Monday, September 28, 2015

Shadow Boxing

Sometimes, the issue isn’t the issue.  From a management perspective, that’s a real challenge.

This is the professor who rails against this perceived injustice and that one, visibly disappointed when one is actually fixed, because what he’s really battling are personal demons.  Or the staffer for whom nothing is ever quite right, ever since her friend left.  It can even be the chronically cranky employee who thinks himself underpaid, and who therefore descends into a sort of free-floating bitterness that often ensnares the innocent.

I think of these as shadow boxing.  They’re attacking something that isn’t really there, and burning a lot of energy doing it.

The problem is that people who are boxing shadows don’t always know it.   There’s often just enough truth in any given complaint that they can choose to find it plausible if they want to.  And if it’s the first time you’re dealing with them, or you aren’t particularly paying attention, it’s easy to take the proxy complaint at face value.  In fact, for a first meeting, you probably should.  

But over time, some folks reveal themselves as shadow boxers.  And that creates a real dilemma.

If you respond to each new proxy complaint, you merely enable the insanity to continue.  If you stop responding, you can look like the bad guy and create an entirely new issue.  (“The administration knows, and it doesn’t do anything about it!”)  If you point out that the shadow is just a shadow, well, that didn’t work so well in the allegory of the cave.  It’s rare that folks are grateful for being discredited through armchair psychoanalysis, even if (maybe especially if) it’s accurate.  “Gee, thanks for pointing out that my office complaint is really displaced anger over my divorce!” said nobody, ever.

Which is to say, it puts people in a tough spot.

To be fair, sometimes it’s possible to get at the underlying issue through patient listening.  At a previous college, I had a professor whose drinking had gradually spun out of control.  It got to the point where you couldn’t not notice.  By starting with discussions of the workplace symptoms, we were able to get eventually to the real issue, and to enlist the help of some medical professionals.  

And sometimes, if you’ve built up a good personal relationship, it’s possible for friendship to trump rank and make a frank discussion possible.  Many years ago I had a friend and colleague who felt that working where we were was a terrible injustice to him.  He just couldn’t get over it, and couldn’t stop complaining about the place.  Many of his complaints were accurate, but still, the sheer volume and incessancy of them became wearing.  

After the umpteenth complaint, I couldn’t take it anymore and told him that it was clear that the real issue was just that he wanted out; everything else was just an excuse.  He seemed stunned in the moment, and a little wary, but he didn’t stop me.  I suggested that instead of just griping all the time, we work together on a strategy to get him what he really wanted, which was a job elsewhere.  He agreed, and it worked.  By all accounts, he’s far happier now.  The bill of particulars was never really the point.

The only techniques I’ve seen work with shadow boxers involve listening over an extended period, followed by building a case inductively.  When the demons aren’t too idiosyncratic or deeply rooted, that can work.  But it’s no guarantee, and some demons are so utterly constitutive of the person that the best you can hope for is a sort of containment.  It’s one thing to supply a glowing reference, and another to undo a messed-up childhood.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen effective and reasonable ways to deal with shadow boxing?