Category Archives: Coaching

Setting Expectations: Moving Past Barriers  

Every manager and supervisor knows that a key part of performance management is setting expectations for subordinates. As they also know, this is often easier said than done.

What gets in the way of this necessary task? First, the manager or supervisor may not feel comfortable being so directive. They need to get over this. It’s their job. If some introductory talking points will help, here are a few ideas:

  • “Sue, I want to sit down and be sure we’re on the same page about your job duties. Let’s meet on Thursday and discuss them.
  • “Joe, I think things will go much smoother for both of us if we sit down and get clear on your job duties and how I want you to do certain tasks.
  • “Chris, I’m sensing that things are not going smoothly for you in the workgroup. Let’s meet and see how we can make things better. [Regarding relationship or behavior issues.]

 Second, many managers and supervisors don’t really know what an effective expectation looks like. The general rule when creating expectations is that they should be S.M.A.R.T:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Results-oriented/Relevant
  • Time-bound

Third, some expectations are easier to write than others. If you’re discussing a time and attendance problem or specific aspects of job performance, it’s pretty straightforward. But setting expectations for behavior or more complex problems can be harder:

  • It does not help, for example, to just tell an employee that her “attitude” needs to change. More helpful: “Employee needs to improve her attitude. Specifically, she needs to stop rolling her eyes and sighing loudly when she disagrees with her supervisor or others, to stop using profanity when she is frustrated, and to only criticize others, if necessary, in private and not in front of others.”
  • Similarly, it does not help to just tell an employee that he needs to improve his “communication skills.” What exactly does that mean? What does it look like? More helpful: “Employee needs to improve his communication skills. More specifically, he needs to initiate conversations with colleagues and managers, answer questions when asked, maintain appropriate eye contact, speak clearly, and not walk away in the middle of conversations.”
  • Poor writing is another tough one, especially since most managers and supervisors are not skilled at identifying what’s wrong with an employee’s writing; all they know is it’s bad. It may be necessary in these cases to consult with someone who can analyze the writing errors so that you can set expectations that address them. E.g., “Your written reports need to be easier for others to read. A few tips: Use shorter paragraphs and shorter sentences. Avoid excessive underlining and use of capital letters for emphasis. Avoid unnecessary history and other details. Use bullet points to make important information clear and succinct.”

Next, managers and supervisors may fear that the meeting with the employee to discuss the expectations will be difficult and uncomfortable. It may be. But if the manager takes an approach that is calm, friendly, and non-accusatory — but firm — that is less likely to happen. It is also helpful for the manager to approach the meeting as a coach (explained here), not a disciplinarian.

Finally, some managers and supervisors are hesitant to write things down — it seems too authoritarian or they may not be great writers themselves. The bottom line, however, is that the expectations need to be documented in a writing that is given to the employee at the meeting or sent via email afterward. If it’s not a performance review or formal memo situation, setting out the expectations in a few clear bullet points is sufficient. Just be sure to date it.

Any other thoughts regarding expectations?  ~Amy Stephson

 

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The Case of the Reluctant Manager

Henrietta was an ace software engineer: developer, problem solver, speaker at conferences. She was known throughout the industry for her brilliance. She was so brilliant, in fact, that the Company promoted her to manager because they thought so highly of her and were afraid of losing her!

At first, Henrietta was thrilled to be recognized and rewarded for great work in this big and visible way. She loved getting to take on the toughest, most interesting challenges. And now, as manager, she was able to assign work – so she got to assign the most interesting and challenging projects to herself. She also loved making sure that everyone on her staff did things the right way (her way). She was excited that she finally had the authority to make it so. And that’s when the trouble started.

Henrietta repeatedly told her staff members what to do and how to do it. Some of these people had been doing the work for a very long time and were also considered to be experts. She figured she got to tell them what to do since she was the boss. But for some reason, her staff members seemed to resent her direction and advice. She corrected them when they did things wrong (not her way) – and they really took offense. That wasn’t what she had expected. She had assumed they’s appreciate or at least accept her management. But, she figured that since they resisted learning from her, she’d just let them fail on their own. She withdrew from supervising or managing them at all, and just did what she considered her REAL work: tackling those tough challenges that she really loved. After all, wasn’t the whole point of getting promoted that you were able to do more of the things you loved and tackle the toughest tasks?

