster parents, on the grounds that their membership of the UK Independence Party meant they supported racist policies. The three children, all from one dysfunctional family, were from an ethnic minority, and were placed with the couple two months ago. Which made sense, because the couple have been fostering for seven years, taking care of more than a dozen children in that time, and are regarded as exemplary foster parents. The woman has a qualification as a nursery nurse.

The three foster children were doing nicely, thank you, with the couple. The baby had gained weight. The older kids were calling them Mum and Dad. Having gone through inchoate miseries in their birth home, comfort, trust and happiness had been found in their foster home. Removal from that second home could not be other than damaging for the three children. Yet it was done because some self-righteously anonymous individual let the local safeguarding team in on the fact that the foster parents belonged to the wrong political party.

UKIP is not an illegal cult. It is a mainstream political party. One in ten Britons has told opinion pollsters that they support it. It wants Britain out of Europe, it wants immigration reduced or stopped, it wants multiculturalism to cease and it doesn’t like what it calls political correctness. Nine out of ten voters, in Ireland as well as in Britain, disapprove of it and feel better about themselves for disapproving of it, because those opposing UKIP are decent, liberal, non-racist, unbigoted, right-thinking people. In short, they have the right attitude. And a couple who are members of UKIP clearly have the wrong attitude.

The foster parents, who claim not to be racist, and who themselves have ethnicminorities in their family tree, describe themselves as “heartbroken.” No quotes are available from the older foster children, who may not know what UKIP stands for, but who felt happy and loved in the home from which they have now been torn. Maybe that’s because children judge those around them on how they act, rather than on their political beliefs. And they’re right, those silent children.

Each and every one of us is entitled to whatever attitude we want on any subject. We must be judged on our behaviour. On what we do and say. Not on what we think. Or are assumed to think.

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