Tag Archives: communication skills

Just Say Hello – and Goodbye

Six years ago I wrote a post about the importance of employees saying hello to each other, particularly of supervisors and managers saying hello to subordinates. And you know what? In both my coaching and investigation practices, the issue still comes up.

Recently, for example, it arose when I was coaching two co-workers, trying to help them resolve their many conflicts. One complained that the other didn’t talk to her for days and didn’t greet her in the morning. The other said: “Well, I come in a back door and don’t pass her desk.” Oy.

The issue also comes up with goodbyes – though the offense is somewhat different: “He just leaves and doesn’t tell anyone.” She never tells us where she is going.” “She sneaks out so we don’t know when she leaves.”

So what is this about? As I stated in my previous post, “All human beings need to feel acknowledged. When a supervisor, manager, or co-worker greets an employee, the message being communicated is that the employee has value and importance. When there is no greeting, the opposite message is communicated.”  I think the same principle applies to good-byes, though to a lesser extent. There, practical problems are also involved: you think someone is around but they’re not, or you think they’re cheating on their time in some way (even if they’re an exempt employee).

I also think it’s an issue of power – particularly positional power. In another post, I discussed research indicating that, “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. … Every action and utterance can be scrutinized for meaning those with power are suspect until proven trustworthy.” In the hello and goodbye context, the power differential increases the “offense” felt by subordinates. They feel that by ignoring them and not exhibiting basic courtesies, the boss is holding him or herself above the others.

The main way to solve this problem, of course, is to make it clear to employees, particularly leaders, how important these seemingly small touches are. But what about the manager who is not a “Hi, how are you?” kind of person in general – particularly in the morning? I’ve coached managers like this and the challenge is for them to figure out how to acknowledge others in a way that feels authentic and not phony. Maybe they can’t give a “big” hello, but anyone can say, “Mornin’” as they walk by their subordinates.

And if the subordinates are not normally in the manager’s path (“I come in the back door”)? Change the path. Or at least send an email, “Good Morning All!”

Any other thoughts on this topic? ~Amy Stephson

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

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

Do Managers Need to Be “Warm and Fuzzy”?

We’ve all heard about employees who are unhappy with the leader or manager who is “cold” or “not warm and fuzzy.” Many times our first thought is: if the leader or manager is competent and getting the job done, isn’t it enough for him or her to be polite and not unpleasant? 

Unfortunately, the answer is often “no.” Why? I’m not sure. But we live in a culture (at least in the Pacific Northwest) where niceness is highly valued, where the boss is expected to care about his or her subordinates as people, and where people are quick to be offended or hurt.  Television portrayals of bosses don’t help: they may be jerks, but at some level they’re still a member of the workplace gang.

So if our leaders need to be “warm and fuzzy,” how do those who just aren’t that way become friendlier without seeming false and forced?  Here are some suggestions.

First, the leader or manager needs to accept that it is part of his or her job to relate in a warm, friendly manner with subordinates and that it will make a difference in their effectiveness. This is the hardest part because many complain, perhaps with some legitimacy, that these qualities shouldn’t be a requirement. Acceptance is also the key part – with it, the rest will follow.

The next step is for the leader or manager to determine how they act with people they like. Do they smile? Ask interested questions? Take the time to relax and listen attentively?  It’s important to be  specific.

Third, they’ll want to figure out when and where they can exercise these behaviors with others in the workplace.  Being friendly at a time and place where a number of employees will observe the friendliness, even if it isn’t directed toward them, is one possibility.  For example, a walk through the cafeteria or getting in the same coffee line as employees are good times and places to chat with employees.  Another possibility is to attend meetings where subordinates will be — and actually talk to them.  If the manager already attends these meetings, he or she can use the opportunity to engage. 

Even a sincere hello in the hall goes surprisingly far.  I talked about this in an earlier post, “Just Say Hello.”  It matters.

Finally, while an “open door policy” is good, it won’t accomplish anything if the leader or manager is not welcoming when people walk through that door.  A  friendly, attentive manner is essential when employees come into the office — to talk, complain, drop something off, whatever. The word will get out.