Well – no. That’s actually not the whole (or even the most important) point of being the manager. Unfortunately, too many times people get promoted just because they have outstanding technical skills and the employer doesn’t want to risk losing them. And too often, they don’t actually want to do the #1 job of a manager (or even supervisor): to manage and supervise people. When someone is promoted into a managerial position, they are paid more – because they are expected to take on that really tough job of people management.

So, how should an employer think about filling that all-important manager position? Consider these points – in this order:

  1. Clearly define the job requirements – placing people-management skills at the top.
  2. Use selection criteria that emphasize the ability to supervise and manage people. Technical skills should come second (even if it’s a strong second.)
  3. Once the person is hired, clearly state job expectations: people management should come first.
  4. Then, ensure that the manager’s performance is evaluated first on his/her ability to manage and supervise people.

Technical expertise is great – but that’s not the primary responsibility of managers. If you have a Henrietta on your staff, this employee with great technical skills, and you want to reward her or keep her from going elsewhere, what can you do other than promote her to manager? You can

  • Create a Senior position, or an Expert position, or an in-house Consultant position where that person’s special skills can be used to their maximum advantage without putting them in a position where they are required to supervise and manage people – something they don’t want to do and that is not their strength. (Yes, every once in a while there are technical experts who love and excel at people supervision and management as well. If you find one of those, do what you need to do to keep them!)
  • Give the technical expert lead technical work – where she can be the lead on those complex projects without being saddled with people supervision or management.

Why is it so important to ensure that those whose strength is technical work (and not people management) not be placed in people management positions where they will fail? Here are just a few reasons:

  • When Henrietta becomes a manager, she becomes a toxic employee: she makes herself miserable, and likely makes her staff members miserable.
  • As a result, her work is very likely to suffer (even her technical work), and certainly her employees’ work will suffer: they’ll be thinking and talking about how awful she is – rather than spending all that energy on the work.
  • Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, and isn’t good at it, she’ll likely spend more time (emotional time and real time, and work and outside of work) fretting about that, and so be prevented from doing the job at which she excels.
  • Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, staff members who need a manager’s support, guidance, and supervision – or correction – won’t get it, and the employer will suffer.

Finally, if you do find that you have promoted a Henrietta who can’t supervise or manage people – all is not lost!

  • First, have an honest conversation as soon as you realize the problem exists. Admit your part of the fault in her hiring/promotion (if you were involved.)
  • Encourage her to learn a new set of skills – people supervision and management. Offer classes, coaching, and support.
  • Establish a clear set of expectations and a reasonable timeline to meet them.
  • Document. Document. Document.
  • If it doesn’t work out, figure out how Henrietta will leave her position with dignity,  perhaps to return to a purely technical position where she can save face, go back to loving her work, and to making positive contributions to the Company.

Check out this great recent blog by Vu Le, “Nonprofit with Balls”, on the subject of dealing with employees who aren’t making it. Even if you don’t work in a not-for-profit organization, it’s a great blog!

We’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve ever worked with a Reluctant Manager. Let us hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider

Is Filing a Complaint the Best Answer?

I’ve conducted about 300 workplace investigations in my many years of doing this work. As might be expected, I’ve seen some patterns emerge. One of the most troubling ones I’ve found is when formal complaints of harassment or discrimination are made with virtually no facts to back up a case. Unfortunately, this can have the result of trivializing real and serious issues. Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about:

Example 1, Touchy-Feely Harley: several female employees make a sexual harassment complaint against Harley because he’s more ‘touchy-feely’ than they like. He occasionally puts his arm around their shoulders, sometimes stands pretty close when they’re talking, and has a habit of giving people a quick hug when he first sees them in the morning. The women get fed up and, rather than talking to him and telling him they don’t like to be touched and want their personal space respected, they file a sexual harassment complaint against him. This forces Human Resources to conduct (or have an outsider conduct) an investigation. In the end, the investigation shows that what happened did not come anywhere close to rising to the level of behavior that is “severe” or “pervasive” – the standard in the EEOC Guidelines. Harley is mortified – he says he had no idea he was offending anyone, and would have stopped if anyone had said anything to him – but no one did. All someone had to say was, “Harley, please don’t touch me or stand so close. It makes me uncomfortable.” He would have backed off.

