Category Archives: Communication

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

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It seemed like the right thing to do…

I recently finished Donna Tartt’s first novel, The  Secret History.  It’s a fascinating, rather dark story of students in a small, New England college who are part of an even smaller group studying classics with one professor.  Here’s the first sentence:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

The remainder of the book describes how this all happened: how a group of smart (hey, their private conversations are in classical Greek!), mostly rich, mostly well-travelled young people came to kill and think it was normal and necessary to do so.

As I was pondering this, I came across an article in the February 24, 2014 issue of Time Magazine.  It discusses the cheating practices that have come to light among Air Force personnel at some of our ICBM missile bases.  Staff there have to take monthly tests to ensure they stay on top of critical information, and dozens, if not hundreds of them have been found to be cheating on those tests.   As one former officer said, “I felt guilty about it, because my four years at the [Air Force] academy taught me that was wrong…But after a while, my friends and I joined with the herd in helping each other out.” Again, a group of presumably pretty bright, educated, committed and principled young people going terribly wrong.

This total reinterpretation of ethics and morals can also happen when people have nothing but the best motives.  For instance, an organization working to help homeless people with medical issues begins fudging on reports a bit to get more Medicaid money to them (they really need and deserve it!)  This can easily happen in the name of doing good, and even more easily happen if a group feels victimized, or is working with someone they feel is victimized.  Doesn’t the end justify the means?

So, what does all this have to do with our workplaces?  Unfortunately, everything.  Every workplace creates its own culture.  The more isolated the work group (office, unit, department, school, program…), the easier it is for staff to look only to each other to reinforce their ethical standard.  Once they start telling each other it’s ok to do something they may initially feel queasy about, they start to believe it’s ok.  Then, it’s only a matter of time when they no longer even question what they’re doing.

So what can you do to ensure that’s not happening in your workplace?  Here are some questions to ask:

  • Are there good checks and balances in place?
  • Are managers held accountable for knowing what is going on in their areas?
  • Do we listen to people who raise ethical questions about how something is being done, or do we shut them down as troublemakers?
  • Are we clear about our organization’s values, and do we regularly talk with employees about how those play out in our workplace?
  • Do we discuss real-life ethical issues in staff meetings and trainings, and work through how to deal with them?
  • Do we ensure transparency in all aspects of the work?

Going sideways from what we know is “right” is all too easy.  Take positive steps to ensure your workplace follows good ethical and professional practices.  What other questions might you ask, or what else might you do to address this complex issue?  Let us know!  ~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

The Praise Sandwich

I recently read a blog post noting that a recent study showed that the so-called “praise sandwich” performance management technique does not work.  (The praise sandwich is when you want to serve up some criticism but precede it and follow it with praise.)  Why? Because many employees won’t hear the criticism, but will hear only the praise.

That really struck me because if I were served a praise sandwich, I would hear only the criticism!

Be that as it may, I decided to look into the praise sandwich and found that it is quite a controversial issue.  At least in the employee management blogosphere.  Who knew?

First, a little more on how it works.  You want to tell an employee that her written work is sloppy: typos, poor grammar, disorganization.  So you go in and say something along the lines of, “ I really appreciate your willingness to dive in and get done what needs to be done in our department.  One area that could use some improvement, however, is your reports, which need some work. [more details].  Otherwise, I again want to tell you that you are a really valuable member of our team.”

What’s wrong – or right – with this approach? Here are some pros and cons.

Cons (in addition to the one noted above):

(1)   It’s dishonest and the employee sees right through it.

(2)   It’s disrespectful and manipulative because you are controlling the employee instead of being transparent;

(3)   The employee is more uncomfortable rather than less because they always know the boom is sure to follow;

(4)   It devalues the positive feedback because it’s not genuine and is just being used to soften the negative.

(5)   If the praise is more meaty than the criticism (which an uncomfortable manager might do), the criticism is lost in the shuffle.

And now the Pros:

(1)   If the praise is relevant and genuine, it allows the employee to save face and retain their self-esteem.

(2)   It immediately addresses the employee’s unspoken anxiety: “Am I about to be fired?”

(3)   There usually is something positive to say that’s relevant and it’s right to acknowledge it.

