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Communication – One Way to Get Unstuck

I overheard a woman in line at the Post Office this morning, griping to her friend about her landlord and the way he maintained her apartment building . It was a long line, and she kept going for almost 10 minutes about what was wrong with everything about where she lived, including at least two of her neighbors and their children. She reminded me of a man who worked with a hospital client I once had – I’ll call him Daryl – who seemed unhappy about his job and his co-workers. He barely spoke to many of them and was sometimes unfriendly.

That’s what I call being “stuck”. When someone is talking about some aspect of their life, whether it’s work, or family, or money – or anything else – if they keep saying the same kind of bad-news things every day, then maybe they’re stuck. We’ve all been there. But what gets us out of it? I learned something about how to do that from a senior manager at the hospital. Her name was Sharon, and she decided to take on Daryl.

Sharon was a hospital psychiatric nurse, but insisted she would not “use psychology” on Daryl. “I just wanted him to stop being such a drag, and to change the way he talked about his job and his colleagues”, she told me. “So one day I sat him down and asked him three questions.” Here they are:

  1. What is your real complaint here? Maybe you can’t find the job you want, or the people you’d like to work with. But under all that complaining, or being angry, what are you really upset about?
  2. Who plays a major role in that matter, someone who is a key part of your unhappy situation?
  3. When will you talk with that person to find a new way of dealing with this, maybe redefining your perspective or even finding a way to move forward into a happier situation.

Sharon said Daryl was willing to talk with her, as long as she promised to keep it confidential. When she asked question #1, he blurted out that when he was hired, he had expected to work in the technical part of the IT department, not the customer service part. “I don’t like working with all the people in the administration to get their problems solved”, Daryl said. “I want to do the work of solving their problem after somebody else has worked with them to get clear on what that problem is.  I want to do the the programming and hardware fixes. People like you should do the people-work.”

Sharon smiled, then gave him question #2. Daryl answered, saying, “The department manager doesn’t seem to recognize that some of us are pure techs, and some of us are good with helping people understand their tech problems. He doesn’t see the difference.”

“Good point”, Sharon told him. “Now question #3?” Daryl wasn’t so quick to answer this one. Sharon explained that when someone doesn’t see things the way you see them, it might be a good idea to have a conversation to discuss what each of you is seeing.

“You’re unhappy, Daryl,” Sharon said. “This is about getting yourself freed up to be yourself, to enjoy where you are. Or to move on. So, question #3: When will you talk to the head of IT about the difference between “pure techs” and tech service people?”

Daryl needed a little more nudging, but he ultimately did have the conversation. Two weeks later, he hadn’t resolved everything – he was still considering getting a new position someplace else – but the IT manager had begun working with HR to talk with IT team leaders about the differences Daryl saw in staff roles. I could see the difference in Daryl, though. He looked more relaxed, and more like a grownup than an angry little kid.

Sharon said she used a rule she learned in college: “When you’re feeling hate, don’t wait – communicate.” Could be a good recipe for getting unstuck.

For example, using a couple of the four productive conversations did the job for Daryl. Initiative conversations are useful to propose an idea, or a goal, or a conversational topic. Understanding conversations are dialogues for comparing perspectives with others and to create new ways of seeing and operating. Daryl suggested the conversation to the IT manager, and they compared ideas. It changed his relationship to his job.

The Perils of a Too-High Hierarchy: All Talk No Listen

I studied an organization that had quite a few unhappy people at “the bottom” of one of its departments. After several meetings and some 1-on-1 interviews, I heard from people who were looking for another job due to favoritism and rudeness by their supervisors. That wasn’t the biggest problem, however.

Seventeen people made up a direct-service group with daily customer contact. “We call ourselves the Service Bottom”, one group member told me. “We are fending for ourselves down here with no connection to the top of the organization. We serve the customers as best we can, but we are definitely not a well-organized service team. We have 3 supervisors who are focused on their own job interests instead of our group performance.”

“That’s not true!” one Executive said (loudly) to me when I told him about that comment. “Our Supervisor Team collaborates to make plans and work with the service staff.”

My observations, however, showed the large distance between the Executive and the Service Bottom that prevented him from seeing what was happening. Seven layers filled that gap: Senior Director, Director, Manager, Assistant Manager, Service Chief, Supervisor, and Team Leader. Each layer was primarily focused on its own concerns, with most attention going upward in the hierarchy, not down to the people below. The Executive was certain that the 3 supervisors heading up the Service Bottom worked in coordination to support their people. But in fact, they were competing for promotion to replace the Service Chief who was leaving at the end of the month.

