Not long ago, I was sitting in a discussion where the topic was fairly controversial and the opinions of the group seemed to vary pretty dramatically. In fact, it seemed as if there were two ‘camps’ forming on the topic, and the camps were pretty far apart. During the conversation, someone behind me mumbled out loud a disparaging remark about a comment the other side had made. It struck me that the person really needed to turn on their filter, and likely didn’t realize what they were doing.
We all have those moments though. We let our emotions, thoughts and frustrations take control of our mouths and we end up saying things we wish we hadn’t. But as a leader, it’s important that you realize the impact your words, even unintentional, can have on your team and credibility. Even in this age of ‘saying it like it is,’ as a leader, you really don’t have that luxury if you intend to maintain your influence.
But what causes some people to be able to control their emotions and hold their tongue during stressful or contentious conversations, while others just seem to say what’s on their mind without a filter? I’m not talking about a person who has the confidence to share their opinion or voice their concerns in a constructive way. I am talking about the person who mumbles under their breath, blurts out negative responses to a conversation, or says things that are totally inappropriate for the moment. Or sometimes, it’s the person who just Can’t. Stop. Talking.
The term ‘without a filter’ is a pretty common one used today to describe a person who speaks without tact, seems to blurt out their thoughts, or is generally seen as very blunt. The phrase comes from the idea that your mouth says what your brain thinks without consideration to the audience, situation. or time. However, being frank or blunt does not mean you lack a filter. In fact, depending on the culture of where you are, or where you’re from, it might actually be normal or considered necessary.
On the other hand, lacking a filter is something different. When someone ‘lacks a filter,’ it means they don’t give consideration to the audience, and often end up saying things that are rude, condescending, or downright mean. Telling someone they are an idiot during a meeting, making a crass comment about another person’s misfortune, or cracking an inappropriate joke all fall into this category.
People who lack a filter often aren’t aware that they lack it. They have likely been told before, and might even make light of the trait, but ultimately, they don’t make any changes because they don’t really see it as an issue. They quickly defend themselves and say that this is ‘just who they are’ or ‘how they were raised.’ I once worked with someone who lacked a filter, defending it by saying he’s from Chicago, and ‘that’s just how we are.’ Strangely, I’ve worked with many other people from Chicago, and they didn’t act like this person, so I suspect he was just making an excuse.
As a leader, having ‘no-filter Fred’ on your team can be a real problem. Since they lack judgement on what to say, and when to say it, they end up creating hard feelings with the team, alienating customers, and generally running roughshod over the organization. They just don’t add value to the team, and in fact, they create a difficult workplace for everyone.
So, what can you do when you have a ‘no-filter Fred’ on the team? Here are some steps you can follow to help change the behavior and restore sanity to the team.
- Point out the behavior early. If you are a new leader to the team, the worst thing you can do is to let this go on for too long. The first time you observe the behavior, pull the team member aside and let them know that you noticed the unfiltered comments. It’s important that you are specific with them, providing concrete examples of what they said and how it was perceived by you and the team.
- Coach for comments. Once you have identified the offender and pointed out their behavior, you need to keep an eye out for future incidents. If it continues, the next step is to coach the employee before meetings. Pull them aside before a meeting starts and let them know that you expect they will control their comments, and you will be watching. If this person will be presenting or having a more formal speaking role, give them some examples of how they can word the more controversial topics and input. Don’t leave this up to chance. Remember, they are saying what they think, so helping them think differently will help them say things differently.
- Put it in writing. If the person hasn’t picked up your guidance to this point, it is likely time to start documenting the behavior. At this point, you don’t need to have a formal counseling session (unless the behavior is egregious), but instead, can give them something they can take home and read over several times. Just like the early coaching, you need to provide concrete examples of what they said and how it impacts the team. In these examples, be sure to include the perceived impact you think the behavior is having on the team and you. Your perception should matter to them (remember, you’re the leader), so make sure you tell them how you are starting to think about them as a team member.
- Try a face-to-face.This step might not work in all cases, but sometimes having another team member sit with you to talk to the offender can have an impact. Having someone who is willing to tell them how they come across, and share examples of how it makes them feel as a co-worker can be effective. But, make sure you don’t ever put a team member on the spot if they are uncomfortable or feel like they don’t want to confront the employee.
- Get formal. At some point, despite your persistence and coaching, people just aren’t willing to change. If that’s the case, it’s time to put the concerns down in a more formal way. Work with your HR department to be sure you correctly documenting all the previous discussions and opportunities you have provided them. Once again, when you document, give concrete examples of what is unacceptable. Let the team member know, in no uncertain terms, that the behavior has to stop, and if they can’t make changes, they may be terminated. Remember, this is about the team. No matter how technically proficient the offending person is, no one is so invaluable that they should be tolerated at the expense of the rest of the team.
- Terminate your relationship. If the person hasn’t gotten the message by now, they are likely unwilling to make changes. At this point, it’s best to sever the working relationship and ask the person to leave. While this is never easy, realize that they did this to themselves, and their lack of ability to make changes, or unwillingness to embrace coaching opportunities was the cause of the termination, not you!
In any of the cases above, if you do see improvements, or see them trying hard to make changes, be sure to encourage them immediately. It isn’t an easy process, and you want to reinforce the good behaviors and expectations you have for them early and often. Hopefully this reinforcement will serve to let them know that change is possible, and better teamwork is ahead.
But it doesn’t always work out the way we think it will. I once had an employee who was badgering the rest of the team members, unbeknownst to me. She was doing this when I wasn’t around, and had become abrasive and downright rude. Once the behavior came to light, and I began to talk to other team members to get a feel for the behavior, they consistently said that they didn’t say anything because ‘it’s just the way she was,’ and figured she would never change. What the team didn’t realize was that her behavior was impacting all of them more negatively than they thought.
An Employee Engagement Survey by Gallup found that employees who have people at work they can count on and talk to are more productive and happier. This happiness directly impacts overall engagement, and affects everything from turnover to the organizations perception in the community.
As a leader, you can’t let ‘no-filter Fred’ continue his reign of destruction. You team is counting on you, and the organization is being negatively impacted the longer you let him continue. Set your mind to do something about it, and do it soon. Your success may depend on it.