Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Working Life: Difficult Conversations

Radio Recap...

In a June episode of The Working Life, Carol Blymire and I discussed the art of the difficult conversation.

Avoiding difficult conversations is a common practice both in our professional lives and our personal lives. Telling an employee that their performance is not up to snuff is an unpleasant task for most of us. Confronting a friend about an unpleasant situation promises to be about as fun as a root canal. So when faced with an unpleasant or difficult conversation—many of us just avoid it, hoping that somehow the situation will just improve on its own. Unfortunately, this strategy rarely works—and ultimately weakens the relationship—whether it is a personal or professional relationship.

Conducting difficult conversations with grace and skill is a great asset in today’s world. Turning a potentially conflict-ridden conversation into a collaborative conversation requires preparation, empathy, focus and commitment. Here are the basic steps to engaging in a successful “difficult conversation.”

  1. Prepare: Spend time in advance getting clear about the purpose of the conversation. What outcomes are you seeking? What facts, opinions, feelings, questions, and/or requests do you have? Which of these do you want to share? It is essential that you create a positive goal for building a better relationship and for resolution of the issue that you are bringing forward.
  2. Lead with a positive intention: How a conversation begins foreshadows how it will end. Setting up the conversation well guarantees a better outcome. Open with a clear articulation of the purpose of the conversation and at least one goal you both share. Equally important is to share a positive intention for the other person and your desire to BUILD a stronger relationship with this person.
  3. Start with them: Before you launch into your perspective ask the other person to share how they see things. Most people begin these conversations defensive or fearful. Inviting them to speak early sends a message that they are going to be full partners in the conversation. In other words, make it clear you are speaking with them and not talking at them. Avoid interrupting or contradicting until the other person has finished speaking.
  4. Share your perspective: Once the other person has spoken, ask them if you might share your perspective. Then deliver a clear, thoughtful summation of what you are seeing, how you understand the situation and what you want. Speak with clarity, directness and succinctness. Avoid long anecdotes and rambling examples. (This is where your preparation will pay off in huge dividends.) Allow the other person to ask questions. When finished offering your perspective, ask them to summarize what they heard you say. This will ensure that your message was delivered.
  5. Maintain Focus & Problem Solve: Track the conversation and stay on topic. Picture yourself on the same side of the table with the other person or actually sit next to the other person. Think about the “problem” as an objective issue to be examined together. Articulate what you see as the other person’s perspectives, concerns or hopes Seek win-win solutions.
  6. Plan for next steps: As the conversation ends, explicitly recap any agreements you’ve made.
  7. Show Appreciation. Thank your conversation partner A little gratitude goes a long way.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Working Life: Parents in the Workplace
More thoughts from this week's radio show...

In this segment of The Working Life, Carol Blymire and I discuss work-life balance and tensions between parents and non-parents in the workplace. We also discussed how organizations are making more concessions for working parents and whether or not these benefits were “fair” to non-parents. Below are some of the ideas we discussed.

Carol’s Question: One issue I know that has gotten a lot of media coverage lately is that people without children feel discriminated against in the workplace. They feel as if parents, mothers in particular, get special treatment – whether it’s flex-time hours or the ability to leave early or not have to travel because of their child’s schedule. Is this fair?

My Thoughts: Fairness is a tough parameter to put around this issue. Fairness is a notoriously slippery slope when we talk about human social systems….I mean is it really “fair” that Paris Hilton makes more money in one hour than a public school teacher makes in a year? So on this topic, it really shouldn’t be about what is “fair” as much as it should be about what are the best solutions for the organization and all of its stakeholders.

For those people who do not have children (and I am one of them) it is important to remember that children have historically (and rightly so) been considered a “public good.” This means that all of society in some ways benefit economically and socially from the presence and propagation of children. As annoying as they may be at that French restaurant tonight—remember, you’re gonna need that screaming kid and (millions just like him) to become a tax paying and consumer buying citizen in order to support and maintain an economy that makes it possible for you to even have a job. (Not to mention, you’re definitely going to need them to support our social security system when you’re ready to retire.) So a little long-term perspective and reframing can be very useful to non-parents in the workplace.