(4)   Focusing on the positive is a better way to help employees change their behaviors.

(5)   An open-faced sandwich is best: Praise – Criticism – Helpful Advice.

Ultimately, of course, the best approach will depend on the circumstances, the employee, and past events.  Whichever way you go, it requires honesty, helpfulness, and a positive attitude on the part of the manager dishing the feedback.

What are your thoughts on the “praise sandwich”?  ~Amy Stephson

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

Acting 101 for Managers

A little-recognized but oft-experienced reality is that to manage employees effectively, managers need to have fairly well developed acting skills.  Stated another way, managers need to always be aware of how they present themselves and the impact of their behaviors on their subordinates. 

So what does this mean in practical terms?  Think of these common scenarios:

  • An employee has repeatedly performed or behaved badly despite repeated discussions of the problem.  You’re frustrated and angry, but you don’t want to show it.  Your role: calm, firm and clear setter of expectations and consequences.
  • You’re having a really bad day.  It’s OK to hide somewhere if you can, but you don’t want to be cranky and angry or icy and formal with your employees.  Can’t you be real once in a while?  Unfortunately, no: employees get confused by a boss they see as unpredictable and up and down.  They also have long memories for slip-ups.  Your role: the consistent grown up. 
  • You really click with some of your employees and not with others.  Your tendency would be to hang out with and favor in subtle ways the ones who are pleasant, easy to get along with, and have a good sense of humor, while steering a little clear of the others.  Not good.  Your role: the parent who cares about all of his or her children equally. 

This is not easy.  But it may help to recognize that it’s your job and not the place to self-actualize and express your emotional self.  Also, if you remember that you’re playing a role – manager –that in itself can give you some distance from the emotional travails of managing people. 

One caution, however, about playing this role: you also need maintain a level of authenticity and interact with others on a human level. These are not necessarily inconsistent demands. You can play a role but still retain your fundamental personality and come from a genuine place of caring.  Those qualities will shine through even as you always present yourself as the proper manager.

What are your thoughts about manager as actor?  ~Amy Stephson

The Five Whys … or the Five Whats?

 A famous information gathering method developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used at Toyota Motors is The Five Whys.  It is a question asking technique that seeks to determine the root cause of a problem by repeatedly asking the question “Why” as each answer is given to the previous question. 

In the HR setting, this technique can be very helpful.  For example: an employee is frequently tardy.  The Q&A might go like this:

Q1:  Why are you tardy 2-3 times per week? A1:  My car always acts up.

Q2: Why does your car act up? A2:  Because it’s very old and I don’t keep up with regular maintenance.

Q3:  Why don’t you keep up with regular maintenance?  A3:  I’m not sure where to take the car. I live out in the country.

Q4:  Why don’t you do some research to find a good mechanic?  A4:  I’m not sure I really could afford a good mechanic.

Q5:  Why can’t you afford a mechanic?  A5:  My wife is very ill and we are spending all our discretionary funds on her medical care.

At this point, you have come to the heart of the problem (perhaps) and can decide where to go from there.  The number five is not a magic number: three questions may be sufficient and six or seven may be needed.  In addition, there may be multiple “root causes” for a particular problem so you may need to branch out and pursue different Q & A strings.  The principle is that by asking why repeatedly, you are more likely to get to the real cause of a problem. 

As an investigator and coach, asking questions is my business.  So the Five Whys is a very appealing technique.  However, in my experience, one often has to be more diplomatic and subtle when asking questions  and therefore use of a Why-Why-Why approach can backfire.  In fact, the word “Why” in and of itself can be a problem because it tends to make people defensive. 

 So where does this leave the Five Whys?  It’s still a great technique so long as you realize that the questions may need to be worded differently.  So in the above example, instead of repeatedly saying Why? you can use phrases such as “You are tardy 2-3 times a week. What is going on?”  “Do you know what your neighbors do about their cars?”  And so on. A judiciously used “why” now and again may be fine, but you don’t want it to be a battering ram.

In short, one can drill down in a nonthreatening way and still get to the root causes of a problem.  Asking “why” in an automotive factory may be just fine, but in the HR settings, use of other types of questions, partucularly those beginning with the word “what” may be more appropriate and productive. 

 What do you think?  ~Amy Stephson