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Submitted by jkballentine on


Good afternoon. Iam an Executive Director in a 30,000 person organization. I work regularly with an individual contributor and we both report to the same VP. We have a very good relationship. I received feedback from a few different sources about her less than effective communication habits.  This could be due to her natural abruptness (she has has High D tendencies) or it could partially be immaturity (she is in her mid 20s) and she is still learning how to function in an organization.

I received another email from a person that would best be classified as  middle management. Concerned about what this could do to our office’s effectiveness with other parts of the organization I spoke to our shared boss and then forwarded the email to him. In his next 1:1 with her he showed her the email, showing that it came from me. Needless to say she is upset with me. She has yet to talk directly to me but I am certain she feels betrayed.

My question for this forum is two fold:

(1) Did I do anything wrong in the way I handled it?
(2) What can I do to help repair the relationship?

Thank you in advance for any advice that can be offered.


LEmerson's picture

"Needless to say she is upset with me. She has yet to talk directly to me but I am certain she feels betrayed."

In my opinion this situation reflects a problem in communication, and you're the one who needs to fix it.

You could change the sentence, "She has yet to talk directly to me," with, "I have yet to talk directly with her." Why do you think it's her job to take the intiative to speak with you about it? You're the executive director. You were commenting on an email you had received from another person. There aren't enough details to know if it was a bad idea sending the information to the VP, but maybe this person wishes you would have brought this up directly to her or at least informed her before she got blindsided in her meeting with the VP. It seems to me (1) you should have addressed the issue with her when you received the email, and (2) you should have addressed the issue with her once you detected a conflict. Now you're waiting for her to come to you. That's a passive approach. The whole point of O3s is to take an assertive approach to communication.

"Needless to say she is upset with me." This might be true but it might not. It's often not a good idea to jump to conclusions and base your actions on what you think the other person is thinking, because it's usually wrong, or at least incomplete information. Again, communication.

My suggestion is you be more assertive in opening and maintaining lines of communication. If an issue or conflict arises, don't assume intent or wait for someone else to take steps to resolve it. Immediately go straight to the issue and personnel involved, and fix it. It's usually much easier to fix if you rip off the bandaid and deal with it immediately rather than letting it fester. Unless you decide a cooling down period is necessary, jump on it.

It looks like this person can be difficult to deal with. It's your job to help this person achieve maximum production and value to the company. You'll have to be constantly assertive to achieve this.

ses's picture
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I agree with LEmerson that you would probably improve the relationship through more direct communication with the IC.  However, I wouldn't write this person off as "difficult".  She sounds to me like someone who's been put in a difficult position.

Usually, I write something like this more like the DISC type of the person I'm speaking to. I'm going to break that rule, and further put my I tendencies away and write this post in unfiltered high-D. It's going to sound harsh and dismissive to you, but I think you're smart enough to set that aside. I'm hoping it will help you understand the narrative she's experiencing in her high-D head. I'm sure she feels unfairly attacked not just from you, but on multiple fronts.

You say "Needless to say she is upset with me. She has yet to talk directly to me but I am certain she feels betrayed."  You haven't spoken to her, but you are able to understand what she likely feels about the situation.  That's because you knew how she would feel about your behavior when you did it.  You chose to alleviate your discomfort with conflict by engaging in untrustworthy behavior. You'd just hoped you wouldn't get caught.

If you are a very S or C person, or a less-assertive I, you may simply not have considered any of the ways of handling this which could possibly involve conflict.  It's a common trap to treat such things as non-options if you are uncomfortable with conflict. However, your high-D peer may be inexperienced enough that she doesn't understand this was not intentional aggression on your part, or she may feel she can't win no matter how she tries to handle it. In any case, the fact that multiple people at the organization talked about her, rather than to her, about a problem will loom so large in a D's mind that whatever problem precipitated it has been overshadowed.

The professional thing to do would have been to approach your peer first with the feedback you've been receiving, and offer to be a collaborator in helping her overcome the perceptions her current communication habits are causing. That's simply what a trustworthy colleague does, especially with a D peer.

