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You Can't Fix What You Don't Understand

Late last month, I was preparing for a leadership webinar when I got an urgent email from one of the leaders I was coaching. We typically met on a weekly basis, but the email stated that she had a problem that just surfaced and needed my input immediately. I asked her to set up an appointment on my calendar and within two hours, we were delving into her situation.


Essentially, a team member approached the leader and said another team member had body odor. The team member said they found it difficult to complete their day’s activities because of their fellow team member’s smell. Since this employee’s boss and HR professional were on vacation, she needed my immediate guidance.


Let’s talk about how we handled this situation, so you can learn about how to deal with it as well.


Me: Who complained?


Leader: A team member who rarely ever complains. In fact, this team member was so desperate, they bought some deodorant over their lunch period and then placed it discreetly near the other employee’s workstation in hopes they would get the hint.


Me: Have you smelled this person’s body odor yourself?


Leader: No.


Me: Okay, can we agree that the person who complained, expressed an opinion? Can we agree that an opinion is an unsubstantiated fact?


Leader: Yes.


Me: Curious, if you went to a doctor for a headache, what would you do if the doctor said a frontal lobotomy would take care of it?


Leader: Immediately seek another opinion.


Me: You are right. That’s malpractice. Okay, go out and see it for yourself. If you are that uncomfortable based on what you saw for yourself, then you can approach the team member based on your perception versus another team member’s perception. Otherwise, you would be pitting team members versus one another, and we know what will happen then?


Leader: What will happen?


Me: The two team members will never eat lunch together again.


Let’s assume you sense their improper hygiene for yourself. Now approach the team member in private and let them know this is not easy for you, but when you were around their workstation earlier, you smelled an embarrassing odor. Let them know you can speculate on why that is, but you would be wrong.


So, I am just going to ask you a few questions to better understand the situation. Ask, are you aware of the situation? Is there something preventing you from improving the situation?


As a leader, you need to put on your fact-finding hat. Don’t jump to conclusions that the team member is aware of what’s going on and can do something about it.


Leader: Oh, this is going to be awkward.


Me: You know what is more awkward? When you prescribe solutions to a situation that you know little about. In fact, you could get yourself in hot water over the deodorant being bought by another team member. The person with the odor may see the deodorant as a hostile environment.


Leader: I didn’t do it. My team member did.


Me: The buck still stops with you. You are responsible for your team’s behavior and performance.


Find out if the team member is aware. Let’s speculate on what you might learn.


They may deny knowing of the odor. That’s okay, maybe they are embarrassed. They may say it is caused by a certain condition. If so, that condition is likely covered under the American Disability Act. They might say their religion or culture forbids them from doing something that is leading to odor.


You see, we are speculating right now – you need to learn the facts.


Leader: Okay, I first need to determine if I find their odor is offensive? If so, then I need to have a private conversation and determine the reasons and not jump to solutions until I find out what is causing the situation?


Me: Yes, but before I let you go I want to tell you something an HR person told me many years ago: “You can’t get in trouble for asking questions regarding a person’s behavior or performance. However, you can get in trouble when you jump to conclusions without having all the facts.” Kind of like the doctor who wanted to give a frontal lobotomy.


Leader: Thanks John. If I need additional guidance, I know how to get a hold of you.


Me: No problem, we all need our tires inflated from time to time on what is the right thing to do.


Remember, you can’t solve what you don’t understand. Don’t take another person’s word for it. See it for yourself.


Leaders are made, not born! It’s okay to be at a loss as to what you should do next. Just make sure you’re always planning your next step, keeping in mind that you should be setting an example for others.


Digital Leadership for Leads coming in Spanish next month!


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