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Beware of Backseat Driving

Dan Bobinski
July 7, 2005 -- By Dan Bobinski 

Sometimes we meet people who seem to know everything. I’m not talking about Mensa members with IQ’s of 200, I’m talking about people who work in one department but act as if they are experts on how things should be done in all departments.
 
Much like the frustration of listening to a backseat driver, it’s easy to get driven up a wall listening to a non-expert sound off on how things ought to be done.  By the way, these may be the same folks who point out how other team members are “doing things all wrong.”
 
You’ve probably heard their sentences start with phrases like:
    What you need to do is ...
    He really needs to …
    If only they would …
People who talk like this may be well-intended, but sometimes these words come from an attitude of superiority.  Either way, such phrases create division on teams, not cohesiveness.
 
In the workplace, most people problems are the result of co-workers not truly understanding each other. This is because most of us suffer from a social illness I call “adult syndrome.” That is, we think that as adults we need to have all the answers.
 
I don’t know about you, but nothing magical happened when I turned 18 that suddenly gave me the wisdom of the Almighty.  My parents, friends, and co-workers of the time might tell you I thought otherwise, but in reality, the more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. That awareness continues to this day, and it’s why I advocate an attitude of lifelong learning.
 
It was Stephen Covey in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People who made popular the phrase “Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood.”  I love the story Covey tells in his workshops about the father who says, “I don’t understand my son. He just won’t listen to me.”  Rather blandly, Covey replies, “there’s the problem.” 
 
The point Covey makes is that the father doesn’t understand the son. Why? Because the father is trying to get the son to listen, instead of himself listening to the son.  If the father would seek first to understand the son, the son would be more likely to listen to the father.
 
Notice the sequence of the principle: Seek FIRST to understand, THEN be understood.
 
This is much easier said than done (most of us strive to be understood first), but I guarantee you this: Apply this principle to any working relationship, and you will see amazing things happen.
 
Another helpful idea is to realize where our responsibilities lie. Unless I am an in-line supervisor, someone else’s job performance is not my responsibility.  Sure, it’s easy to feel like we’re working harder than someone else, but how we handle that frustration makes us or breaks us as team players. 
 
Want to be principled when you see others not working up to par? You have several choices.
    A)    Stay focused on doing the best job you can do for your own areas of responsibility.
    B)     Go to your supervisor and seek FIRST to understand why it appears that someone else is slacking off.  Really seek to understand.
    C)    Go to the person you think is slacking off and genuinely seek to understand how it is they have time to relax.  Take note of the word “genuinely.”  If you’re trying to be flip or if you come across sarcastic, the result is further division, not cohesiveness.
    D)    Any combination of the above.
The key is not only that we have our own areas of responsibility to worry about, but we’re also lifelong learners, which means as much as we’d like to think differently, we don’t have all the answers.
 
In the workplace, your co-workers are on the same team as you. Criticize them and you diminish your team’s effectiveness. Build them up and you create a unified strength.
 
Bottom line, comments that sound like back seat driving can drive a wedge between people and departments.  Seek first to understand, and not only will you be curing your adult syndrome, you’ll build a more effective team.     



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© 2005 Dan Bobinski / Leadership Development, Inc. You may freely forward this information on condition that you send the text as an integral whole along with complete information about its author, date, and source.
 
Dan Bobinski is a certified behavioral analyst, the President and CEO of Leadership Development, Inc., and the co-author of Living Toad Free: Overcoming Resistance to Motivation. He can be reached at (208) 375-7606 or by Email at dan@leadershipanswers.
     
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