I gave the 17 people in the Service Bottom group our Group Workplace Assessment, to find out where the problems really were. Here are the top three workplace issues, as reported by group members:

  1. Lack of accountability: Instructions are given with no follow-up to see if they were carried out; there are no measures of good vs. bad performance; and there is no formal system for tracking customer satisfaction or complaints.
  2. Poor quality work: The lack of follow-up by Supervisors meant that they didn’t see the difference between good employees and ineffective ones, so training efforts were not improved to assist service staff.
  3. Incomplete conversations: Service staff did not have the opportunity to have a dialogue with Supervisors regarding what they saw as dysfunctional work patterns in their group. Communication with Supervisors and their staff was “all one-way, from boss down to worker”. Supervisors did not get useful feedback on the challenges staff members were facing every day.

I met with the Supervisors and shared this data with them. One said, “We stopped having regular meetings with staff about 5 months ago. I guess this is why we needed those meetings.” Another said, “It’s good to see the specifics about what is missing. Now I think I know what would solve this.” The third said, “Don’t show this to our bosses, okay?”

I said I wouldn’t , and that we could work together to improve staff effectiveness. Then I showed them the recommendations from the version of the Group Workplace Assessment that I used: the Manager Subscription. We scheduled three meetings with the Service Group members too study the communication changes identified in the recommendations. We’ve had one of those meetings already, and all participants are optimistic about the new communications they are now practicing.

Sometimes a hierarchy is just too high. Executives can see what’s on the horizon, but do not know what is going on in the deep, where staff meet the customers, contractors, and competition. A little diagnostic work and a few communication changes can bridge the gap.

Micromanagement: Story #1

A friend of mine is an accountant for a yoga-fitness studio, and last week he told me his studio owner is a “micro-manager”. I asked him what he meant – here’s what he said:

“Patty is our studio owner who sometimes drops in on a yoga class, and if she thinks a student is doing a pose incorrectly, she will interrupt the class and show people how to do it “the right way”. As you can imagine, this is pretty upsetting to the teachers, and, frankly, I don’t think the people who are paying for the class like it much either.”

Yep, that sounds like micromanaging to me. Some people want to control everything – making sure things are done their way is more important  than whether they embarrass an employee or disrupt their work. Do it my way!

My friend tried telling Patty it wasn’t a good practice to step in that way, but she remained firm saying, “If the teacher made the corrections, I wouldn’t have to do it”. One instructor suggested to Patty that she was welcome to “assist” in leading the class, which would let class members know there would be two instructors and her corrections wouldn’t be seen as an interruption. But Patty wasn’t open to that idea either.

One instructor, Marla, finally solved the problem by having a Performance Conversation. “It took courage,” Marla told me, “but I had to do it”. Here’s what she said to the owner:

“It’s time that you and I clarify our agreement regarding my teaching yoga classes for you. You said you wanted our customers to be happy with the classes and continue to sign up for follow-up courses and special events. So I have been accountable for that, working to tailor my class to fit their needs and interests. I am tracking how it’s going: they keep coming here month after month, and my classes are growing because they sometimes bring their friends or work colleagues. If you want to come to any class I teach, please show me the respect that the students give, and let me work with each person as I see fit, without interruption. If you want to change the conditions of my employment, and have be me accountable for whether each person does the yoga poses the way you want them done, please let me know that and I will see whether I can make those adjustments in my teaching.”

The studio owner was stunned, and slowly turned and left the room. She came back 15 minutes later and said, “Marla, I do appreciate that you took your agreement to serve our customers so seriously, and I’m sorry that my interactions with your yoga students seemed disrespectful to you. I will not do that from now on.”

Not every Performance Conversation produces the result we want. This teacher felt she was putting her job on the line without any assurance she would win. Her micro-manager boss appears to have learned something. If so, hats off to them both!

 

Create Space in an Overwhelmed Life: A Recipe

About a month ago I was talking with a friend at a coffee shop on a Saturday morning. Dana is in her mid-30’s, and she seemed unusually low-energy. She admitted being tired and discouraged about her progress at work and, before long, she noticed she had the same issues at home too. “I can’t get ahead of it,” Dana said.

Naturally, I asked, “Ahead of what?”

“I can’t get ahead of the tasks that keep piling up, and the things I have to do, the people I need to contact, stuff like that. There just isn’t any progress in my job, and when I get home I’m too tired and crabby to get things done there either.”

We talked over coffee, and before I finished my 1st cup, Dana said what she really wanted was to be able to work on her pet project instead of the thousand things that weren’t that important to her. Too much paperwork, too many interruptions, not enough “quality time”. Sound familiar?

Of course, I got talking about closure and completion: What is the unfinished business you’re carrying around with you every day? What do you need to put in the past instead of keeping it in the present?

