Power in the Workplace

I recently read a fascinating blog post by Seattle area consultant and coach Neil Baker, MD, entitled “Hard-wired for troubles with power.” According to the post, research shows that all human beings are “hard-wired” to be “acutely sensitive” to those with power. In the employment setting, this means people with positional power, i.e., those with the ability to hire, fire, manage resources, and assess performance.

I have long discussed the impact of power in my harassment training and management coaching. It is frequently a very eye-opening concept. As described by Baker, however, the consequences for management that flow from employees’ acute sensitivity to power goes far deeper than we may realize.  He writes:

If you have positional power, “the sense-making of people who work for you will be determined less by the facts and more by their internal story. If you do anything that tells them it is not OK to be real around you, your authority will amplify the impact of your action. The slightest voice inflection, the most innocent remark, can land hard on those you have authority over, causing them to make up stories that support increased caution and distort further interaction.”

“Every action and utterance can be scrutinized for meaning”–those with power are suspect until proven trustworthy. On top of this, research suggests that, regardless of underlying personality or values, just being in a position of power will cause a person to listen less, talk more, and have difficulty getting into another person’s shoes to understand and empathize.

On the other side of things, because of this magnifying effect of power, those with positional power can have a large, positive impact on the psychological safety of a work environment.” [footnotes omitted]

Baker goes on to give a wide range of suggestions on how those with positional power can reduce its negative effects, e.g., maintain two way feedback and be careful with language. They are well worth reading.

Reading this post, I had some additional thoughts. This power dynamic creates a difficult situation: most managers and supervisors don’t really have as much power as their subordinates think and actually are just fellow human beings, yet the subordinates are basically hard-wired to get upset and angry with them. To some extent, this just comes with the territory and management must acknowledge and accept this reality.

However, it is important for employers to not allow employees to demonize or dehumanize their managers and supervisors because of some real or perceived wrongdoing on the latter’s part. Anyone who does employment investigations or litigation has seen this demonization. Employers who allow it are undermining their management team and demoralizing the workplace.

So what should employers do when faced with this situation? Employees who name call or badmouth managers and supervisors should be told to express their concerns in appropriate and respectful ways. Those who make unreasonable demands  (e.g., put that abuser on leave immediately or that harasser needs to be fired now), should be told that this is not how the employer treats any of its employees as a matter of basic fairness and due process.

Might the demonizer then go after the person who did not give in? Possibly. But in my experience, almost everyone hears and understands concepts of respect and fairness … so long as the message itself is communicated in a fair and respectful manner….

What are your thoughts about positional power in the workplace? ~Amy Stephson

Aggravation!!!!!

Most of us are sometimes faced with people at work who drive us nuts.  That can even happen to me with clients and others.  I’ve also recently been in conversations and interviews with people who have complained bitterly about their bosses or co-workers.  Many of these complaints have revolved around variations on one issue: what the subject of the complaint is doing that is wrong or stupid or inefficient or counterproductive (as defined by the person being driven nuts, of course!).  So, I’ve been thinking about how best to deal with these aggravating folks.

I’ve come up with a short list of questions (and answers) to use as a guide with the intended result of reducing my (and perhaps your) aggravation (and stress!) with some of these challenges in our lives.

First, a given: You can change yourself (your behaviors, attitudes, beliefs…), but you can only (at most) influence others.  So do NOT approach these aggravating people with the intent of changing them or you are likely to simply end up more aggravated yourself.

 Now, answer the following questions on your way to reducing your aggravation:

Question 1:  Is the aggravating behavior violating a law or company policy?

  • If yes (but you’d better be SURE), sometimes all you’ll need to do is point that out (maybe even anonymously.) For example, say the boss repeatedly expects you and others to work over 40 hours a week in a non-exempt position without paying overtime. Send her a copy of the section of the state law that clearly states she has to pay you overtime for this. I’m going to bet she’ll get the hint (though she might be mad about it).
  • If no, proceed to Question 2.

 

Question 2:  Is the aggravating behavior mostly stupid,  rude,  infantile, embarrassing…?