Example 2, Sickly Matt: Matt has some legitimate health issues, and is sometimes absent for days because of them. He has made several disability discrimination complaints, each one being submitted after his supervisor asked him to change the way he worked or criticized his work in some way. When he makes a complaint, the supervisor rescinds the instruction or changes the critique while Human Resources investigates. And, each time he has made such a complaint, the investigation has found no discrimination. The cycle keeps repeating itself, because everyone (Matt, his supervisor, Human Resources) keep behaving the same way. A manager needs to talk with Matt and his supervisor. In this conversation they need to clarify Matt’s job, ensure he understands what he is expected to do and that his supervisor has the authority (and responsibility) to assign and direct his work, and help him correct things that are being done wrong. In that conversation Matt should share his point of view, and the supervisor should demonstrate understanding while still being clear about expectations. Though management certainly can’t interfere with Matt’s right to file a complaint, he should be encouraged to first try to work issues out with his supervisor – and be praised and rewarded when he does so. It may be necessary to have this conversation a number of times.

In the end, what’s the real problem here? Shouldn’t employees make harassment or discrimination complaints if they feel they’re being harassed or discriminated against?

The problem here is that more and more, rather than people talking with one another if one has an issue with another’s behavior, or taking another constructive problem-solving approach, they choose the complaint route – which of course immediately escalates any situation. Don’t get me wrong – some complaints of harassment or discrimination are absolutely legitimate. And, once a complaint of harassment or discrimination is made to a supervisor or manager, they have to treat it as a complaint and investigate it accordingly. But by too easily raising the issue to a compliant, often the real complaints are trivialized (like crying wolf) and a lot of damage (that could have been avoided) has been done to workplace relationships.

How can this be changed?
Obviously, you can’t tell employees they can’t file complaints. However, a fair percentage of those situations that I’ve investigated (way over 70%) could likely have been avoided if there had been strong and skilled management, employees with good, assertive communication skills and a workplace culture that rewards those who make serious attempts to work through difficult communication and interpersonal issues. You CAN create a workplace culture where people are taught how to discuss concerns with one another, and encouraged to do so. It takes thoughtful consideration of expectations, and it takes teaching managers, supervisors and employees assertive communication and problem-solving skills. It’s hard – but it’s worth it.

Have you encountered situations where complaints are filed instead of employees engaging in good problem-solving communication to work though the issue? Or have you been in workplaces where problem-solving of this kind was encouraged and rewarded? Either way, we’d like to hear what happened! ~Daphne Schneider

Preparing for Conflicts is Key!

I recently read a great piece of advice from one of my colleagues, Carol Bowser (http://www.managingconflict.com/.)   She’s a conflict expert, and suggested that we all prepare for conflict situations before they happen.  That’s a good idea since (1) we are highly likely to find ourselves in such a situation sometime and (2) when you’re in the midst of a conflict it’s really hard to come up with the right thing to say if you’re not prepared.  In other words, behaving effectively in a conflict situation is actually a skill that you can learn.

So, what does being prepared mean?  Taking Carol’s suggestions and expanding on them, here are some questions to ask when you find yourself in that conflict:

  1. What’s the issue (and do we both agree that’s the issue)?
  2. Why do I hink it’s an issue?  Why does the other person think it is?
  3. What are some possible solutions?
  4. What am I willing/able to do to make it better?
  5. What can we do together to make it better?

To apply these to a workplace example, say you’re the Marketing Manager in a company.  You and Susan, the Finance Specialist are having an argument about a budget line item for graphic design in the Marketing budget.  You want to spend most of it to purchase new software you need.  Susan says it can only be used for hiring a graphic designer for a project.

  1.  What’s the issue? You  and Susan agree that the issue is allowable use of the budgeted graphic design funds.
  2. Why do you think it’s an issue?  You’re thinking long-term about the department’s needs which would best be met by buying this software now.  Why do you think Susan think it’s an issue?  She seems to be tied to the rules, and these dollars are in a section of the budget which may only be used for consulting services.
  3. What are some possible solutions?  You and Susan brainstorm, and come up with the following:
    1. Expand the use of funds in this line of the budget.
    2. Transfer the funds to another part of the budget, likely leaving little available for consulting services.
  4.  What are you willing to do to make it better?  In talking with Susan it becomes apparent to you that expanding the allowable use of funds in this line item would be a longer term project, and you need the money for the software now.  You might want to propose this change in graphic design funds use as budget development begins for next year, but for now you decide that you’re willing to forgo consulting services monies and move the funds to another line in the budget from which you can purchase the software you need.
  5. What are you willing to do together with Susan? You decide to meet with the Finance Manager together to get the OK to move these funds.