Another useful thing for non-parents to remember is that historically, the workplace has NOT been family friendly. We are just now seeing the pendulum swing towards making the workplace more flexible for the working parent. It’s only been 13 years since the Family Leave Act was passed into law. So while we are now seeing unprecedented workplace flexibility for working parents, make no mistake about it—the workplace is still very much geared towards those who are not primary caretakers of children.

Carol’s Question: On the other side of the coin are the parents. HR executives say that it is more expensive to find a new employee for a position, than retain and be flexible with someone who already has that job. Should people with children be able to have greater flexibility than those who don’t?

My Thoughts: Organizations need to be responsive to all their stakeholders—including their employees. When we talk about giving more flexibility to employees with children, we’re talking mostly about women in the workplace. While today’s fathers are clearly more active parents than ever before, only 6% of them are considered the “primary” caretaker. And if we’re talking about working women in general—we’re talking about over 46% of the current American workforce. So if you consider that 70% of mothers participate in the workplace—we’re talking about a significant (and growing) portion of our workforce. So to answer your question, yes, organizations are facing significant challenges regarding their workforce. A recent study showed that a majority of men (74%) and women (83%) would choose a job with lower pay in favor of an employer who offered a more flexible family-friendly work environment.

And yes, departing workers can be a very costly proposition for today’s business leaders. In most cases it is much more expensive for an employer to replace, rehire and retrain skilled workers than to offer some reasonable accommodations. Organizations who do not realize this run the risk of losing a significant portion of their talent pool.

Carol’s Question: We hear a lot about work-life balance, and that companies are even being given awards for their work-life programs. Do employers have an obligation to encourage a healthy balance, or is it up to the employee – or is it a combination of both?

My Thoughts: One thing I think we often forget is that we live in a democratic capitalist society. That means we live and work in a vibrant marketplace where people are free to vote with their feet (and their wallets). Organizations do not have an innate obligation to provide anything to their workers except fair compensation for work performed—as defined by our legal system and/or our marketplace. So, no, our companies do not have an “obligation” to encourage a healthy work/life balance.

They do, however, have an inherent self-interest to do so. It is in their self-interest to create a workplace that attracts and retains a productive workforce and talent pool. They need a talented workforce to survive and thrive marketplace competition and they also need to compete with other businesses to find that workforce. And this is what we are seeing in today’s job marketplace. Organizations are becoming more responsive to workers demands because workers demands are dramatically changing from a generation ago. Gone are the days when you signed up to work for a company for life. Thanks in a large part to Generation X, today’s workforce has a very different notion of the employer/employee social contract. Workers are much more likely to change jobs in search of better opportunities than ever before. In other words, they vote with their feet.

As expectations on both sides shift and evolve, more accommodations and negotiations will take place between the employer and employee to design a more desirable and appropriate social contract. So this is a shared obligation—employees must be willing to ask for what they want and employers must be willing to negotiate those wants. Employees must also be willing to make active choices to reinforce their balance requests. Remember—everyone has a right to at least ask for what they want!

Carol’s Question: So lets say you do want to improve your work/life balance—regardless of whether or not you have children. How do you approach your supervisor? I can’t imagine you can just go in and say, “you know, I’ve decided I only want to work from 10 – 3 from now on….

My Thoughts: The best advice I can give you is to remember that to your organization this is a business issue even though to you it may be a personal matter. So you must present your case as a business professional. Organizations care about results, productivity, bottom line, profits, effectiveness, efficiency, etc. etc. Be sure you truly understand what is important to your employer and their needs. Appeal to their self-interest–not yours. Show how your proposal equals good business. And finally, be flexible yourself—remember this is a negotiation—your employer may have legitimate concerns. Offer a variety of options and even a test run. Remember, it may take several conversations to win them over.