  • If yes, and you have a good relationship with the person, consider providing effective feedback in a way they’ll hear (see some of our earlier blog posts on effective communication). They might well have no idea how they come across, and appreciate the help.
  • If yes, and you don’t have a good relationship with the person, decide to separate yourself from what’s going on. You may not be able to do that in fact (you have to keep your job, I have to continue to interview a rude witness…). In this situation, you need to understand that the other person’s behavior is about them – not about you. Are they micromanaging? It’s because they can’t manage appropriately. Are they editing and re-editing until they have re-written your work and brought it back to where it was before the first edit? It’s because they don’t understand how to edit appropriately. In either case, it’s about them, not about you. Remember one of the great scenes in Muppet film Labyrinth? Once our heroine understands she does not have to buy into the goblin king’s definition of reality, she says, “You have no power over me!” And what happens? The labyrinth in which she believed she was trapped, disappears. Take back your power, and don’t allow the aggravator to define how you see the world.
  • If no, go to question 3.

 

Question 3: Is the aggravating behavior counterproductive to getting the work done, is it ineffective and inefficient?

  • If yes, and you have a good relationship with the person, consider offering feedback in a way they’ll her. But remember: no one likes to be told what they already know. So, if I know that the way I’m doing a project is inefficient, but it’s the way my boss is making me do it, hearing criticism from you will not help. So, be careful!
  • If yes, and you don’t have a good relationship with the person, remember this: unsolicited advice is rarely welcomed. If your boss wanted a critique of the company’s billing system, we’re sure he would have asked you. He didn’t. If your boss wanted to hear you discuss better hiring processes, she would have asked. She didn’t. Don’t needlessly aggravate people (especially people with power over you) by telling them how to do their jobs – when they didn’t ask you for advice. They’re unlikely to appreciate it. Just keep doing your work, let go of your ego in the situation, and stop making their inefficiency or ineffectiveness your problem. LET IT GO. Take a deep breath. Go back to your work and do it as well as you can.  And, if you can’t stand the aggravation, look for another job.

 

Remember: in this world, as long as you work with others, you will likely find some of those others aggravating in the way’s I’ve described here.  Sometimes you can effectively deal with those folks – but often you just need to stop giving them power over your emotions (i.e., stop letting them aggravate you) and LET IT GO!  Comments?  We’d like to hear from you! ~ Daphne Schneider

Who Really Owns It: A Stress Reduction Guide

Much has been said about the necessity of getting employees to “own” or “buy into” organizational goals if they are to successfully pursue those goals. Including in this blog.

What I’d like to address, however, is a different aspect of ownership in the workplace, namely, determining who exactly “owns” a task, a problem, or a project.

Many years ago, I did an investigation at a large tech company. One thing I noticed was that nearly every witness talked in terms of “ownership,” i.e., they explicitly allocated responsibility for tasks to themselves or other specific employees. In “project managing” cultures such as that one, the concept of ownership makes particular sense and is widely used.

Since then, I’ve come to see  that explicitly allocating “ownership” makes sense in many (perhaps all) workplaces, even those that do not see themselves as managing projects. Why? There are many benefits, including increasing accountability and improving outcomes. What I’d like to address, however, is how it can reduce stress.

Imagine these four situations:

  • A mid-level manager sees that there is going to be a severe staffing shortage in a key operational area during a critical time. She is losing sleep worrying about how to handle it.
  • Another manager is working 80 hours a week implementing a new computer software program and doing an excellent job of it. He has been given staff to work with but they are incompetent and impeding productivity rather than helping.
  • An assistant in a service business is frustrated with the professionals’ failure to send bills to clients in a timely manner. She brings it up frequently, but her concerns are met with indifference or irritation.
  • A supervisor is doing everything in his power to help an employee improve the employee’s work to avoid having to terminate the employee. He’s very frustrated because no improvement is occurring.

The common thread here: ownership is misplaced. In situation one, the manager has correctly identified a problem, but then incorrectly assumed sole ownership of it. It is an organizational issue and the manager needs to present it to her manager as a problem that “we” or “the organization” need to address.

In situation two, the manager is letting his management off the hook, again by taking sole responsibility for a system-wide project that upper management also needs to own. Unless the manager makes it clear that the status quo is not working, it’s one less problem for upper management to worry about.

The third situation is just the opposite: the assistant is taking ownership of a problem that simply is not hers to own. If the providers do not want to maximize their incomes, so be it – it’s their business. So long as the assistant is paid, their income is none of hers.

Finally, the fourth situation highlights what happens when a supervisor has taken improvement of an employee on himself, instead of placing it where it belongs: on the employee. The supervisor’s job is to coach the employee and provide guidance, but it is the employee’s job to do what’s needed to improve his or her job performance.

