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Communicate – Don’t Accumulate

I know a guy – I’ll call him Russ – who is especially proud of the regard people have for him. He is pretty sure that he is admired, and that whoever spends time with him finds it a valuable and worthwhile experience. That is pretty much true, from my observation. People gravitate to him and he welcomes their company.

One oddity though, shows up when any of those people fail to keep the promises they have made to him – even about something as simple as refunding him for a purchase he made for them, or bringing him the book they promised to leave on his desk. The oddity is that he is unwilling to call them on it. He won’t dial their number or send an email to say, “Hey, did you send me a check for that seminar I paid for you to attend?”, or, “I thought you were going to bring me that book. When will you bring it over?”

Even when he sees them in the cafeteria or a coffee shop, he doesn’t mention it to them. Russ insists that, “It’s not worth it. What’s a couple of bucks?”

I asked him, “Don’t you get a little reminder in your brain when you see somebody who told you that they were going to do something, and they didn’t do it? How do you deal with that little nudge without mentioning that bit of unfinished business and resolving it with them?”

Russ laughed. “It’s not worth getting into it or mentioning their failure to come through. Maybe they just made a mistake. I just blow it off.” Maybe Russ would rather keep the relationship free of anything that could disturb their positive view of him. Or maybe he really thinks he can “blow it off”.

I disagree. Those little uncommunicated things are incomplete – and they accumulate over time, like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. They will be there forever in that relationship, little negative nags.

Russ is a shop owner, too, who is often is unwilling to tell his staff what he really thinks about their performance. I tried talking with him about using “closure conversations” to give useful feedback so they could improve. “No way, he said. They would only get upset, defend themselves, and offer explanations. I haven’t got time for that.”

Coincidentally, I just received a book in the mail titled, “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)”. The subtitle is, “Why we Fear it, How to Fix it”. The author, M. Tamra Chandler, looks at the negative ideas around feedback and creates a fresh viewpoint, allowing us to reconsider feedback as providing value and being beneficial and supportive. Now I can see it as a way of getting those little negative nags out of other people’s heads as well as my own.

I can’t say how living with undelivered communications is for Russ – he doesn’t seem to mind carrying those barnacles. Maybe they don’t slow him down or crop up in his head as brain-litter, or worse. They do for me. Brain litter is a distraction that takes me away from what I’m doing, thinking or creating, and gives me a flash of annoyance to realize that it’s still there. I started, some years ago, using that flash of annoyance as a reminder to close out that incomplete item, but I still need the reminder sometimes. Those barnacles bother me, and as much as I wish they would go away by themselves, they do not.

I’m going to send a copy of “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)” to that manager.

Organization Hierarchy & the Difficulty of Difficult People

In the last several posts, I have reported on an interesting phenomenon I’ve seen in every client workplace I have ever consulted. People at different levels in any organization see very different problems – and very different opportunities. Going back to the 6-part case study (July 31, 2019) that used the Group Assessment survey to identify key workplace issues, Managers see one set of issues but are blind to quite a few things that are creating barriers for Employees and their effectiveness.

My favorite is the problem of “Difficult People” in the workplace. Everybody sees a different side of the problem and can offer different reasons for why it happens. Here are 3 types of Difficult People, each with a note on who sees these people most accurately:

  1. People who don’t do their work, don’t use the processes or technologies that are available, and/or have to be either motivated or managed closely by somebody. Best seen by Employees, who have to pick up the slack or take them by the hand and show them how and why to do the job.
  2. People who are simply crabby or unpleasant at work, such as complainers or people who think they are better/smarter than everyone else. Best seen by Employees, who will be affected every day by those negative attitudes on display in the workplace.
  3. People who stir up problems by gossiping or blaming others. Best seen by Employees, who will be distracted by the loss of trust within their work group and the futility of correcting it. A peer stepping in to correct this will probably just aggravate the situation.

Why don’t Managers see these problems? They do, but they usually prefer to keep their distance from them. Why step into a “people problem”? That is the world of psychology and sociology, and they have more worthwhile work to do. Many also know they lack the expertise to “fix” a Difficult Person. Managers put up with these people, and even if they see it, they don’t rank it high on their list of workplace problems. As one Manager said, “That guy isn’t a very smart worker, and he isn’t real friendly, either. Maybe he needs coaching, but that’s not my job – I’m a manager and have a lot of responsibilities. He is not one of them.”

For the most part, Employees will not report these problems. Why not? Because that could make them seem like a complainer or a gossip, and they don’t want to be the one giving a Manager another problem to solve. And, in many cases, an Employee who addresses the problem by speaking directly to someone who is “difficult” will likely just aggravate the situation.

