The “Perception Is Reality” Trap

We all know the phrase, “perception is reality.” And in a psychological sense it is true: we all experience the world through our own lens and that is our reality.

In the world of human resources management, however, I find that this phrase can muddy up the analysis necessary to effectively lead and manage employees. This occurs particularly in workplace investigation and conflict resolution contexts where it is all too easy to be sucked into an unreasonable employee’s perceptual wormhole.

Here’s how problems arise. When applying harassment policies, we are taught that it’s the impact of an employee’s actions on another that matter rather than the employee’s intent. This is often true: someone may think they’re “joking” when they make a sexist or racist remark, but regardless of their intent, such remarks can still be harassment based on their impact on the recipient.

This does not mean, however, that any and all perceptions, i.e., impacts, are created equal. Because the law also provides that the recipient’s reaction to an action or remark must be “reasonable,” i.e., based on some objective reality. Some examples:

  • A female employee sees posted in a male employee’s cubicle a birthday card with a scantily clad female on the front. Can she ask management to direct him to take down the card? Sure. Can she argue that the card in and of itself has created a hostile work environment for her? Not so much. However upset she may be about the card, her perceptions do not trump the fact that a reasonable woman would not find her workplace imbued with gender hostility based on a co-worker’s birthday card with a bikini-clad woman on the front. And she needs to be told that. [And yes, this was a real case.]
  • An employee contends that he feels “unsafe” after his supervisor critiques his job performance in a closed door meeting. Or he contends that the supervisor was “abusive” for telling him he could be terminated if his repeated tardiness continued. The employer will certainly want to check into these allegations to make sure the supervisor did not behave inappropriately. But once the employer is comfortable that the supervisor was just doing his or her job, the complaining employee must be told that in no uncertain terms.

It’s hard to tell a complaining employee “in no uncertain terms” that his or her perceptions are incorrect. Such messages must be delivered kindly and without any suggestion that the employee is lying or crazily hypersensitive.

In appropriate cases, moreover, management may want to take some steps to at least partially acknowledge the complaint (“We have told him to take the birthday card down” “Would you rather meet with your supervisor in a conference room next time?”) But it is critical at the same time not to enable or encourage employees to maintain their unreasonable perceptions.

Why not just give in? After all, that “unreasonable” employee may decide to bring a lawsuit against an employer for not taking the actions he or she demanded. So yes, it is important for an employer to take complaints seriously even in cases involving “perceptually challenged” employees.

At the same time, such employees often have a highly negative impact on both co-workers and managers, to the point that these others may leave. After the due diligence is completed, therefore, it is equally important to insist on a level of sanity and reason in the workplace.

Any additional thoughts on this issue? ~Amy Stephson

Is there life after an investigation? Part 2

Last month I discussed how to get back to normal (or at least establish a new normal that works) after a workplace investigation. I suggested that the first things to do are

  • Conclude the investigation as quickly as possible,
  • Split up the complainant and respondent, if at all possible, and
  • Acknowledge any fault on the part of the employer.

There are a number of other things you can do that will increase the chances of a healthy tomorrow.

Set a goal going forward, and be as specific as you can. For example, assist the workgroup that went through the investigation in focusing on what, specifically, they need to accomplish together in the next quarter. Get their minds off of what happened, and on to reaching the next goal. You can’t just tell them to forget what happened. They won’t. But you can, and should, help them refocus.

Show them you care. Demonstrate caring – don’t just talk about it. Listen. Empathize. Respect people’s feelings. Do things that demonstrate that the staff members are important to you. And show that you care both about the people who are still employed with you, and those who left (whether they chose to leave or were dismissed). Never make negative comments publicly.

Address the fears. After an investigation, people will be afraid: afraid it could happen to them. Afraid they wouldn’t be believed if it did. Afraid they could be wrongly accused. Afraid nothing will change. Afraid things will change. Address the fears. To the extent possible, give information about what happened, and how the issues that were brought out in the investigation are being addressed. Acknowledge the fears, and make it OK to talk about them. This is hard – acknowledge that it’s hard, and that working together, with a common goal and management that cares, you can make it through this crisis and come out better in the end.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. You’ll likely have to have the same conversation several times. Don’t get impatient. Each person works through a workplace crisis (and yes, an investigation can be a crisis) at his or her own pace. Remember that in the absence of information from you, people will make up their own information and see it as truth. They’ll develop reasons and explanations – which may or may not have anything to do with fact. So, provide information, lots of it – communicate.  And keep communicating. Not only will this address the fear and anxiety, over time it will build trust.

