The penalty box.

Have you ever felt as if you have been placed in the “penalty box” by your manager? Everyone has at one time or another. But why is that? There can be many reasons. Sometimes we misinterpret what a manager or leader says; at other times, we fill in the gaps with our own narrative, and sometimes we have been squarely placed into the box!

How we perceive conflict and navigate the smorgasbord of communication styles plays a significant role in how we interpret whether we are in or out of “the box”. Our primitive brains are hardwired to respond to what we perceive as conflict, which can play out in various ways. The amygdala is the home of our emotions, and stress and anxiety are usually the emotions we experience when we feel as if we are boxed in. This can result in disengagement, feeling unmotivated, undervalued, distracted, depressed, anxious, and isolated.

So, what can we do if we find ourselves at this crossroad? While the burden is not ours alone to bear, we can focus on what matters and what is within our control. My first suggestion is to learn more about leadership behavioral styles. In my interactions, I find that if I understand a behavioral style that I am encountering, I can better recognize the intended communication and adjust my style to meet that person where they are at that moment or disengage. I know at least one person is reading this who is thinking to themselves, “why do I need to adjust my style?” Of course, you don’t, but it is a choice that you have the power to make to move to a better place in communication where there is less conflict.

Leadership behavioral styles vary and are not necessarily good or bad. Still, certain leadership styles can be more challenging to navigate, and the impact felt from the more complex styles can be demotivating. For example, I have found that autocratic, transactional, and bureaucratic leadership styles can be challenging to navigate because they usually have a higher level of micromanagement, which can place one in the “penalty box” for noncompliance or being viewed as non-compliant.

What communication tools can we use when we find ourselves in the “penalty box?” Setting up a time for a conversation with your manager or leader is a strategy that can be employed, but it must be done thoughtfully. Note, my suggestion is for communicating with your direct manager, not around a manager to their manager, leader, or someone else in the organization. The model for feedback that I use the most for discussing an issue is one I learned over a decade ago when I attended a women’s leadership program at the Center for Creative Leadership. It is the Situation-Behavior-Impact-Intent model (SBII). The model has you engage in a conversation that takes you away from creating your own narrative and asks about the intent of behavior. You then share the impact felt, clearly communicate it, and get clarity around the intention.

Before moving forward, be sure that your conversation is not surprising to your manager. Be clear with your manager about having a follow-up conversation on the matter at hand. If you are having the discussion in your regularly scheduled one-on-one meeting, make sure that your agenda includes the topic for discussion. Then, when you are ready to have the conversation using the SBII model, it might look something like this:

Situation: During my presentation in our meeting this week,you asked many questions about how I pulled the data and why I presented it in the way that I did.

Behavior: At the end of the meeting, you asked Marsha to lead the project.

Impact: I felt very confused about why you decided to no longer have me lead the project.

Intent: Can you help me understand why you made that decision?

This type of approach can lead to healthy dialogue that is non-confrontational and leads to solution building. So, give it a try.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that some people find themselves in highly toxic or hostile work environments. If this is the case, the communication strategy above might not result in the outcome you desire in the workplace. Therefore, you might need to employ other strategies involving your human resource office or seek out a healthier work environment.

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