“Many conversations fail because one or both parties never address the real issues, or do not know how to manage the emotions that can erupt when discussing difficult topics.” Loretta Love Huff, Emerald Harvest Consulting
In my previous post, Managing Conversations, People, and Subterfuge – Part 1, I shared some details of the very first negative experience that I encountered in the work place.
What began as a professional disagreement (at least that is what I thought it was) on a project’s approach and direction quickly mushroomed into a personal attack on me that took up a lot of unnecessary time and energy. After several attempts to neutralize the issue over a period of 18-months (which seemed like an eternity), my department manager decided that she needed to flush out the root cause of the problem. As it turned out, the actual problem or troubling issue was less about me and more about professional jealousies and insecurities on the part of the offending party.
This revelation stumped my management because they found it difficult to believe that a mature professional would lead them on a wild goose chase. Every time they thought they had captured the goose, a new wrinkle would arise. After three wild goose chases and no more time or energy for foolishness, my manager finally cornered the mature professional and told her no mas. No more of this foolishness!
The offending party eventually divulged what was troubling her: she did not want her team members to be excluded from opportunities outside of the local office. My management team acknowledged that her concern was legitimate; however, they also needed to make her aware that the primary interest in my availability was tied to my skills and experience. In other words, this was not a popularity contest.
If the project need is for a person with process, product, or chemical engineering skills, they probably aren’t going to be looking for someone with a hydrology or geotechnical background. Clearly, these are not the same things. And, if the outside request had been for her team’s discipline or expertise, I doubt that anyone would have been asking for me to work on these projects.
Remembering the details surrounding that negative experience over 20 years ago still makes my head hurt. About two years ago I read a short book, 6 Keys for Dissolving Disputes When Off With Their Heads Won’t Do [Ref 1]. The book is written by an alumna and business colleague, Loretta Love Huff of Emerald Harvest Consulting. As Huff shared with me and others, many conversations fail because one or both parties never address the real issues, or do not know how to manage the emotions that can erupt when discussing difficult topics.
As she explains from her own experience, “I have spent decades in organizations and have seen the damage ineffective communication can have on morale and productivity. As a Human Resources executive, I’ve helped people identify what they really want from each other and coached them on framing conversations that get to the heart of the issue and create a solution that works for everyone.”
Where was Loretta Love Huff 20 years ago? I could definitely hear my adversary saying back then, “Off with her head! Off with her head!”
The damaging communication that Huff describes above was a part of my experience with this manager. I’d like to tell you that this was my only negative experience or encounter in the work place. It wasn’t and I have witnessed too many others go through this poor problem solving strategy. One of the challenges in issues like these is first recognizing that the problem is personal and not work related, especially since most folks are not willing to admit this.
Here are some helpful tips for dealing with people, communication, and subterfuge issues:
1. Do not accept or pander to unprofessional behavior.
If you are the victim, it is even more important to exhibit professional behavior when dealing with these types. Of course this is easier said than done, but doable. My challenge lasted over a year; however, patterns in individual behavior will show up in as little as a few weeks to a few months.
If you have an issue with a person, take the high road and focus on the problem and not the person. In other words, keep the main thing the main thing. A similar comment was recently made by Magic Johnson when he was being interviewed by Anderson Cooper of CNN on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. Johnson was responding to some unflattering comments that Donald Sterling, who as of today still owns the Los Angeles Clippers, made about him.
Paraphrasing some of Johnson’s comments, “I am going to take the high road in my dealings with him. I still plan to speak to him when I see him, and I am also going to speak to his wife….. I am also going to pray for him.”
Don’t make your problem everyone’s problem. All too often, one or both parties want to engage the office in their brawl. And there are always the pot stirrers who like to invite themselves into the ring. Politely request that they not involve themselves in your personal or professional matters. Engage only those that need to be engaged. Like Magic Johnson, take the high road.
2. Focus on addressing the real issue and not a made-up one.
What started out as a simple disagreement mushroomed into a personal attack on me. Professional jealousies and insecurities were masked as issues of incompetency, poor writing skills, and low emotional intelligence.
My management took the time to make inquiries about each complaint and spoke to several different sources. They made the effort to show objectivity, rather than only rely on comments made by the offending party. I am thankful that they did. I have seen too many examples where management disengaged from the person or the problem, or worse, made the victim the problem.
Please note that the made up issues against me did not address any concerns that the manager had to improve her team’s chances of being considered for additional assignments and work opportunities, especially from other offices. Therefore, her desired outcome of terminating my employment would not have advanced her position one centimeter.
3. Communicate regularly and wisely.
Confirm discussions and agreements in writing, e.g. a simple email copied to those present at meetings will make it difficult for the accuser to rearrange the conversation or assignments, delete factual information, or create data that does not exists.
Use public opportunities such as office meetings, lunch, or client meetings to engage the offending party. This will show both maturity and objectivity on your part. Despite your disagreement, you are still open to having a conversation or dialogue. Take the high road! Show that although you may not agree with this individual, you have no hard feelings towards her or him.
Do not shut down your communication channels with your co-workers or client. You want to show them that this issue is not interfering with your ability to do your job and give them quality care. You also want them to be able to speak positively about their work experience(s) with you, and if necessary, advocate for you.
4. Respect personal and professional boundaries.
A colleague of mine frequently says “everyone who is talking about respect isn’t giving it.” Respect is a two-way street. It is also earned. One thing that confuses too many working professionals is not being able to accept that you don’t have to like a person to work with him or her. However, you do need to respect each other. From the Wisdom of Teams [Ref 2], “Teams don’t have to get along, teams have to get things done.”
Regardless to how flat a pancake is, it has two sides. Get both sides of the story. It doesn’t matter how long you have known a person, or even if one of the persons involved is a friend, an objective leader has the responsibility of confirming that the information that she has been given is factual….regardless to who said it, or where it came from. Trust but confirm the information that you have been given.
In closing, too often we like to pick and choose those that we work and socialize with. Sometimes we have a choice or say in the matter, however, more often we do not. The best we can say about individuals that we don’t click with is he or she isn’t my cup of tea, however, that should not prevent me from doing business or working with them.
1. 6 Keys for Dissolving Disputes When Off With Their Heads Won’t Do, Loretta Love Huff, Bamboo Publishers, 2006, 61 pp
2. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization, Jon R. Katzenback, Harvard Business School Press, 1993, 291 pp