High D's are especially distrustful of subterfuge and passive-aggressiveness. D's appreciate when someone brings us an issue directly, in a collaborative way.  We feel secure and trusting when we know that others will tell us exactly what is on their minds so we don't have to guess or "play games". Just as I need to be gentler and less direct with my high-S peers in order to be seen as on their side, if you want a high-D (especially a less experienced one) to trust you, it starts with showing her that she will never have to guess what you are thinking or saying about her.

Putting myself in the mind of my younger high-D self, this is what I'd have thought if a peer went to my boss with others' complaints instead of coming directly to me:

  1. My peer has so little respect for me that he didn't even look into others' comments to see whether their perceptions were accurate.  He must see me as disposable.  If my peer cared about my being able to improve, he would have come to me directly, or made opportunities to see for himself how I was behaving with others and brought me his own opinion directly.
  2. The colleagues who brought their issues to my peer insetad of directly to me are so unprofessional. They would rather gossip about me than solve a problem. I don't know what motivated them, but now I know I'm working in a pit of passive-aggressive vipers rather than a place where I can trust people.  Why is no one here honest about how they feel? How am I supposed to do the right thing when no one will tell me what's going on?
  3. My boss can't keep a confidence.  Because he showed me the email from my peer with identifying information, I know I can't seek advice from him on how to handle this situation because anything I say will immediately get repeated to others, further feeding the gossip mill about me.  I'm totally alone here.
  4. It's clear that no one here wants me to succeed. I can't trust anyone involved in this situation.

I don't think this way today, but honestly, I've had decades to become more compassionate about what I still see as others' failings with regard to direct communication. To a high-D, rule one of honest and trustworthy behavior is that if you have a problem with someone, you speak to them directly about the problem and try earnestly to work it out before involving any third party.  I now know that less-assertive people don't think that way.  The possibility of conflict looms so large in their minds, and seems so overwhelming, that they feel it's "best" (either least frightening for them, or gentler to me) to avoid directness even at the cost of clarity, efficiency, and honesty.

You can start to heal the distrust you've caused by reaching out to this IC and apologizing to her clearly and without reservation.  What she did or didn't do to cause the initial communication concerns won't matter much to her until she has people she can trust at work. You could try something like "I deeply regret not coming to you directly when people started approaching me about your communication.  I should have talked to you and offered to help understand and fix whatever was going on.  I should not have gone to the boss without talking to you first. I realize now that I screwed up. Is there something I can do to help going forward?"

That's a start. It will probably take some time to gain her trust as D's trust actions far more than words. At least, it will break the ice and you can have an opportunity to move forward.

The high-I in me would like you to know that I'm here to help if you have any other questions or concerns on this. No part of me thinks you're a bad person or acting maliciously. One of the hard things about communication is that violating trust is all too easy when we focus on how wee see the world, but are dealing with people who see it differently from ourselves.  It is a genuinely hard problem, for all humans.

Thanks for being the kind of person who wants to do better, instead of immediately writing off your less experienced peer's reaction just because it wasn't your reaction.


tabitharizzio's picture
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Peers should strive to resolve conflict and maintain effective relationships w/o seeking management, which means speaking with the person directly.

I'd recommend reaching out directly to your peer, apologize and then recommend discussion on how you both can establish a mutual respectful relationship.

Lastly, and I add this part only to help with some reflection as I read few instances referencing immaturity of your peer, where from your own account of events I only observe the ineffective communication and one could argue immaturity was done by you, not your peer.  Surprising that someone older and supposeduly more mature thinks showing the boss an email with negative feedback from a 3rd person concerning a team mate would be an effective communication behavior.  While your actions weren't most likely ill intended you have to ask yourself were they the most effective?  What was the objective or goal in bringing a 3rd party email to your boss about your colleague?  Then ask yourself how can go about accomplishing this goal that has no way of being perceived negatively by any of my team mates.  

I'd challenge you to reflect on a better course of action could've been to ask your VP boss for guidance on how best to establish rapport and effective communication among a team with very differing communication styles.