Tip #1 on Being Professional – Courtesy of the Gossip Trio

Three people – two women and one man – were talking at a lunch table, and one of them waved me over. Even though I was an “outside consultant”, they updated me on their discussion: Althea, a senior manager, had done yet another “really stupid thing”. All three were giddy with delight over the fact that she had to deal with the fallout.

Althea had sent in a report compiled by the 5 managers who reported to her, and had not done a good job of editing it. There were typos, part of one contributor’s submission was left out, and her own recommendation directly contradicted what two of her managers had advised. The VP she sent it to called her in and asked her to revise it and submit a more professional version by Wednesday at 5:00 PM. Hee hee – confirmation that Althea doesn’t deserve to be a senior manager.

This trio said more than I needed to know, and when they began recalling other “idiot mistakes” she had made in the past, I excused myself. I learned the hard way that gossip conversations almost always – sooner or later – have some negative repercussions for the participants. I have known people who lost their jobs because their role in passing along a rumor was discovered. I have also known people who missed out on promotions because they shared negative information about a co-worker with someone they thought would keep it a secret.

The rule is this: If you share gossip about Andrew with your best friend Emily, you have also announced – to Emily – that you are willing to bad-mouth others. Think about it: when someone tells you something negative about another person, they going behind that person’s back to criticize them. Don’t you know full well that they are likely to do this to you as well? Gossip breeds mistrust.

I talked later with the “ringleader” of the Gossip Trio. She was a fairly high-level person herself, and we talked about what the consequences would be if the VP learned about their gossip-fest, and that they were taking pleasure in hoping that Althea’s mistake would cost her the VP’s respect. This “ringleader” realized it would not look good, nor help her own advancement, to be seen in that light. She resolved to pull herself out of gossip and backbiting conversations in the future. She went further, and told her two companions that it was time to give up saying negative things about Althea altogether – to each other or to anyone else.

Gossip is one of three types of “unproductive conversations”, but it’s worse than just being unproductive. It’s also destructive. It makes another person look bad, or foolish, or incompetent. At the same time, it makes the person who shares the gossip look unprofessional and immature.

As a mentor of mine once said, “Gossip is nasty – and it is SO seventh grade!” So nobody who does it in a workplace situation should expect to be seen as a respectable adult, right?

Un-Productive Communication – Let’s Ditch it for Now

Complaining. Blaming. Gossip. Those conversations are usually unproductive. The word “productive” comes from the ideas of “leading and moving forward”. In that sense, being productive is a good thing.

Unproductive conversations are everywhere – they aren’t wrong, but they don’t produce much value.

  • Complaining could be productive if you are committed to following through to find a resolution. But if you are complaining just because you’re in a bad mood, you’re putting negativity on a loudspeaker.
  • Blaming others for errors or failures might give you some momentary satisfaction. It might even get you out of trouble. But it still can’t be considered productive communication because it creates ill will and avoids responsibility. Neither of those outcomes will advance anything worthwhile.
  • Gossip, revealing personal information or passing along rumors or negative opinions of others, is a popular pastime in the Age of Connectivity. But it’s not productive in the sense of advancing anything and it can cause serious damage, both to the speaker’s reputation and to other people.

So it is unfortunate that we are in the silly season of “politics” – original meaning: “civil government” – has become anything but civil. Five more months to go.

My thought is that our best protection from uncivil, unproductive conversations is not to participate in them. Any dialogue engaging those 3 types of conversation will likely lead to making something – or someone – wrong, or bad, or otherwise disagreeable.

Now I’m developing some skills in shifting toxic talk to other topics – such as the two conferences I’ve been to in the past month (both terrific!), the executive retreats I’m leading this summer (hey, I thought I was retired!), even the weather (at least we can agree it’s getting hot now).

I invite you to join me in staying out of the deep weeds of unproductive conversations.

End of sermon.

Is Anyone Studying How to Listen?

A friend sent me an article (Challenger Story) about a failed communication had a dire outcome. She knew I had worked with NASA’s Space Station team, but probably not that I was working with the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle exploded. I remember that day.

The article was about the contractor’s team of engineers and scientists responsible for space shuttle motors, and the teleconference they held with NASA the evening before the Challenger launch. They told NASA managers that the temperature the next day would be too cold to ensure that a key part would function properly, and recommended delaying the launch until the weather warmed up. NASA did not accept the recommendation, saying they would “pass this on in an advisory capacity”, went ahead with the launch, and the shuttle exploded just over 1 minute later.