Carol’s Question: Finally, what advice do you have for both sides of the parent/non-parent debate in the workplace? How can both parties work better together and avoid resentment?

My Thoughts: Stop thinking of this issue as a debate or an “either/or” proposition. That presupposes that one side wins and one side loses. Parents and non-parents are not on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to creating healthy workplaces. Instead, start thinking about how everyone can help create workplaces that are flexible and responsive to the needs of all workers. Remember the adage: “A high tide raises all boats.” Instead of resenting each other, parents and non-parents should realize the power they hold to effect change when they pull together.

To listen to an archive of this show: http://washfm.com/pages/waf.html

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Office Aide Q & A: Cubism, Grouchiness, Public Humiliation, and More!

Question from Learning to Be a Low Talker:
My cube problem is not that it's too loud in the halls, but that it's not loud enough. It's like a library in here and I sometimes don't feel comfortable making phone calls for work or when my fiancée calls because of how quiet it is and feeling like I'm talking to loud. So I find myself whispering into the phone to where the person on the other end of the phone keeps asking me to speak up. I feel like an idiot.
–Learning to Be a Low Talker

Dear Low Talker:What? I couldn’t hear you over the typing of my keys….note to self….type more softly.

I feel your pain. Super quiet offices give me the creeps—it reminds me of working in a morgue. Personally, I enjoy a high energy and robust workplace. Then again, I tend to be a loud person. (I was even once shushed at a dinner party.) If you enjoy your job, then there is nothing to really do but accept the quiet culture. I wouldn’t whisper on the phone—except when you are making personal phone calls, because, lets face it, technically, you shouldn’t be making personal phone calls at work—I would try to use a normal tone of voice when making legit business calls. Who knows, maybe others are just waiting for someone else in the office to make some noise so they can call their fiancées.

However, if you find the silence is crushing your spirit then it wouldn’t hurt to find a new job in a more sound friendly organization. Cause your odds of single-handedly changing the culture are pretty slim.
On The-Not-Much-You-Can-Do-About-It-But-Suck-It-Up Meter: 9.

Question from a New Cubist: Need some "cube" survival tips. Due to an internal re-org and floor move, I now find myself in a cube after two years in a private office. And I am having a hard time getting used to the noise -- can hear everything my cube mates do -- and activity. My work requires the ability to concentrate and create products that are not conducive to interruptions. Help!
–New to the Cube Life

Dear New Cubist: Here’s what you do: suck it up. At least for now. You could try using white noise machines, earphones, etc. to block out the noise—but doing so might send a message that you are a weenie who is unable to roll with the punches. If your company has gone through a reorganization, then there are probably larger issues facing your leadership than your preference for a private office. Ride out this storm with as much grace and forced resiliency as you can muster. (After all, some of that noise might be the snickering of your colleagues watching you flounder about in the lowly cube farm.)

My guess is you will get used to the noise pretty quickly once you stop resisting it and stop mourning your private office. As far as interruptions go, learn to be tactful when people interrupt you. If after a month or so your work really does suffer—then go to your boss to discuss. But be sure to come with some solutions. You might consider pitching a telework schedule or some other creative solution. But above all, use this opportunity to truly appreciate how the other half works—you might absorb some valuable information that helps you get back to the elite side of life.
On The-Not-Much-You-Can-Do-About-It-But-Suck-It-Up Meter: 6

Question from Grouchy in Sunny CA: I'd like some advice on how to deal with a co-worker who is frequently grouchy.

We are part of a project team, and we report directly to the company president. We are of equal rank, though from different fields, and must peer-review all our work. This woman is superb at what she does and very hard-working -- but a lot of the time she is either snappish or withdrawn. She never actually comes out and says, "You're stupid" or "I'm smarter than you," but her irritation seems evident from her body language -- scowling, hunching her shoulders, rolling her eyes, sighing loudly, or having an edge to her voice.

