Recently, I chaperoned a large group trip for a bunch of teenagers—over 300 of them.
I had to keep track of about 35 of them myself, and punctuality was the most pressing issue of the trip. If any one person was late for the bus or the meeting point, it held up all 300.
While in Paris, which is a big city and intimidating to small-town teenagers on their first trip abroad, a group of five students were late. I scolded them. No yelling, but there was firmness in my voice for sure. I reminded them that being late was a big deal on this trip so we couldn’t have this happen again.
Now, I spent 19 years as a teacher, and have been on dozens of trips with thousands of students, usually my own, so this kind of exchange was fairly common. But these students didn’t know me, and I was surprised when I overheard their reaction later:
“Crap, now he hates us.”
That’s pretty strong. It didn’t make sense logically, and it was quite far from the truth. In fact, my own kid was in that group. Did I dislike my own daughter?
This exchange happened early in trip, and something I learned about the students who now thought I hated them was that they had a previous experience with a negative leader. This leader treated them with disdain on multiple occasians, so they were conditioned to interpret any direct negative feedback as dislike.
After this nugget of information, I realized that I had to change my approach with them until we know each other better. We had a decent relationship, but they were so scarred by their earlier experience with a negative leader, that a decent relationship wasn’t enough. We needed a lot of normal exchanges to convince them that the feedback on tardiness wasn’t personal.
I’ll give you another example.
I was working with a team once where one new hire had a very hard time integrating into the team. In a one-on-one conversation with her during a break, she confessed that she was stressed and unduly nervous around her new boss. “He reminds me of my father,” she told me. “And my father was very unkind. I don’t know if I can get past that.” She tried, but she eventually left. What if her new boss had been more aware of this earlier?
When you’re taken aback by a strangely defensive reaction, own your approach, but also acknowledge that it might not be about you. They may have had an earlier scarring experience, and you may need to work harder at solidifying trust.