“It was an amazingly complex decision,” the article reports, which led to the documents describing that decision being donated to Chapman University by the engineer – Allan McDonald – who had refused to sign the required “launch recommendation report”. His boss signed it instead, allowing NASA to go ahead with the launch on schedule. Mr. McDonald was demoted.

Those documents are now part of a “leadership studies program” at the university. The chairman of that program says the lessons of the Challenger are clear: individuals must speak the truth, no matter the consequences, and bosses must also encourage employees to do so.

Mr. McDonald was indeed brave to speak the truth despite consequences. The lessons of the Challenger tragedy, however, must go beyond encouraging employees to speak up and bosses to encourage them to do so. Communication has two sides: speaking and listening. Just because the boss says we can speak up does not mean she is actually listening. When the contractor says the O-rings could fail, their team recommends launch delay, and a team member refuses to sign the go-ahead, they are speaking loudly and clearly. But the NASA managers were listening to something else: perhaps the difficulties of altering the launch criteria one day before launch?

Let’s give attention to how we listen, including what we listen to and what we ignore. How can we learn to give quality attention to both the big picture and the vital details, or grasp the sometimes subtle differences between what is necessary, what is desirable, and what is convenient?  The sad day of the Challenger (and the sad months of the BP oil spill and the Flint water supply) deserve a greater legacy than giving Whistle-blowers the right to speak. We need better ways to have them be heard.

Question: Could a “leadership studies program” include an inquiry into the nature of effective listening?

Do You Have to Go to That Meeting?

A recent article in the Washington Post shared Tom Fox’s assessment of the meetings he attended over the course of one month. He didn’t report the score on his rating system for meetings he wanted to avoid in the future (Red), those that were a fairly good use of time (Yellow), and the ones that produced some valuable outcome for himself and his team (Green). But he did dig deeper into why some meetings are a problem. For each of those “Red” meetings, he asked 3 questions:

  1. Who requested those meetings – me, or somebody else?
  2. What could I have done to make those meetings more productive?
  3. How important was my participation in those meetings?

The result? He now has some new policies regarding meetings:

  1. Respond to meeting invitations (requests) by:
    1. Politely bowing out of meetings that appear likely to be an unproductive use of time;
    2. Asking for an email sharing of information instead of a meeting, to allow people to review it at a time that fits their own schedule; or
    3. Asking for clarification of the meeting purpose, timeline, or invitation list to determine the value for you.
  2. And, to initiate your own meetings, send out a meeting agenda with a timeline, organized to help achieve the meeting objective. This also helps during the meeting, to keep people from drifting into other subjects or monopolizing the discussion.

These are good examples of “productive conversations”:

  • Performance conversations use requests and promises to create agreements for action, and
  • Initiative conversations that state What, When, and Why you are proposing something, in this case, a meeting.

It’s a great way to be more responsible for your time at work.  Extra bonus: these tips might even reduce a recurring non-productive conversation in your life: complaining about meetings that are too long, badly managed, or a waste of your time. Now you have some ways to say No when you need to. You can see Tom’s article at How to Get Out of Meetings.

Crabby Consultant Observation #423

Here’s another survey result. This one tied for 5th place on the list of Biggest People-Problems at Work: “Dealing with difficult personalities and behaviors.” Comments went on to describe examples such as “unfriendly people”, “passive-aggressive people”, and “people playing power games”. One person explained, “Nobody wants to work with some people because they don’t like their behavior or personality. “

Seriously? Kind of makes you wonder what people are saying about you when you’re not there, doesn’t it? Actually, our work life does not need to put personality first, or even second. Work is about producing results: solving problems to produce results, communicating to produce results, and yes, working with others to produce results.

So when somebody brings their personality to work, maybe we could just let them be however they’re being?  Maybe we could have a conversation that will help put our attention on the results we want to produce out of our interaction?

Oh, wait. I forgot there are people who want to produce a result by fixing (or dissing) the person, instead of a result for their work responsibilities. So, I have a message for those of you who want people to be some other way than the way they are: get over yourself. Let people be, and get back to work. Your company, agency or organization wants something from you. They even pay you to produce it – products, services, or communications they want you to create, assemble, or deliver to internal or external customers.

Sorry, that’s just me being crabby about people-fixers. I promise I’ll offer some suggestions for reducing people-annoyances soon. Meantime, I’m going to get my personality checked so I can be a better person by the time I write the next blog post. Thank you for listening.