The only thing we have found to solve the problem is a Manager who is willing to practice using the four productive conversations with each individual(s) who is causing one (or more) of the 3 problems identified above. Most important is the “Closure Conversation”, which includes being specific about the behaviors that are causing problems, and acknowledging one or more things that are positive about the person’s behaviors or results (several videos are available here on Closure Conversations). But all four productive conversations are needed, perhaps with some follow-up to validate the importance of the message and any progress observed.

So, those Difficult People problems can be resolved – relatively easily – but it also requires what may be a new kind of communication between Managers and Employees to find out what the problem really is. The Group Workplace Assessment points out the problems that Employees see, but doesn’t give names to those Difficult People, nor does it give specifics about when, where, and how the problem shows up. When a Manager is serious about improving performance, morale, and teamwork on the job, a few communication upgrades will improve the work environment. Admittedly, dealing with Difficult People can be difficult – and delicate. But the payoff is worth the investment.

 

It’s Valentines Day – But What do You Do When You Hate Someone at Work?

A good friend – let’s call her Katy – shared with a group of us the other evening that there’s a woman she works with who is “awful”. She didn’t go into details, but said she was unwilling to even have a conversation with “Cruella” to clean up the bad vibes. And Katy said, “There’s a lot of other people at work who agree with me about her.” Uh oh.

So not only does she dislike this lady, but she is participating in gossip about her, gathering evidence about what a horrid person she is. I don’t know whether Cruella is incompetent, or wacko, or just plain mean, but I do know there is a cycle of misery in that workplace: Katy and the haters aren’t happy, and Cruella can’t be too pleased either. What can turn this cycle around?

Some of us suggested using one of the 4 ingredients in a Closure Conversation, i.e., one of the “4 A’s”:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter;
  • Appreciate them for what they have contributed;
  • Apologize for any mistakes or misunderstandings; and/or
  • Amend any broken agreements.

Katy could probably have used any one of these “A’s”, but I didn’t think she would. She seemed pretty dug into her position that this was a hopelessly unpleasant situation. In fact, she was hoping Cruella would lose her job soon. And she was working on a personal project to “take back her power”, and to get healthier (she had a nasty cough that night). So there.

Then a note landed in my email. It was addressed to everyone who was in the discussion the other night:

All,

Today I took some ground in my “taking back my power” project. I acknowledged the co-worker I told you about for the success of the project she has been managing. Yes, I did go talk to her! I pointed out several specific accomplishments of the project – the number of people reached, the materials and services provided to our community, and the huge impact we are having by delivering on the promises of our mission.

She said, “I couldn’t have done it without my team.” But I wouldn’t let her deflect the acknowledgment.  I said, “Yes, and you are the one who managed it.”

She was very guarded when I first approached her, as one would expect, but she was genuinely grateful for the acknowledgement. She said thank you. I will keep looking for other ways to acknowledge her.

Katy

Wow! That’s better than a Valentine, right? I’m betting this will change the atmosphere at work – for Katy, the other gossipers, and, especially, for Cruella. Plus, it probably also improved Katy’s health – is that cough is gone yet?

Gossip is a killer (see the 1/23/2017 blogpost) and damages workplace integrity along with reputations (everybody’s). It was great to see such a perfect example of someone who was swept up in a stab-fest take charge of the cleanup and rehabilitation of those involved. I predict good things here.

Last word from Katy: “Thank you for your much needed “gentle” nudge – aka – kick in the butt.” Last word from me: “That’s what friends are for.”

Getting Clear about “Difficult People” – Don’t Make it Personal

There is a LinkedIn post about “Difficult People”, which was really about difficult relationships – and how to deal with them ever so gently. Yipes! My clients had very specific examples of what they mean by “difficult people”, and weren’t interested in being gentle! The gentle example suggested saying, ‘I don’t like your approach’, ‘Your style doesn’t fit here’, or ‘I’m aware that we seem a bit stuck. What are you noticing?’. Soft stuff.

My notes from clients say that difficult people are the people who:

  1. Must be continually reminded or “micromanaged” to get their work properly or on time;
  2. Are argumentative, unfriendly, or otherwise disagreeable, causing trouble at work;
  3. Resist using new methods and procedures in their work;
  4. Gossip and make others look bad, or blame others for their problems, and being unpleasant to work with;
  5. Are chronic complainers, taking up the time, attention, and energy of others;
  6. Do only the minimum work necessary, or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done; or
  7. Expect someone else to motivate them or tell them what to do, which slows things down and makes it harder to get work done.

So there’s no need to be touchy-feely about it. Maybe what’s needed is a conversation about results – meeting deadlines, behaving respectfully, and producing quality work

I heard one manager tell a meeting of his entire staff, “Some of us, perhaps without knowing it, are not operating as part of a team. Sometimes we aren’t always producing what others need from us, or we’re waiting to be told what to do, or being unpleasant to others. I think we can create a better atmosphere here.”