These scenarios are all based on real situations. In each one, once the person realized where ownership belonged or with whom it needed to be shared, their stress decreased markedly.

Placing ownership where it belongs is an important tool. Have you found that in your work? ~Amy Stephson

 

Solving Disputes with Specifics!

Have you ever had a conflict with a colleague that escalated, and seemed to be impossible to bring to resolution?

Consider this exchange:

Leslie: You’re acting so unprofessional, I just can’t believe it.

Devon: How can you say that? You’re being paranoid again.

Leslie: Me, paranoid? That’s the most irrational thing I’ve ever heard!  If you don’t apologize, I’m not continuing with this conversation.

Devon: You are so over-reacting!

What’s wrong with this exchange and why is it going nowhere to resolve the issues between these two colleagues? The answer is actually pretty simple: when one or both parties in a dispute use large, accusatory, general terms (“unprofessional,” “paranoid,” “irrational,” “over-reacting,”) the result is predictable.  It will end in an escalation of the situation as people become more defensive and emotional, and so less able to address whatever the real issues are.

What to do? If you find yourself in this kind of a dialogue (even if only one person is using such language), take the following steps:

  1. Slow down. Breathe deeply. Count to 10 (or 15 or 20).
  2. If you’re too emotional, you likely need to leave the situation till later – so do that. Explain, “I’m having a really hard time with our conversation right now. Can we get back to it in an hour?”
  3. If you stay in the conversation, name what’s happening, and ask that the conversation go a different way: “We’re both talking in generalities. Can we talk specifics?”
  4. Get a piece of paper and write down the specifics listed by you and the other person. For example, Leslie might say: “You don’t update me on projects, and then I look dumb when someone asks me a question.” (Write down: frequency of project updates.)
  5. Devon might say: “When you’re late to meetings, we have to back up and start over and it’s very frustrating.” (Write down: Leslie coming late to meetings.)
  6. Then, address each issue specifically, and agree on actions/behaviors to fix the problem. For example: Leslie commits to arriving at meetings on time or before they start, and agrees that if late, the meeting will not start over. Devon agrees to weekly Monday morning stand-up update meetings to give Leslie updates.  Always acknowledge the other person’s efforts to reach agreement, and point out where the agreements have been reached. For example, “I’m so glad we got to the bottom of our disagreement. I promise to get to meetings on time – but in case I mess up, I won’t expect you to start the meeting over.”                                                                         Remember: Stay away from generalities and accusations – and be specific with what you want and need.  Do you have other tips for getting resolution to workplace disagreements? Let us know! ~Daphne Schneider

Harassment Training Made Short

In the old days, sexual harassment prevention training took a full day, and sometimes even two. I have no idea what took so long, but I remember feeling that somehow I was doing it wrong when I myself offered half day training. Over time, I reduced that to 2.5 hour training and it covered not only sexual but also other forms of workplace harassment. Upon request, I can do it in less: an hour, plus or minus.

Recently, I’ve been reading some articles about what is variously called “bite-sized learning,” “thin sliced training” or “single concept learning.” The idea is that employee training works best, i.e., understanding and retention are best, when lessons are delivered in short (10-15 minute) sessions that focus on a single topic, seek to create one behavior change, and achieve one result.  This is contrasted with bringing in an expert who does a full day of so-called “fire hose” training. Typically, bite-sized sessions are done via video training.

So how might this work if we’re doing anti-harassment training? Here are my ideas for a sequence of four 10-15 minute segments that seem to cover the bases. I may be violating the single subject rule somewhat, but the pieces still seem pretty bite-sized. Also, I think an additional session for managers and supervisors would be necessary; this would cover power imbalance, quid pro quo sexual harassment, and responding to complaints, among other things.

Session 1: The main lesson would be: Workplace harassment is a form of employment discrimination that is illegal under federal, state, and local laws. Illegal workplace harassment includes sexual harassment as well as other forms of harassment based on other “protected classes.” These include: x, y, and z. Everyone is a member of several protected classes. It is harassment if you direct comments or behaviors toward a person because of their protected class status to the point that it creates a hostile, offensive or intimidating work environment for them. It is not only illegal to harass someone, but Employer does not tolerate such harassment in this workplace — by anyone. This includes harassment by co-workers, management and even outside parties who come into the workplace.