As you can see, there’s a real system here – and it works.  Till they really become part of how you approach conflict, I’d recommend putting the steps on a note card or even a sticky note and always having them handy.  I used to have a sticky note with these steps on the bookshelf above my desk.  That way I’d have them handy whenever something came up.  I’d also recommend practicing (with your child, with your friend, with anyone where you find yourself in a disagreement – even talking to yourself as you drive…).  If you practice on “small” conflicts ir even invented conflicts, when real or bigger ones come up you’ll be prepared.

If you want to know more about this way of approaching conflict, check out the Harvard Negotiations Project    (http://www.pon.harvard.edu/category/research_projects/harvard-negotiation-project/ )  and the work they’ve done over many years, starting with the famous Getting to Yes.

Has this or another systems for working through conflicts been successful for you?  We’d love to know!  ~ Daphne Schneider

Is there life after conflict?

Like you, I’ve been listening to all the political messages over the past few days and weeks.  I’ve also been thinking about what we can learn from their tone (on all sides) that might transfer to  workplaces.  Now that the election is over, some of the winners are gloating and ridiculing the losers, while some losers batten down the hatches and make excuses for the outcome.  None of these are productive responses, especially since we then expect both sides to suddenly forget all the awful things that were said and work together toward a better future.  Unfortunately, we see very similar behavior in the workplace, especially when conflict happens and the resolution favors one side over the other.

Let’s take this situation: In the Company there’s a budget battle going on in which people are fighting for positions in their departments.  Marketing says that their work is critical to ensuring continuing growth and profitability, that they have smart, creative staff who are really committed to the Company.  They also say that Research and Development (R&D) has been totally mismanaged with expensive exploratory trips and software purchases, and that their staff are stupid in mis-reading the customers and wasting time and money on nonsense.

Meanwhile, the R&D folks are touting the great new products that have been developed by their brilliant employees, which the idiots in Marketing can’t seem to understand because they’re too wrapped up in show and totally lacking in substance.  They’re saying that lagging sales are all Marketing’s fault; Marketing is saying it’s all R&D’s fault for wasting time and money and developing unpopular products.

The Executive Team and CEO finally decide on the budget, cutting R&D rather drastically and putting more money into Marketing. Of course, Marketing is thrilled.  They won!  R&D is hurt, angry, and feeling misunderstood, betrayed and marginalized.  They lost.  Then the CEO directs the two departments to work together closely to ensure success.  After months of mudslinging, is that even possible?  Probably not.  And who really loses?  The Company does.

Is there another way?  I’d suggest there is. The Company needs to create a culture based on the “Five A’s”:

  • Assume positive intent on the part of all parties: everyone wants the Company to succeed.  Everyone wins when the Company is successful.  Everyone loses when it is not.
  • Argue vigorously for issues, perspectives, and points of view while being very gentle with people.  No name calling.  No attacks.  Everyone loses when people are attacked and labels are thrown around (stupid, incompetent, useless,…)  Everyone wins when issues are analyzed and vetted for the best possible outcome for the Company and decisions are made on facts, not personalities.
  • Allow everyone to save face.  People in the workplace have to be able to continue to work together effectively on the other side of the conflict.  If the relationship is torn so badly that one side (or both) believes they have been betrayed, maligned, insulted, or otherwise seriously hurt, working together for the good of the Company becomes very difficult, if not impossible.  People who have lost face look for ways to get revenge – and when they find them (and they do), everyone loses.
  • Acknowledge the past, but move on to the future.  Things will move forward if both winners and losers respect one another’s perspectives and past conflicts, but commit to coming together (that means both sides give some) for the best future for the Company.
  • Advance everyone’s interests by building personal relationships on an ongoing basis so that future conflicts (which are guaranteed to occur) can be worked through and best outcomes achieved.