Nearly everyone she's worked with has felt her wrath and condescension –even the executives. I'd like to know whether I should call her on her brusque manner -- e.g. "when you speak to me that way I feel reprimanded" -- or just let it go, since tone of voice is notoriously difficult to pin down.
–Grouchy in Sunny CA

Dear Grouchy in Sunny CA: Really? Tone of voice is notoriously difficult to pin down? In what universe is snappy rudeness difficult to identify? Can you tell what tone of voice I’m using now—even though you can’t even really “hear” me????

Clearly you are dealing with someone who is either very un-self aware, very unhappy, very emotionally unintelligent, socially inept or just plain mean. And lucky for you, handling this situation doesn’t require you to turn your office into a therapy center. It just requires you to choose an intervention strategy that works for you.

Strategy One: Suck-It-Up. Clearly one option is to just let it roll off your back. This is a fine option and probably the most diplomatic one. It would make you a really big and gracious person. But it ain’t much fun is it?
Degree of Difficulty: 7
Degree of Fun: 0

Strategy Two: Feedback. As you rightly suggested, is the standard feedback protocol of saying “when you…I feel…” The problem with that protocol is that, well, it doesn’t really work all that great. (And finding the exact right language to use can be extremely difficult) I know, I know, we organizational consultants teach this protocol all the time but quite honestly, I don’t love it. And lets be real—she has probably heard it before and has either disregarded it or is unable to self reflect on her emotional intelligence. (Which is really what we are talking about here, aren’t we?) On the other hand, should she ever open the door for feedback—be sure to walk right through. Tell her how you experience her without judgment.
Degree of Difficulty:8
Degree of Fun:1

Strategy Three: Immediate Intervention. Instead, lets try what I like to call the Immediate Intervention Approach. (Or in layman’s terms: calling people on their crap.) When she snaps or is grouchy—call her on it right then and there. But here is the trick—do it only with questions. And you must use a concerned and truly empathetic tone of voice. Here are some examples:
“Wow, you sound really angry, is something wrong?”
"Are you frustrated with our process? Your tone of voice seems very agitated. Is there something you need from me?
“Oh, it looks like from the vein popping out on your neck that you might have a different opinion—I’d love to hear it. “
“I’m sensing from your tone of voice/furrowed eyebrow/flames coming from your mouth that you don’t approve. What do you think needs to happen?
“What’s with the snappiness? Is there something you are trying to tell me?”

Okay, so some of these are a little smart-alecky--but you get the idea. The Key to this intervention is sincerity and non-judgment. You have to be truly curious as to why she is snapping at you. You have to be able to pause the action to call attention to what you are seeing and hearing. Calling people out gently but firmly—right in the moment—helps them immediately see how their behavior is being experienced. It might also open the door for a feedback conversation down the line. After she hears you inquire on her behavior numerous times, she will probably pull you aside and ask why you keep thinking she is so angry. That is when she will be most open to feedback. That is when you get to say, “When you….I feel…”

Degree of Difficulty: 4
Degree of Fun: 8

Question from Humiliated at Work: My supervisor found a small error on a report I was preparing for a client. (I used an incorrect label for a financial table). When she caught it she flipped out and claimed it was “ a huge, inexcusable mistake." I work in a cube farm, so everyone heard her yelling at me. What can I do to better this situation? I said something like "sorry" but what can I do to redeem myself. I work in the kind of environment where once someone makes a mistake, people don't want to work with you anymore. And everyone else on the floor hearing this is not helping. What can I do?
–Humiliated at Work

Dear Humiliated at Work: Which situation are you trying to better? The “huge inexcusable mistake?” The public humiliation? A boss that is prone to hyperbole and exaggeration? The culture of unrelenting perfection and condemnation for those who may be less than superhuman?
And to whom do you want to redeem yourself?

