Q: One of my team members takes it personally when clients disagree with him; he even is offended if other colleagues try to have a dialogue about opinions, and thinks that they don't like him. How can I help him see that everything isn't personal?
A: Getting the message through is worth the effort if you can communicate in a way he'll hear.
First of all, be clear in your own mind that you're not personally responsible for his responses in this situation. While it is your role as a leader to mentor, don't become involved at a dysfunctional level. At the same time, ensure that the overall work environment is positive and that the work gets done effectively.
Take a look at his behavior overall; does he generally get along well with others and catch on to social cues? If not, he may have some emotional intelligence shortfalls that cause him to have trouble making an accurate interpretation of disagreements. It sounds like the basic issue is that he sees in black and white: If I am not right, then you're the enemy (exaggerated, but not by much).
Also consider whether it's having a material impact. Are other people bothered? Is progress on projects impeded? If so, you have a more urgent call to action. If not, it's more of a matter of doing right by your team members by helping him become more effective.
So, what can you do? As in all human interactions, the key will be communication. Set up time to talk with him, focusing on a recent case when this behavior has shown up. Ask him to walk you through the experience, paying attention to the tone of the exchange (as he reports it) and his reaction. Your goal will be to get him to see alternative explanations, and there are some coaching tools that can help you along the way.
For example, he might say something like, "She told me that my approach wouldn't work; I know she doesn't like working with me." Try asking, "what other experiences might explain her reservations?" or "what other explanation might there be for her reaction?" Also, push him to notice times when he gets along fine with the person as evidence that it's not about personal regard for him.
This may require multiple conversations to help him adapt his point of view. You might also provide examples of debates where the purpose is to explore ideas through mutual challenge so that he can see that disagreement doesn't mean attack. Point out examples at work where dialogue and diverse viewpoints have led to tangibly better outcomes.
Again, remember that he's going to have to be willing to grow.
If he's unable to move beyond this perception and it's damaging working relationships or interfering with getting good outcomes, he may have to be put on notice that it's affecting his job performance.
Because let's face it, not everyone at work will always like him. And even if they do, they won't always agree with him. He needs to understand that it doesn't matter; the expectation is to be civil and respectful, including when disagreeing on a business topic.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at email@example.com.