Session 2:  Even good people can get in trouble for harassment because it does not matter that you were trying to be friendly, funny, or liked. It also does not matter if your behavior was not bad enough to be illegal. How do you avoid getting in trouble? Just remember two key ideas:

  1. Respect boundaries. You are at work and are expected to act in a professional manner. Imagine an invisible wall around your workplace, within which you’re a respectful, civil and courteous form of yourself. Co-workers, or even managers, may act like they are in a TV workplace, but they are not, nor are you — and equally important, even in a fun, casual workplace the hammer can still drop down on you if you cross the line at the wrong time to the wrong person.
  2. Assume it’s unwelcome.  Hugs, neck rubs, accounts of personal dating mishaps, off color or racial jokes. You may assume they’re welcomed because hey, you’re just a friendly touchy-feely person, you tell a great story, or you’re a member of a minority group too.  Wrong! Even if you think that your behaviors are welcomed, when in doubt, just don’t. Also: be aware that people may pretend that they welcome your comments or behaviors when they do not. Why? They want to avoid confronting or offending you, don’t want to appear uptight, or don’t want to be retaliated against. So they may not say anything to you, but if you cross the line, they will say something to the boss.

Session 3.  A picture is worth a thousand words. This session would include very short dramatizations of all the types of behaviors that can get people in trouble — put in a framework of the concepts set out in the previous two sessions.

Session 4. The final session should briefly address the employer’s EEO and harassment policy (especially, where to go with complaints). It would then cover, through dramatization, what employees can do if another employee is making them uncomfortable. This would range from speaking up (“I know you don’t mean anything by it, but I get uncomfortable when you do X”) to bringing in a co-worker to speak up on the target employee’s behalf, to reporting the problem to the employer.

Voila! The essentials are covered. Now all that’s needed are some theater and visuals.

Of course, this is just one approach. What would be in your four thin slices? ~Amy Stephson

Anybody out there hiring????

In some recent conversations with clients about hiring new staff, I noted a few things:

  • Yes, people are hiring!
  • Some of the old hiring practices that never worked very well continue to be used.  They still don’t work.
  • There are definitely some things you can do to increase the chance that you will hire well.  Many people don’t know that, or forget to do them.
  • It’s not getting any easier to hire well.

So, here are some things to think about.

The good news is that people are hiring: and some of them are hiring full time, permanent employees – though many are hiring part time and temporary employees.  In either case, it generally costs a lot of money to hire someone – and you pay a lot if you hire the wrong person, even if it’s only the wrong temporary employee.  Research indicates that it costs between 2.5 and 5 times the employee’s annual compensation if you hire the wrong person.  Ugg. That’s expensive.   So, there’s a point in hiring well.  Don’t settle just because you need a body.  You’ll be sorry.

Some old hiring practices that never worked still don’t.   Hint: if you’re still doing any of this, stop!

  • Hiring someone because you’d like to go to lunch with them: we’re not very good at picking people on gut feel, identifying people we’d like to socialize with (or to marry – witness the divorce rate). Lesson: gut feel tends not to work for marriage after months of courtship; it sure doesn’t work for hiring after a 30 minutes interview.
  • Using degrees or number of years of experience to screen people: we all know great workers without much formal education, and folks with degrees who have had the same first year of experience 15 times (they have not improved). Only use this criteria if required by law or licensing (e.g., you have to have an MD to be a doc, a teaching certificate to teach in k-12 schools…)  Even then, don’t rely on it.  All degreed people are not equally good (or bad) employees.
  • Hiring someone based on a friend’s recommendation can jeopardize your friendship if the hire goes wrong. And, if the needs of the position you’re filling are different than you’re friend’s assessment of her recommendation, you have no idea what you’re getting.
  • Screening people in (or out) based on pretty resumes and cover letters which could well have been written by someone else, and may not reflect any of the actual job requirements.
  • Asking general questions in interviews such as, “Why do you want this job?” “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” Answers to these have been shown, again and again, to have no correlation with job success. Don’t waste your time.  Good interviewing skills (the ability to answer these questions well) are simply not good predictors of job performance.

Here are some better practices to incorporate into your hiring.  Hint: doing these things will definitely increase your chances of finding a great person for your job!

