Get underneath the surface

by | Mar 10, 2023 | Leadership

Many years ago, when I was a manager in corporate, I had a team member who changed from being cheerful and open to sullen and withdrawn.

She’d sit at her desk with her headphones on and avoid eye contact, making it difficult to communicate with her. Her behaviour was having a negative impact and I didn’t know how best to tackle the situation. Fortunately, I had a great manager at the time who shared an acronym with me.


The acronym was ABC. B stands for Behaviour – what you see someone say or do. C stands for Consequence, the impact of that behaviour. Most importantly, A stands for Antecedent, the motivation behind the behaviour.

I scheduled a chat with the individual in a private room where we wouldn’t be overlooked and shared what I was experiencing of her (Behaviour) and the impact of that (Consequence). When I asked her what was behind how she was showing up (Antecedent), she burst into tears. It transpired that she’d become increasingly unhappy with her job, she had issues at home, and her way of dealing with it had been to pent up her feelings and close herself off from the world around her.

People are like icebergs.

How people behave is like the tip of the iceberg that we can see above the surface of the water. Why they behave as they do is the product of all the things hidden below the surface which we can’t see : their mindset and thoughts, their emotions, their values and beliefs, their motivations and needs. 

This means we can’t take people’s behaviour at face value – we need to get underneath the surface.

What’s underneath?

If someone’s behaviour isn’t constructive, it’s very likely that fear is at play, the emotion most easily triggered because it’s so closely connected to our survival.

For example, if someone isn’t speaking up at meetings, it might be they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. If someone’s resistant to embracing change, it may be they’re afraid they’ll fail. If someone’s being defensive about their work, they may feel insecure, thinking that you’re trying to pick holes rather than just showing an interest.

However, it could be that they have limited awareness of the impact of their behaviour on others. For example, they might not realise that their abruptness can offend people but may be horrified when you share this with them.

Or perhaps they’re making mistakes because what they’re required to do isn’t a good fit for their strengths.

You won’t know if you don’t ask.

If you want someone to change how they’re showing up, it’s not enough to tell them what you want them to do differently or to act from assumptions about their behaviour. First, it’s important to get underneath the surface, to understand what’s motivating them so that you can work out a positive way forward together.

One way to open this topic in a conversation is, “I’m noticing that you (name the behaviour – what they have or haven’t been doing) and the impact of this is (name how this is affecting people and results). Can you tell me what that’s about? or Is that your experience?”

For example, “I’m noticing that you haven’t started work on Project X and it’s only 4 weeks until we need to report to the Board. Could you tell me what that’s about? or What’s getting in the way of you getting started?”

In the case of someone making a mistake, you might try : “I’d like to make sure we prevent this happening again. Could you help me understand what went wrong?” Notice the “we” language here which creates the sense that you’re in it together.

Stay curious

The trick is to stay in curiosity for longer than might be comfortable for you. “Tell me more” is a great follow-on question! In the process, my wish for you is that you’ll understand your people better, build more trust and connection as well as finding more effective and sustainable solutions for all concerned.

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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