Mistakes happen. If your organization is really so harsh on those who make them—then you’re going to have to develop very thick skin and/or become very, very careful. (Personally, I’m not a big fan of the public humiliation culture—but that is a whole other issue.) If you need to redeem yourself to your boss—then own up to the mistake. Say, “Thank you for catching my mistake on the X report. I am upset that I didn’t catch it myself. I will not make that mistake again.” Your supervisor’s job is to supervise your work and manage your development. Taking ownership of your mistakes in a very straightforward manner is the best you can do. You then continue to redeem yourself by doing excellent work.

As for the rest of the cube farmers—there is not really much you can do except to continue to hold your head high, do excellent work, and don’t babble on about your mistake. Whether they admit it or not—they’ve all been there.

And by the way, are you sure this is the right organization for you?
Office Aide Q & A: Bad jokes, Ipods, Gender Politics and More....

Question from Downtown D.C.: I have a friend at work who loves to tell stories/jokes that just are not funny. They're not offensive or anything, they're just not funny. He tells them constantly and they are long drawn out affairs with lots of animation, like we're all supposed to be really engaged, and then he pauses for dramatic effect ... and hits us with the punch line, which, again, is just not funny. Then he laughs heartily.

What should we do? He’s a nice person and we don’t want to be rude. We’ve been laughing to be polite, but I fear we are just encouraging his behavior. It’s getting to be a big problem—do we confront? This happens often enough that a battle plan must be figured out soon…
-Trying To Work in Downtown DC

Dear Downtown DC:
That reminds me of a funny story…this sandwich walks into a bar, see…oh, am I boring you? Is that a fork in your eye? Hey, wait, where are you going??? Come back…!!!
Let’s start with the good news: you only have to work with this guy. Somebody probably has to live with him. And that’s whom I really feel sorry for. So you have four options here of varying degrees of difficulty.

Option 1: Stage a mass intervention. Pull your colleagues together and with as much love as you can muster let this guy know how his behavior affects you. Chances are he may feel hurt/humiliated/ganged up upon. You might need professional guidance to pull this off.
Degree of difficulty: 10
Degree of fun: 0

Option 2: Accept and ignore. Just do nothing and learn to live with this unfunny class clown. There is one in every crowd.
Degree of difficulty: 6
Degree of fun: 0.

Option 3: Tactful avoidance. When he comes into your workspace and launches into a story, do as little as possible to encourage him. Research shows that story listeners act as co-narrators in the story telling process by supplying cues and subtle affirmations during narration. Take these away. Type and look at your computer while he talks. Act very preoccupied—rummage through drawers, check your email, etc. Midway through simply cut him off and say, “I’m sorry, Bob, could you tell me this story another time? I’m under deadline.” The main idea here is to become an inactive listener. After awhile, he will hopefully stop seeking you out. The downside of this approach is that you will feel icky everyday. The upside is that you get to avoid an uncomfortable conversation.
Degree of difficulty: 5
Degree of fun: 4

Option 4: Take the offensive. A good defense is a good offense. (Or is it the other way around?) My husband who is a master at this taught me this nifty little trick. When someone starts launching into a long monologue you simply interrupt and start your own long (and boring) monologue. People who like to talk rarely like to listen. After a few of these interactions, I guarantee you he will stop seeking you out for his stories. You might have to prepare a few long stories so that you are well armed when approached. I suggest using anything that deals with your pets, your children or your college reminisces.
Degree of difficulty: 3
Degree of fun: 10.

Question from Men Suck: As a successful professional woman working her way up in the world, I’m finding that as I get more responsibility and more duties, the men I encounter seem more ineffective and less competent. I'm not male bashing, but it's becoming increasingly annoying working with men who are mediocre in the workplace but still achieve status and position. Why do companies keep promoting mostly men who don’t have much growth potential over the women who are getting things done?
–Is it just me or do men suck?

Dear Men Suck,
As much as I would love to male bash with you…I must maintain a modicum of gender objectivity here. Yes, there are organizations that still promote men over women—sad but true. However, research shows that women tend to have this odd notion that competence and skill are the most important elements to success in the workplace. In other words women believe promotions/success should be, above all else, merit based. While that is a lovely and noble notion—it is one that reflects little reality.