There will always be conflicts in the workplace, and in our personal and political lives.  There is never enough time, money or staff.  There are different beliefs and values.  It’s not about eliminating these conflicts.  It’s about learning to build relationships and focusing on debating  issues rather than maligning people.  The better we learn to do this in all aspects of our lives, the more likely we can create a greater good for all.

What are your thoughts about how to create a good outcome for all after heated differences?  Please share your ideas!  ~Daphne Schneider

Stressed by Colleagues who Disagree with You?

Workplaces can be hazardous to your emotional and mental health – especially when you work with folks you don’t necessarily like or who don’t see things the way you do.  What to do?

Let’s assume you’d feel better about where you work if you were less stressed by those around you.  And, let’s assume that you’re the only person you really control.  Here’s my suggestion:  first of all, refuse to take things personally.  Rather, assume an attitude of wonder and civility.  Here’s what I mean:

  1. As I said, when someone says something that offends you, or with which you vehemently disagree, listen but refuse to take it in or to let it become part of you.  Refuse to take it personally even if you think it was meant as an insult.  Rather, as you  listen,  suspend judgment and maintain a sense of wonder:  Think, “I wonder why she said that?  I wonder what she meant by that?”  Then talk with her to find out!
  2.  Remain flexible: No one is always right (that means you, too, could be wrong – I know I sometimes am).  So listen to other points of view and retain the right to change your mind if you’re swayed by another opinion.  Expand your view of the world and its many complex issues.  I’m not suggesting you have to make a radical change in what you believe, but remain open to hearing another perspective.  Few complex issues are black and white.  Understand that there’s gray and that you can see some of that gray without giving up any integrity.  Remember: for every complex problem there is a simple, easy to understand wrong solution.
  3. When interacting with someone, demonstrate empathy.  Work to really listen, and listen actively: don’t form your responses or criticize the other person’s comments in your head while they’re talking.  Work to understand where they’re coming from and why (understanding is not the same as agreeing) and communicate your understanding to them.  Work to understand both the content of what they’re saying and the feeling behind it.  Check your understanding of what they’re feeling with a comment like, “So you feel angry that everyone has to attend diversity training…” and listen to their response without judgment.  Change your understanding of their feeling based on what they tell you.
  4. Never stoop to name-calling or labeling.  Using words like “racist” or “hate-monger” or “slut” or “idiot” only serves to break down communication.  These words never help create civil discourse among reasonable people, and they’re guaranteed to increase workplace stress.  If someone else is using such a term in conversation with you, do not take it personally.  Use the tips above, and bring the conversation to a more civil place.
  5. Finally, never assume you know more about what’s really going on in the other person’s head than they do.  You will inevitably lose that argument.  So, don’t tell others they’re unmotivated or have a bad attitude or feel this way or that.  You can only watch how they behave and listen to their words.  Other than that, you don’t really know what the other person is thinking or feeling.

In yesterday’s Seattle Times, Charles C. Camosy, assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University in New York City and author of “Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization” provides a great review of these and other tips for creating dialogue and understanding with those who see the world differently than we do.  Check it out.

Do you have other ideas for interacting successfully in the workplace with those who disagree with us?  We’d love to hear them!  ~Daphne Schneider

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Perhaps my favorite confidence-building saying is, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” What does this mean? It does not mean, “Pretend to have knowledge you don’t have,” or “Lie to your supervisor about what you’ve accomplished.” It’s more of an attitude: “I lack expertise in this area but I am going to working on developing it and in the meantime behave in a confident manner.”

 More deeply, it means you feel some confidence in yourself even though you are far from an expert in whatever it is, knowing that if you apply yourself and stick with it, you will improve and eventually “make it.” 

I myself have used the saying many times, particularly when I first went into private practice on my own. And later when I did training on conducting investigations at a time when I had done only a few of them myself. (I did a lot of research….)

 How is this relevant to the workplace? It is a good tool for employees to use for personal confidence-building – and for supervisors to use when coaching employees who lack confidence or who are starting something new and unfamiliar. It gives employees permission to be in a learning mode and lowers their personal or professional barriers to learning.

It also encourages employees to solve problems and take risks. Implicit in this saying is the notion, “just because I haven’t done something doesn’t mean I can’t figure out how to do it.” Also implicit: “And in the meantime, I will not whine or freak out, but will remain calm and professional.”

 What else does “Fake it ‘til you make it” say to you? ~Amy Stephson