Thursday, June 28, 2012

Get Your Hands Untied

How often do Human Resources or managers get accused of ignoring problems, taking sides, or playing favorites?  It seems employees feel that unless a person is fired, or publicly flogged, not enough has been done to remedy a problematic situation.  Complicating matters further, Human Resources (and other authority figures in the workplace) are bound by confidentiality and often cannot reveal how they are handling an issue.

Allowing this conundrum to remain brings some employees to believe that sharing information with management does nothing to help, yet leaves them exposed.  They’ll stop telling you about their concerns even if they continue to be impacted by them.  Morale will drop, workplace relations suffer, and unplanned turnover will increase.  In some cases, an employee will feel violated and, if they happen to be of a protected class, may file a grievance or a lawsuit claiming discrimination.

What can you do?  While the law may leave you feeling your hands are tied, here are five things you can, and should, do when hearing a complaint.

  1. Hear both sides.  It sounds silly, but all too often the crux of such concerns occur when a person of authority takes action or makes a decision based on just one person’s side of a story. 
  2. Take notes.  Not copious notes, just enough to show you’re actually listening and trying to keep track of the situation.  Remember if it matters to them, they need to know it matters to you too.
  3. Help them to resolve it themselves.  Many of the complaints HR and managers hear have to do with interpersonal issues.  They aren’t issues which typically require intervention.  In such cases, encouraging the person to handle it themselves is often the right choice.  To offer support, you may want to role play, provide mentoring, or offer to be present when the concerned party approaches the source of their complaint.  
  4. Keep them informed.  Tell them what you’re going to do (generally), and why.  Perhaps it’s not appropriate to act on a first time concern, but you are taking notes and plan to keep an eye on the situation.  Or maybe the issue does require intervention.  Simply let them know that you will be taking action, but that due to confidentiality you cannot disclose any other details.  In either situation, be honest about your decision-making. 
  5. Tell them to keep you informed.  This may be the most important step as it assures the concerned party that you do want to help and are not ignoring their concerns.  Urge them to come to you if the situation continues or worsens.  Remind them that you cannot be of help if you are not aware of the problem.
By responding to complaints in this manner, you will better control morale, turnover, and issues of conflict in the workplace. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Scary Question You Need to Ask

Miscommunication occurs so often in our lives – and we are seldom even aware of it.  Our spouse makes a sarcastic comment, our friend replies negatively to our request, a family member retorts, “I knew you would be this way.”

In each of these situations we think we have it all figured out.  We assume we know what they’re saying, what they meant, or why they’re rejecting us.  And yet, I can tell you as a conflict resolution professional, who sees, hears, and experiences these situations every day, the truth is we’re usually wrong.  Yes, usually. 

Even with my awareness and expertise, I frequently find myself caught in the same reactive behaviors.  But, I have a very simple tool I use to help me out of that knee jerk belief.  My tool is a question:  “What did you mean by that?”

While I advocate for saying this with a calm voice, even using it with an irritated one is helpful, as it invites communication. 

Take for example the husband who asks his wife “Honey, are you going to eat all of that?” while looking at her plate.  She’s been dieting to lose weight and feels instantly judged and angry.  How could he be so insensitive?!  Despite her urge to shut down, she instead asks, “What did you mean by that?”  He quickly realizes he’s hurt his wife (improved self-awareness for future interactions), and explains, “I thought you wanted to save some of that for your lunch tomorrow.”  Now she feels supported, rather than hurt.  And they both benefit through better understanding the others reactions/intentions in that moment.

Imagine the possibilities.  If you’re presumption is wrong, it gets corrected immediately and you feel better as in the example above.  If you’re deduction is correct, it still invites discussion - possibly allowing for you to clear the air on a misunderstanding the other holds about you.  Moreover, the question leaves room for you to teach the other person a better way of communicating with you, so that these misunderstandings occur less often.

We operate in fear of these seemingly confrontational discussions, and yet they are liberating.  They heal our relationships as they allow for shared understanding to take place.  They bring depth back to our often surface-level conversations, and make deeper connections with others possible.  They help us to be humble and aware, caring and concerned.

So go ahead, use my tool.  Ask the scary question, “What did you mean by that?”  And be ready to improve your relationships!