Halfway through my 2nd cup of coffee, we had made up a homework assignment for Dana to do by the following Friday:

  1. List 3 work tasks and 2 household tasks that you will Stop Doing – including having the conversations with the relevant people to let them know – in a respectful way – that you won’t be doing them anymore.
  2. List 3 email conversations you are going to Close Out – including making it clear to the other person (or group) that you have been able to talk – or work – with them about this subject in the past, and that it is now complete for you and wish them the best going forward.
  3. List 3 relationships that are sort of weighing on you and Clean Up something from the past – maybe something you haven’t asked or said to them – that is still hanging around and making things heavier than you’d like.

It was an interesting conversation. I never used this Stop Doing/Close Out/Clean Up recipe before, but it evolved as we saw the things that she was tired of dealing with or carrying along throughout her days and evenings.

We talked again this past weekend, and Dana reported her results. Here is her bottom line on the project:

  1. I never knew I could Stop Doing things just by having conversations and being a stand for my own time and energy. I’ve got a new habit here! No more Miss Nice, saying Yes to everything someone asks. This has changed my life.
  2. I did Close Out several conversations – more than three, but not all on email. I had one associate who was complaining to me about her marriage and I told her I didn’t want to talk about that with her anymore. This has been really useful in keeping my energy and sanity.
  3. The Clean Up assignment was hardest, because I hadn’t seen how much I was overlooking in my relationships. Now I’m more real with people about what matters to me, and better at listening to what matters to them.

Hats off to Dana for taking her “assignment” seriously. Maybe you can customize your own Stop Doing/Close Out/Clean Up recipe to take a load off yourself – I know I will. When overwhelmed or run down, it’s probably a good idea to lighten up. How: we can take just a few minutes to locate some of the baggage we’re carrying and schedule the conversations necessary to get rid of it.

When You REALLY Know it’s Time to Leave Your Job

There was an article on the internet a while back about how to know when it is time to leave your job. I talked with a young professional recently who told me her friend, Shane, was thinking about quitting. Shane’s problems included:

  1. Two bosses who aren’t as smart or experienced as Shane is;
  2. A boss who could – but doesn’t – do something about the way other groups operate inefficiently and cause delays, extra work, and inefficiencies for Shane;
  3. Bosses in the company who assign work to Shane without being specific about exactly what they want, and without mentioning the other people who have related assignments; and
  4. Bosses who evaluate Shane on work and timelines he cannot control, meaning that Shane’s accomplishments go unrecognized and unappreciated.

Many people would accept those excuses as valid, but an employee who is a chronic complainer about his bosses, and who blames other groups for their “unproductive” ways of operating, could be overlooking one big opportunity. Shane could take responsibility for altering the situation.

I know it might sound unsympathetic, but it really deserves a little investigation to find out what’s going on with those 4 complaints:

  • Does Shane have a habit of being judgmental and critical of others?
  • Does he usually expect higher-ups to smooth out his relationship with other groups instead of doing it himself?
  • Would it help if he asked for more specifics when he is given an assignment, and if he asked to know who else was assigned related tasks?
  • Maybe if Shane documented his tasks-and-times he would be able to make a case for his accomplishments and also make the inefficiencies created by other groups more visible to the boss. But without being able to show specific facts, he just sounds like a whiner.

Bottom line: You know you really need to find a new job when you have genuinely practiced having more effective conversations – and when you’re sure that nothing more will make the situation any better. Learning to make good requests (performance conversations) and give good feedback to others about your work realities (closure conversations) will do more to improve the quality of your work life than blaming or complaining. Don’t give up until you’re sure you’ve done your best to communicate effectively.

Consider a visit to https://usingthefourconversations.com/personal-communication-assessment/) – this personal communication assessment tool lets you see which conversations you’re already good at, and which you could practice improving. It’s quick, and better than another day of unhappiness at work.

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.

Toxic Talk Impacts Workplace Productivity

Toxic Talk impacts workplace productivity. Complaining, blaming and gossiping damage relationships and impact productivity. Jeffrey offers ways to reduce its occurrence in your organization and convert it into a positive action.

 

A Tip for Ending Complaints

Have you ever wanted to reduce, if not end, unproductive complaints?  One way to do that is to implement a policy that people only complain to those who can do something about the complaint.

Complaints are prevalent in organizations.  People complain about the weather, about their work, about their coworkers, and about their boss(es).  Although some complaints may seem innocuous, complaining contributes to a culture of negativism, lowers morale and satisfaction, gets people upset or angry, and adds to resignation and cynicism.  Complaints act like depressants, particularly when they are expressed to people who really can’t do anything about them.

But some complaints can be productive if they are directed to the right people.  Properly directed complaints can improve processes, products, and customer service.  They can lead to and support change and be a source of innovation.

If you want to increase the number of productive complaints (and reduce the number of unproductive ones), create a policy where you ask people to direct their complaints to someone who can do something about it.  If you are the someone, then listen up.  However, if you aren’t, then let them know immediately they have the wrong person and then either direct them to the right person or ask them to find out who the right person is.  This will reduce the number of complaints you listen to and train people to being accountable for their complaints.