I KNOW YOU ARE, BUT WHAT AM I? Five ways to confront a culture of comparison.

When I was 12, I nearly drove my mom crazy. No matter what she said, I would respond, “I know you are, but what am I?”  I don’t know where it began but she was not amused. While I was rolling on the floor laughing, my mom became increasingly exasperated. I spent considerable time in my room during that phase.

Decades later I realize that people ask that question every day. They are not trying to be funny. It is part of a culture obsessed with comparison. Someone else has more, makes more. Someone else’s work is recognized. Someone else has all the luck. On and on it goes. The “I know you are…” mentality is an extension of our desire for immediate gratification. We want what we don’t have and we want it now. In the process, we lose sight of who we are.

Organizations steeped in hierarchy are especially susceptible to the syndrome. Destructive attitudes and behaviors can fester and create a toxic culture when individuals embrace perceived inequities. An effective leader is able to identify sources of negative chatter and refocus energies to address the underlying question “…but what am I?

These five not-always-easy but absolutely necessary actions will help curb the impact and deter further development of a culture of comparison.

#1) Model the behavior you wish to see. Show as much compassion and understanding with your employees as you do with customers. We teach others how to treat us, what is acceptable, and what will be tolerated. Be present. Make eye contact. Listen. Create opportunities for personal and professional development.

#2) Affirm value and applaud contributions of individuals. Thank them for using their talents and skills to make a difference. Let them know you recognize and appreciate their efforts. Sing the praises of your teams. They will live up to the expectations you set when they are equipped, encouraged, and empowered to do so.

#3) Follow through. Be conscience of tension, animosity, and/or one-upmanship. Address it honestly. Reinforce service expectations. Ensure understanding of the consequences of their choices. Give them the opportunity to make appropriate adjustments in their attitude and behavior. Monitor for and reinforce improvement.

#4) Let them go. In the end, it’s their choice. One individual spewing negativity will quickly cause a downward spiral among the entire department. Discontent breeds discontent. When you choose positive action over negative influence, you increase your credibility.

#5) Ask for help. Know your resources. Your partners across the organization can provide objective insights and advice as you address concerns. Collaboration with the departments of HR & Organizational Effectiveness provide support for you and your teams as you work through challenges. The smartest leaders know when to ask for help.

Challenges that are intangible are difficult to resolve. Knowing the individual strengths of your team members before they ask, “…but what am I?” establishes a foundation to enhance a culture of mutual understanding and trust.

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