The power of why: What intransigent toddlers can teach us about intransigent colleagues

Our organizational colleagues and toddlers often have one thing in common: they seem opposed to whatever we support. Whether they “won’t back that idea” or “won’t eat that macaroni,” their intransigence is one in the same.

By learning to deal with stubborn toddlers, then, we can also learn to deal with stubborn colleagues. In a word, toddlers can help make our work lives negotiable.

Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from toddlers is the power of three words: “why” and “why not”. Now, some toddlers say these words almost as often as they inhale, but that’s not where I’m going. Here’s where I’m going: A common pattern among toddlers (though certainly none that I know) is to eat part of their macaroni, then refuse to eat the rest. A common response from parents is frustration, followed by an escalating battle of wills. A better response from parents are the deceptively simple questions: “why?” or “why not?” A small assortment of the real responses that I would’ve really heard, had I really known such a toddler:

  • I’m not hungry
  • It’s yucky
  • I have to go potty
  • I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork
  • Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy!

Now, these responses and the questions that precipitated them are critical, as they each pave the way for a different integrative solution that should still involve the macaroni:

  • I’m not hungry (Possible solution: Slow down the meal, try again later, or mention the implications of satiation for dessert)
  • It’s yucky (Possible solution: Mix in the chunks of cheese that she doesn’t like)
  • I have to go potty (Possible solution: Excuse her from the table, then try again)
  • I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork (Possible solution: Help and/or teach her to balance it)
  • Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy! (Possible solution: Take away the blocks and reiterate the need to focus)

Of course, none of these solutions is surefire, but all of them are better than an escalating battle of wills. But now let’s tie the toddler’s behavior back to the corporate world. Suppose you were proposing an organizational change to your colleagues; here are some corporate analogs of the toddler’s responses, along with some possible solutions from you:

  • I’m not hungry = My appetite for change is waning; these changes are coming too fast (Possible solution: Slow down)
  • It’s yucky = I just found something I didn’t like in your proposal (Possible solution: Probe that issue deeply)
  • I have to go potty = I’m distracted because of other priorities right now (Possible solution: Approach them later)
  • I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork = I’m having trouble understanding how this will work (Possible solution: Walk them through the details, perhaps in a separate meeting)
  • Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy! = I’m trying to distract or confuse you in hopes that you don’t succeed (Possible solution: Set the meeting agenda and ensure that everyone publicly agrees to it in advance)

Both the analogues and possible solutions are just examples. But I think you can see that the toddler’s behavior is surprisingly reminiscent of your colleagues’ behavior. So the three little words of “why” and “why not” can often prove useful at the boardroom table in addition to the dinner table.

Have you ever asked why (of an intransigent toddler or colleague) and been surprised at the response?

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3 thoughts on “The power of why: What intransigent toddlers can teach us about intransigent colleagues

  1. Pingback: The power of distraction: Another lesson intransigent toddlers can teach us about intransigent colleagues | Brian Gunia

  2. Pingback: The musings of 2015 | Brian Gunia

  3. Pingback: When to ask why | Brian Gunia

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