Any other ideas for increasing a leader’s or manager’s “warm and fuzzy” quotient?  ~Amy Stephson

A Simple Change: Drop the “Should’s”

Imagine you are an employee whose work is careless and usually late.  How do you respond to each of the following messages from your supervisor?

Supervisor A:  “I want to discuss my expectations for your work.  First, you should start paying more attention to your work product: it’s full of typos, incorrect calculations, and unclear sentences.  You shouldn’t turn it in to me unless you have proofread it twice. Second, you also need to get it to me on time.  It’s not acceptable to get it to me two days late.  Am I being clear?”

Supervisor B:  “I want to discuss my expectations for your work.  First, it’s important that you pay more attention to your work product, which tends to have typos, incorrect calculations, and unclear sentences. Second, it’s also important that you get your work to me on time, not two days late.  What can we do to ensure that you are able to meet these expectations?  One suggestion I have is that you proofread your work twice before turning it in.  What else might work?”

Both supervisors are saying the same thing and neither is being inappropriate or abusive.  Yet, most people would far rather get the message from Supervisor B.  Why?  For two main reasons.  Rather than giving directives, Supervisor B is using coaching language , e.g., “What can we do . . .?”  A coaching approach often produces a less defensive employee and better results.  As noted in an earlier post, one component of effective coaching is to ask open ended “what” questions. 

Equally importantly, Supervisor B does not use terms such as “you should” “you have to” or “you need to.”  This is central,  because for better or for worse, these terms are psychologically loaded, often raising feelings of obligation, guilt, and right vs. wrong.  

Think of an obligation and couch it in terms of “I should do X every week” or “I have to do Y regularly.”  Now reframe it using more positive words such as “I want to do X every week” or “It’s important to do Y regularly.”  It can be transformative: instead of feeling like an obligation or burden, it feels like a positive choice. 

In the workplace setting, avoiding use of the word “should” (and its cousins “have to” and “need to”) can be similarly transformative.  When Supervisor B says “it’s important,” he or she is using a neutral word without negative connotations. It has the added benefit of communicating that there is a reason for the request.  It also, in some subtle way, communicates that the supervisor and the employee are a team working on matters of common interest. “It’s important …” is one way to reframe the message; many others work as well. 

Avoiding “should” is a simple change that can bring about significant improvements in workplace communication.  Do you have any other magic bullets ?   ~Amy Stephson

Just Say Hello

I still remember when a workplace mediator told me many years ago, “Hello is huge.”  What did she mean? She meant that when employees are upset that someone, especially a superior, doesn’t say hello to them, it’s important and shouldn’t be ignored.

The issue can come up in a variety of ways. An employee may complain about it explicitly. Or, more commonly,  HR or management may hear grumbling about a particular supervisor or co-worker’s unfriendliness or complaints about the supervisor’s inaccessibility.  It’s easy to think: “That’s just her personality” or “I can’t regulate social interactions in the workplace” or “It’s not intentional – he’s just preoccupied.”  But that’s not the correct response.

 It’s easy to think: “That’s just her personality” or “I can’t regulate social interactions in the workplace” or “It’s not intentional – he’s just preoccupied.” 

The reason? All human beings need to feel acknowledged. When a supervisor, manager, or co-worker greets an employee, the message being communicated is that the employee has value and importance. When there is no greeting, the opposite message is communicated. And the employee feels it, particularly if it’s a pattern.  This feeling in turn may lead to resentment, conflict, sensitivity to slights, and in some cases, discrimination or other complaints. I’ve worked on discrimination matters that partially involved this very issue.

Fortunately, this problem is easy to solve. People who don’t greet others are usually not bad people – they’re just not aware of the impact of their inaction.  Some brief coaching as to why it’s important and when it’s called for should be sufficient.

This may sound like advice for teaching kindergarteners. And it is. But as we all know, employees often trip over each other by failing to observe the basics of successful human interaction and communication. 

Next time: apologies!   ~AS