He went on to lead a discussion on the following 3 topics:

  • How can we be more supportive of each other?
  • How can we do our work well, while also being aware of how our work fits in with what others need to reach our goals?
  • What does it mean to be cordial and positive at work?

He wrote people’s answers on a big whiteboard, then asked, “What will make these ideas work?”, writing down their solution ideas. He closed the session by asking them, “Are you – each one of you – willing to make an agreement with me that you will put at least one of these ideas into practice, starting today?”

As his staff members studied the list, hands started going up. Within 2-3 minutes, every hand in the room was in the air. He told them this would be included in their monthly review meetings, to see if their workplace “atmosphere” was improving or needed more work. He transcribed his lists of their best answers to his topic discussion questions and implementation ideas , and posted them – framed – in the rest rooms. They followed up at meetings, but soon didn’t need to do that anymore. The “atmosphere” improved without worrying about anyone’s approach, style, or values. Whew!

 

A Non-Apology is Not a Closure Conversation

A new conversation is now officially open: When is an apology an actual apology? The answer: When it creates a sense of closure for all involved. This week’s most famous non-apology failed that test.

“I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” he said. Why isn’t that an apology?

Because he did not say exactly what he was “wrong” about. His statement sort of referred to “whatever” it was that he had said, which he later clarified as “locker room talk”. So he apologized for his locker room talk – is that an apology?

Not yet, because he didn’t say to whom he was apologizing. To the audience? To the people who listened to the tape, or read about it? To all woman-kind? To Americans, for causing an international embarrassment? Not clear.

One other misdemeanor was his follow-up: “That was locker room talk,” he said a few minutes later. “And certainly I’m not proud of it, but that was something that happened.”

Something that happened? There’s no ownership there – it just happened, it’s in the past for heaven’s sake, and that’s that.

There has been some discussion about the need for “contrition” and insistence that the word “sorry” must be included in an apology. I’m not sure we need to see any kind of atonement, or that a certain vocabulary is required.

When you can say exactly what mistake you made, and own it completely that you did it – it didn’t “just happen” – and apologize to those who were affected by it, you can add whatever extras are true for you, including making a promise not to do it again or offering reparations to those who are hurt in some way.

But the basics are:   Apology = For what + To whom + Personal ownership.

“I was wrong and I apologize” isn’t a Closure Conversation because it isn’t enough to create closure. I know that because this non-apology happened several days ago and it’s still making headlines, still moving people from one voting line to the other, and still a topic of discussion at the coffee shop. And I know that because I was just there and I overheard it. Case closed.

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.

Attitude Can Cause Blindness and Ignorance

 

After years of saying that a consultant’s job is not to change people’s attitudes, I might need to eat my words. Here’s what I learned from reviewing a Harvard Business Review case: a bad attitude can blind an employee – even a good one – from seeing who to communicate with and who needs certain information.

The issue was that an employee – let’s call him Roger – was appointed to lead a team-building program. The goal was to improve communications between two groups who were not communicating. I’ve seen this happen often in organizations: engineers, maintenance, IT, or operations people just don’t speak the same language, so they just don’t bother trying to communicate. Roger’s assignment was to improve the situation with a team-building program.

Roger was going to keep doing his regular job and do the team-building program too. That meant he’d keep reporting to his regular boss, but for the team-building project he would report to Eileen, who was the VP reporting to the company president about internal improvements.

But Roger didn’t like Eileen: there’s the attitude. So when he started leading the team-building program, and he started hearing from the participants about problems with the company’s processes and equipment, he told them to fix those problems themselves. “Go back to your work areas and use these team-building ideas to solve those problems,” he said.

What he should have also done, of course, is to make a good list of the problems, locations, and people involved, then report all that to Eileen. Instead, he literally ignored her – that’s the ignorance. True, Eileen might not have cared about solving those problems, but she deserved to know. Roger’s lack of respect for Eileen’s competence (i.e., his attitude) kept him from even considering communicating with her. So what do we do about attitude-induced ignorance?

I’d say that when Eileen delegated the training program to Roger, she needed a better agreement with him about what kind of feedback he should provide. She had asked him to keep track of the number of people who attended each session, because she wanted to be able to report that more than 80% of the employees in both units had attended the training. But she hadn’t said anything about what other feedback she would like.

If Eileen had noticed that all human beings come equipped with attitudes and mental roadblocks, she might have requested some useful feedback on how to really improve relations between these two groups. But then again, maybe Eileen had an attitude too. So I will keep supporting people to make clearer, smarter agreements. Working with attitudes is very sticky and it doesn’t cure ignorance.