Check out Jay Shepherd’s Result Triangle in which he addresses these three steps for helping people move in a particular direction.

Finally, keep yourself from going crazy. Be sure you have trusted colleagues with whom you can work this through. You need someone in whom to confide, someone to talk to. If you find yourself going crazy, take a deep breath. Take a time-out. Don’t react – you risk long-term negative consequences to your workplace if you let your emotions take over. If you find that starting to happen, take a break.

And remember: this too shall pass.

Do you have other tips or insights for recovering from investigations? Please share them! ~ Daphne Schneider

Is There Life After an Investigation? (Part 1)

 

I’ve now conducted over 350 workplace investigations, and there are a few things I know:

  • Whatever the problem was before I got there, it gets worse the moment I step through the door.
  • I get to leave when the investigation is over. For the most part, the employees don’t unless there’s a transfer or termination – in which case that one employee leaves, but the others remain.
  • When I investigate (i.e., ask lots of questions of lots of folks), I stir things up.
  • Even though I ask employees not to discuss the situation, many likely do so, after the investigation is over – if not before.
  • Even if employees don’t discuss the situation, it weighs heavily on many of them. Some even develop PTSD.

So, when the investigation ends, I leave.  Then what happens in that workplace?

Usually, almost nothing intentional.  Life goes on, and employees and management try to ‘get back to normal.’  But, as they say, there’s a new normal, and no one knows quite what to do with it.  Management most often says nothing, which generates lots of chatter among employees.  Rumors run rampant.  What happened?  Did Suzie get disciplined?  Is Henrietta pouting because, as the complainant, she didn’t get what she wanted?  How should I interact with Suzie or Henrietta?  And I heard that Carl and Claude were witnesses.  I’ll ask them what happened…and on and on.

The workplaces that are most successful in moving forward after an investigation take steps to make things better. Will it ever be like it was?  No (and that may be a good thing!)  You can’t turn back that clock.  People won’t forget that Carl said bad things about them or Suzie trashed them or Henrietta only cared about herself or…Some people will be happier with the outcome (and gloat about it, obnoxiously), and others will be unhappy and feel the results were unjust and unfair (providing additional reasons to trash-talk about management and the employer).  Still others will continue to be eternally curious (filling in the blanks where they don’t actually have information, and usually getting it wrong.)

What do to?  In a recent HR Examiner article by Heather Bussing, she suggests that “No matter what the complaint or incident, you will never hear the whole story or understand what’s really going on because it is never about what people say it’s about.  What it is always about is power, ego, resources, and if you’re lucky, neuroses.”  Remember that.  And yes, it may also be about other things…but it’s always about those.  So, what to do to improve things after the investigation?

Conclude the investigation as quickly as possible. Know that the longer it drags on, the more space for uneasiness, rumor, negativity, rumor, anger, rumor…so, move as quickly as you can.

After the investigation, if at all possible, split up the complainant and respondent. The likelihood that they will have a successful working relationship after an investigation is very, very small. Keeping them together will hurt them, their coworkers, and their (and others’) productivity. It will hurt the whole organization.

If there’s no way to split them up, make a long-term commitment to coaching them to teach them skills for working together.  Think about adjacent peoples  that regularly fight (like the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Hatfields and McCoys…). If they continue under the same circumstances that created the problem, the problem will continue.  Your employees are like that.  If you expect them to improve their working relationship, you need to put a lot of effort into helping them do that, and you need to teach them how. You also need to regularly monitor the situation to ensure that it’s not sliding back to where it was, that no retaliation is taking place, and the complainant and respondent are doing what was expected of them.

And remember: if you move one of them, assuming that the complainant wants to stay put, moving the respondent (often the higher-level employee) may need to be an involuntary move.  It will be hard, but make it anyway, because leaving the two together is likely the worst thing you can do for the organization.  And NEVER involuntarily move the complainant. That’s asking for a retaliation complaint or, worse yet, a retaliation lawsuit – then you’ll be spending your time (and money) on lawyers, and all that goes with them.  Decide to spend it wisely instead.

Once the situation is settled, examine and publicly (to your employees) acknowledge any fault on the part of the employer. That’s after the legal department and HR have closed the case. A good 75% of my investigations result in a finding of nothing illegal having happened. However, there’s poor management, poor communication, unworkable systems and structures. After the investigation, carefully look at all of these, and discuss them with your employees (who likely see them more clearly than you do.) Then fix them so you don’t have the same problem again.

I’ll have more tips for what to do after an investigation in my next blog post.  Do you have some ideas?  Please share them!  ~Daphne Schneider

 

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