Organizations are complex social systems. In many cases, relationships, political posturing, networking, personality, etc. etc. are as equally, if not more important, than skill and merit. Succeeding in an organization is similar to playing a game. Men know this. They know that the game involves much more than simply doing a great job. So if you want to succeed in your organization take a good long look at your company’s game board. Who are the players? Who is succeeding? What are they doing to succeed? You need to understand the playing field and then play the game that is there—not the one that you wish was there. Look at the difference between how they play and how you play. Stop resisting the fact that for now this is the accepted playing field. Then you get to decide if you want to change the way you play or not.

I know, I know, work shouldn’t be political, yada, yada, yada. You can hate it all you want—but people are people, and when they come together all kinds of weird, annoying, and yes, sometimes and wonderful things result.

Question from iPod Nation: My office is debating whether or not we will allow iPods or MP3 players and earphones to be used while working in the office. Clearly, this issue is being promoted by some of the younger workers. Any comments on if it's appropriate?
–Living in an iPod Nation

Dear iPod Nation:
I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you--I was listening to a Ricky Gervais podcast…Okay, so I actually have very specific thoughts, or shall I say, attitudes, on this issue. To put it bluntly, I’m pretty much against it. To put it mildly, I’d be very wary about letting people tune out at the workplace. I am amazed at how separate and isolated we’ve all become while together in this world. Organizations are social networks of people who have come together to accomplish common goals. Letting people isolate themselves from each other kind of defeats the point of coming together, doesn’t it?

So here’s my take. Organizations have very specific cultures. While letting people tune out by tuning in may seem like a small thing to do, it could actually have very large consequences on organizational culture. First of, you’ll probably feel an immediate energy drop. With people choosing their private music world over their colleagues, the office will get very quiet very fast. People will engage in less conversation and may tend to overuse email even more than they already do. Some of the best and most productive conversations happen in the hallways—those will probably go by the wayside as well if people walk around while plugged in.

So if your organization is made up of a lot of people working alone on individual projects, then it might be a fine thing. But if your organization benefits from robust interaction among the employees—I’d really think twice. Are we done? I can’t write and listen to Ricky at the same time.

Question from Not Loving the Berry Action: I have a question, dealing with BlackBerrys and hourly staff. At my office, a few of us hourly staff members have been issued BlackBerrys and told that we are responsible for checking them at all times and responding to e-mails when necessary. But we’ve also been told that we can't charge overtime for this because it is just a part of our jobs. Is this legal? How should handle this electronic intrusion?
-–Not Loving the Berry Action

Dear Not Loving the Berry Action:
I’ve heard of BlackBerry addiction, aka the CrackBerry, but this is the first I’ve heard of the “ShackleBerry.” The problem with our addiction to email is that everyone expects round-the-clock access to everyone else. Your office is just a reflection of the current culture of the American workplace. As for the legal ramifications of this new policy—I’m not an employment lawyer, but it seems to me that hourly employees shouldn’t be required to work without payment. While you may be rightly chaffing under this new policy, I think you need more information before you storm the castle.

So here’s my advice: First of all, determine exactly what kind of time commitment we’re talking about. Is it a few extra minutes a week, a day? Or is it several hours? Secondly, are you clear about when it is “necessary” to respond? Is there general consensus among all staff what constitutes post work hour correspondence? Thirdly, do you like your job? Is this a potential deal breaker for you?

After you have a more complete picture of what these additional responsibilities will really look like you will have a better negotiating point with your boss. If you find you are spending considerable time (several extra hours a week) on your “ShackleBerry,” then I would suggest negotiating extra pay. If not overtime pay, perhaps an increase in your hourly wage to compensate for your extra duties. You will have to make your case calmly and factually. However, if you find that the extra time is really only an hour or so a week, I would consider just sucking it up. Especially, if you like your job. This may be one of those things that just comes with the territory.