PS – If you haven’t checked out the Personal Communication “diagnostic”, take a couple minutes and you’ll get to see your communication profile. It’s useful to find out which conversations you’re already brilliant with, and which ones need a little work. http://50f.70c.myftpupload.com/personal-communication-assessment/ 

What to Do About those “Lazy” People

A recent survey of workplace challenges listed one old favorite: Dealing with the “lazy people” in the workplace. These are the people who have clear assignments and do them fairly well, but never step outside their narrow boundaries.

Why this hasn’t been solved is a mystery to me, as it’s really pretty easy. There are 2 players here.

  1. First we have Miss Go-Getter, the person who sees other people working (or not working) and wonders why they never seem to take charge of anything.
  2. Then we have Miss Normal, the person who only does what she’s told and doesn’t speak up or raise her hand to take charge of anything.

Miss Go-Getter believes she is working harder and doing more than Miss Normal. She’s right about that, and she likes it that way – Go-Getters are organized to set goals, accomplish things, and be productive. She likes “owning” her work, and sometimes has difficulty delegating to others. Like the Little Red Hen, Miss Go-Getter likes to do it herself, get it right, and hope others follow her lead.

Miss Normal is not so bold, and maybe even a little unsure of her ability to do some tasks. So she watches others to learn the right steps, hesitates about speaking up, and doesn’t go beyond her assignments. She doesn’t think she’s lazy, just a little shy and uncertain but competent enough for the job.

Miss Go-Getter complains (to everyone), “Why does the boss let Miss N. get away with not doing much of anything around here. She has to be told what to do, then get micro-managed to do it. It’s like she’s only half an employee!”

Get over yourself, Miss Go-Getter. Here are three easy solutions:

  1. Proposal to the Boss: “I would like to mentor Miss N. to help her learn how to connect her work to the Service Department, and maybe have more confidence in herself and her ideas. Is that something you would consider?”
  2. Request to Miss N.: “Would you be willing to let me coach you to learn all the details about how this procedure works in every situation? It’s complex and involves several other departments. I have some experience with it that I’d be willing to pass along to you. I could start showing you the ropes next week – probably 2 hours a week for the rest of this month would do it. Does that sound like a good idea to you?
  3. Stop gossiping and complaining to other people in the workplace about Miss N. and practice being more professional and compassionate. Not everyone has your ambition and metabolism.

Pick one. Or two. Or all three. Thanks.

Note from Crabby Consultant

A colleague called, sounding ½ angry and ½ upset and said he thought I was supposed to attend a professional meeting last week. No, I told him, I’ve got a book to write and will not be attending those anymore. He growled, “I thought you were going to support us until you retired.”

I am retired from consulting, I explained gently (i.e., suppressing my indignation). And I never promised that I would go to every meeting forever. Your expectation is not my promise. OK, I didn’t say that last thing, but I was thinking it. Sheesh.

Then I realized I never had a Closure Conversation with that group to let them know I’m making some changes in my life and career. If I’d done that, it would help them understand my departure and accommodate any difference I made to their gatherings. And they would know they can be in touch with me in other ways if they want to do that.

My bad. I’ll go to their next meeting and let them know I’m in transition and no longer consulting.

And, Note To Self: When I’m crabby, it’s probably because I left out a productive conversation somewhere recently.

Busy is a Conversation

Meredith Fineman titled her article, written in September 2013, “Please Stop Complaining About How Busy You Are”.  I looked it up recently, after listening to a colleague go on – and on – about how many appointments he had, how many deadlines, and how many staff had been cut in his organization.  He told me he was “like an octopus, with all 8 arms working on something all the time.”  Poor guy, I wanted to throw him a few shrimps and crabs for sympathy.

Not really. As Meredith says, “So much of this is about out-doing each other. To say that “I’m busier than you are” means I’m more important, or that my time is more valuable, or that I am “winning” at some never-finished rat race to Inbox Zero.”

I looked that up. Inbox Zero is a “rigorous approach to email management that aims at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times”. It was developed by Merlin Mann, who says that time and attention are both limited, and our productivity suffers when we confuse our inbox with a “to do” list.

Which reminds me – I know a group of people in one organization whose way of saying “I’m busier than you are” is to tell people how many emails they have in their inbox. They all have thousands of them – and they brag about it!

Being busy is a popular conversation, but it’s a little like bragging about having bad work habits. I know four conversations could be deployed to turn that around.