  • Take as much time as you need to hire right, even if you need someone immediately – hiring wrong will cost you WAY more time and effort in the long run.
  • Identify the best employees in this job, and clone them by defining those things that distinguish them from employees that are not as good. List those items, be as specific and behavioral as possible, and go looking for them when you fill the job. You want to ‘clone’ your best employees based on these performance indicators.
  • Always, always, always check references. Yes, that can be hard to do these days. Do it anyway. And ask the references questions based on the job you’re filling. Ask for examples of work the candidate did that would demonstrate the performance indicators. Avoid general questions like, “Did Harry do a good job for you? Would you hire him again?” Most of the time you have NO IDEA about the quality of the reference’s judgment – and these are purely judgment questions. So, stick to facts.  Reference names can come from the employee – they can also come from anywhere else.  Use your ingenuity to get them! 

And, be sure to stay away from any illegal inquiries (race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, disability….you know those!).  If you have any question about what’s legal, check out the State of Washington Human Rights website (or the one for your state).

The bottom line: hire right to enhance your company or organization and avoid the pain (time, money, emotion, bad press…) of hiring wrong.  Had some good (or bad) hiring experiences?  Tell us about them!  ~Daphne Schneider

Assumptions!

 

Everyone has heard the saying that when we “assume,” we make an “ass out of u and me.”  Yet, in our everyday lives, we have to make assumptions or we can’t function.  I have to assume you will stop at the red light as I go through the green light.  I have to assume that I can use my credit card at the store without the number being stolen.  I have to assume that my Facebook page won’t be hacked, or stop using Facebook.

The same is true in our work lives.  I assume that if I’m your employee, you will pay me according to schedule, and will pay me what we agreed to when I took the job.  I assume that if I do good work, you will not fire me for no reason.  I assume that you will provide me with enough tools to do my job.

But we also make other, less reasonable assumptions in our work lives – and most of the time we don’t even know we’re making them.  An assumption is a belief that is unexamined and unsupported by facts.  There are many benign assumptions – but there are also some pretty destructive ones.

In many years of work as an employee, manager and consultant/investigator, I’ve identified my top three most dangerous common workplace assumptions:

• Assumption: Management knows what the problem is.  They just refuse to fix it. Often, what is obvious to staff is not at all obvious to management.  For instance, it may be common knowledge among her co-workers that Henrietta ducks out early every Friday.  Because it’s common knowledge among employees, they assume it’s known to management.  Likely, that’s not the case unless someone goes to management and tells them.  Don’t assume management knows what’s going on even if you think it’s obvious.  If you see a problem that’s not being addressed by management, it may be because they don’t know.  Bring it to their attention and ask that they address it!

• Assumption: Employees understand the reasons for management action. How often have you been in a situation where management did something, made some change, without explanation?  Perhaps you’ve even been that manager.  If you’re in management when that happens, you’re assuming that because you know the back-story, everyone does.  You’ve been working on the change for months – so it’s obvious to you.  You forget that it’s all new to your employees .  Don’t assume – explain not only what’s being done, but why.

• Assumption: They’re out to get us.  The “they” can be anyone you see as the “other.”  If you’re in management, it’s easy to assume the employees are out to get you.   If you’re an employee, it’s just as easy to assume management wants to do you in.  Unions and management sometimes assume that of one another.  How does that happen?  It’s the result of poor communication and lack of trust.  As human beings, we need explanations.  When we don’t get them, we tend to  make them up – sometimes with little or no factual basis to back them up.

For example, Harold just started here, but has already been promoted.  I assume he’s sleeping with the director.  Maybe he is – or maybe he has exactly the background that’s needed for an important vacancy that just happened.  Or, for example, the manager of my division was just replaced, giving us the fourth new manager in three years and making it really hard for the division to function well.  I assume top management wants to make our division look back so they can close it down.  Maybe – or maybe things are changing so quickly that people are getting moved and promoted in an attempt to help the company grow.

And don’t forget this truism: never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.  They’re likely not out to get you, they may just not be very good at what they do!

What to do?  First of all, become aware of the assumptions you’re making, and examine them closely.  If you can be aware of your own assumptions, and attentive to the destructive potential of the wrong assumptions you make, you can go a very long way toward better communication, less miscommunication, and more understanding and harmony in your workplace.  And, seek information and ask questions, lots of questions – respectfully, but with determination.  Help your workplace be a better place with fewer destructive assumptions!

Have you ever found that assumptions you made at work were wrong?  How did you find out?  What happened?  Let us hear from you!  ~Daphne Schneider