Signals of discomfort are often subtle

When Grace wants to go on a walk, you know it. She’s exuberant, enthusiastically jumping up and down, energetically tugging at the socks in your hands, which actually delays the walk because it takes so long to get your shoes on! But here she is, mellow and detached, hanging out in her bed, eyes averted, as to avoid any chance I’d ask her to move. The signals we give off always feel more obvious to the one giving them than to those receiving them.

The walks are off. Grace won’t walk down the street again.

Last week she agreed to go four straight days. On Thursday, I could tell the walk had become a chore. She was trying to do what she thought she should do, but I could tell that it’s wasn’t fun for her. In fact, she was nervous, reluctant about every step she took and couldn’t wait to get back home. On Friday, I attempted to get her out, but when she turned into the yard to signal me, I listened. She did not want to go and I saw nothing good coming out of forcing her.

Have you ever been in the position of doing something that you did not want to do? What signs or signals did you try to give to others about your discomfort?

As a manager, try to think about signals that your direct reports have tried to give you about their discomfort in a task. Did you pick up on it? Are you alert for those signs and signals?

I have recently been working with a management team of three capable, talented individuals. Two are co-owners of a business and the third is the executive in charge of day-to-day operations. The co-owners have similar leadership styles, bringing their assertive, fast-charging, directive approach to every situation. The executive leading the staff of about 20 people leads with a consensus-building style, allowing the managers more autonomy and less direct oversight.

It’s fair to say that in some situations, these styles clash head-on. The co-owners hear of a situation and make a decision based on their vast expertise in the field, knowledge of the group, and their desires. They “lay down the law” and insist that the executive take a particular stance on an issue. The forceful way in which the message is delivered leaves the executive feeling there are no options, but in fact, the co-owners do want to hear if there are other factors they have not considered. Rather than speak up, he tries to move it forward out of respect for the co-owners wishes. The staff can see and feel the confusion and it leaves doubt in their minds about what to do.

We’ve been working through this as a team; it will require everyone to make adjustments. The co-owners will need to watch for signs that something is uncomfortable for the executive, and open up the conversation. In cases where the executive brings his own ideas and thoughts to the topic, one of two things has happened: either the decision is altered and improved based on his input or he gains an understanding of why the decision is made and agrees to it. Both leave him in a better position to move forward.

This executive also needs to be clear in delivering his “signals” of discomfort. I wish Grace could talk to me and tell me explicitly that she doesn’t (or does) want to go on a walk. But she can’t and I forced to be observant of other signs she gives me. With people, we have the advantage of telling someone what we’re thinking, but as we can all attest, just because we can doesn’t mean we will. It’s difficult to broach conflict, especially when you are working with someone who has a completely different approach. You may be the type of person who faces any situation head-on and can’t imagine why someone won’t speak up, so you’re less likely to see subtle signs (you’re just expecting the other person to speak). Or perhaps you are the person hesitant to speak up and feel you should do what you’re told. In either case, if the two parties aren’t on the same page, it will create organizational turmoil.

One of the most common signs of discomfort is inaction. When a task isn’t moving forward, a manager will often jump to the conclusion that the person is apathetic or has poor time management skills. It may be neither. It may be because they don’t feel right about the task.

Can you think of other signs? What did they look like? Did you address them?

When managing, be mindful of the signs you see from those around you. Let them guide you to a conversation to find out more about what they mean. It’s a walk worth taking.



Smart Tips Served Straight to Your Inbox

Want to build healthy, productive workplace relationships??? Join our community of Graceful Leaders/Managers and get access to tips, insights, and resources right in your inbox.

BONUS: Sign up now and receive a FREE animal-inspired gift: “3 Management Tips from Dog!"

Share with a friend using one of the buttons below. Then sign up so you can receive stories, tips, and guidance to help you develop healthy workplace relationships in your organization!


  1. zenmaiden on June 24, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    ….”can’t imagine why someone won’t speak up, so you’re less likely to see subtle signs (you’re just expecting the other person to speak).” Thats me for sure. The impression I get with another party who says nothing is that they agree. No boss wants to make a person uncomfortable, but it CAN be hard to tell, when a subordinant is eager to please and not forthright with opinions even though they are encouraged and welcomed. Finding ways to meet in the middle is an ongoing challenge. The first part is to recognize that the challenge exists.

    • Robin on June 25, 2012 at 11:10 am

      Great point, Sara. It is true that managers will often expect that if someone disagrees, that they won’t say anything. I often hear from managers who feel that adults should feel comfortable speaking up, that they don’t want to feel like they are baby-sitting the other person. But it’s not always that simple, is it? Thanks for sharing your input — it’s helpful to identify the challenges, as you said!

Leave a Comment