  • Initiative: Tell people you’re going to upgrade your scheduling system in 2 ways. (1) You will maintain a Do-Due List of what needs to get done and delivered, including due dates; and (2) You will take 60 minutes every Friday afternoon to schedule the tasks you intend to accomplish in the following week.
  • Understanding: Ask co-workers for ideas on how to implement this. Talk about what their concerns are, and make minor adjustments to your plan as needed. Beware of getting pulled into the “It Can’t Be Done” conversation: this isn’t about doing more work, it’s about giving yourself the satisfaction of completing some tasks while at the same time giving up the boring “too busy” conversations at work.
  • Performance: Get clear requests from people who want something from you – what do they want, when do they want it, and why does it matter? Then, if it doesn’t fit into your schedule, make a counteroffer instead of a promise. “I can only do that if I drop this other thing off my schedule. Which do you think is more important?”
  • Closure: Tell people some of the most important things you have on your Do/Due List, when they’re due, and why they matter – to you. Thank them for their support in your being more effective with your time and tasks. Apologize for any inconvenience this change will be for them.

Then give up the “I’m busy” conversation. You’ll come to grips with the fact that there will always be more things that could be done than there will be time to do them. That’s life. And you’re responsible for your schedule and your productivity. You have to choose and plan. The good news is that it’s fun to accomplish things, even small ones. See if you can schedule and complete an accomplishment or two every day!

My Sloppy Request was Not Very Productive

Here’s a failure in what I thought was a productive conversation. I’m thinking I’ll have to train everyone I interact with about the Four Conversations. Starting with myself.

I told a person from the (radioactive) Waste Management Symposia – an annual conference where I participate and speak – that I was going to Saskatchewan to talk about radioactive waste disposal. This guy, Jason, has been in my rad-waste sessions on productive communication, so I thought we were at least sort of on the same wave-length. He emailed me back.

Jason: “Here are some fact sheets for the public on radiation cleanup issues. I’m going to update them soon”. He included them in an attachment.

Me: “Thanks very much, Jason!  I will be going to Saskatchewan the last week in May, so if you have new info I’ll keep an eye open for it.”

Jason: “Feel free to bug me if you haven’t seen anything before you go.”

Me: “OK, consider yourself bugged. I’d like an update by Friday May 8th at the latest. You know I’m the queen of productive conversation (ref. “The Four Conversations”), right? Thanks for your support on this.”

Jason: “If you’re relying on my memory, you are likely to be disappointed. So if you don’t hear from me, you may want to email me.”

Actually, I was relying on his ability to schedule a commitment, not on his memory. I had a little shot of indignation – do people not have a calendar and a pencil handy? – but then I realized we were playing tag, as in “Tag, You’re It”. Neither of us wanted to take responsibility for the follow-through.

I let it drop, as I didn’t really need an update and had plenty of other resources. He must have kept that commitment somewhere in his calendar or in-box though, because he just sent the updated fact sheets yesterday.

The conversation probably should get no more than a “C+” for productivity, because those last 3 emails weren’t necessary. I could have stopped after “Thanks very much, Jason!” and would have gotten the same result. Lesson learned.

Is It A Committed Complaint?

People complain about many things – the weather, their bosses, the government, etc. Some of these complaints – what we call “committed complaints” – they want to resolve. They want to find a way to get the complaint handled, fixed, and eliminated so things will improve. For example, every time an associate of mine opened a spreadsheet on her computer, her computer would freeze and she would have to shut it off and restart it. Frustrated, she called the IT unit, complained to them about the problem, and they fixed it.

Most complaints, however, are what we call “uncommitted complaints”. The person expressing the complaint has no commitment to resolving the complaint, they have a different agenda – getting agreement and empathy for bad or wrong the thing they are complaining about is. I had a close friend who was a member of a country club who always complained about the greens committee. The basis of his complaint was that the greens committee made unnecessary changes to the golf course that he, and the other members had to pay for in addition to their normal fees. When asked to make his concerns known to committee members, to the pro, or to the Board of Directors, he refused saying “It won’t make any difference, they don’t listen.”

When someone complains about things to people who can’t do anything about the complaint, or the person with the complaint refuses to take actions that could lead to it’s resolution, then they are engaged in an uncommitted complaint. My associate with the computer problem took her complaint to someone who could resolve it, my golfing friend did not. If you have a complaint, is it a committed complaint? If not, give your colleagues a break and keep it to yourself.