Thursday, December 31, 2015

Probiotics for your Cross-“Cultural” Interactions

As technology increases our reach, many of us find a significant part of our daily interaction involves transacting across borders and cultures. Yet we rarely consider the impact of these cross-cultural interactions.  While cultural barriers are not always apparent (i.e. differences in language, script or dress) – they are most certainly felt.  And their “invisibility” often means that we bump (or crash) into them when we least expect it.

Recently, a colleague of mine was emailed a document on “Japanese Business Etiquette” before her meeting with 
executives visiting from Japan. We chuckled over the list that covered a range of topics, including how to present and receive a business card, the appropriate ways to discuss your family, what to wear and personal habits. It was almost offensive to receive such a document as a “normal and respectful professional” because a receipt of such a list suggested otherwise!  Despite the unintended offense, this type of document is a good way to forewarn parties of cultural differences and norms ahead of negotiations. 

However, not all cross-cultural interactions and negotiations come from a business-to-business environment where a prescriptive list is provided.  Some may arise as components of e-Commerce or through our communication on social networks.  People can be offended and transactions, halted.  In fact, cross-generational interactions can involve similar challenges often impacting the workforce. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

We Must Connect – (Let’s make it our New Year’s Resolution)

I am frustrated.  We’re all frustrated.  And sad.  And angry.  And feeling so painfully helpless.  We point our angry, helpless finger at seemingly responsible aspects of our society:  Gun legislation, mental health issues, and violence in the media.  We point a finger and place blame, all the while neglecting to notice the bigger issue, the one in which we are all responsible and can all make an impact – the need to foster and heal our own relationships.

We are losing our ability to make profound and important connections, even with those we love most.   Most concerningly, with the youngest members of our society - children.  Where does this void lead them?  Isolation, depression, acting out?   And in some sad situations, it has the ability to lead to extreme behaviors as well.  This may not mean picking up a gun…but it might mean finding ways to “connect” that involve illicit drugs, or joining fringe groups that fill a missing sense of belonging.  It may mean suicidal behaviors.

We see children of all ages detached from their families – playing on handheld devices of various forms.  Parents, grandparents, and other caregivers do the same as they text and connect with others while their children shout, “Watch me! Watch me!”  And these children get older, having never fully adopted healthy skills of social interaction.  Their fractured ability to connect is evident as they fail to interact with their peers – often texting in lieu of face to face interactions.  I fail to see any upside to this.

Are we – collectively - raising a generation of detached children?  A generation who are profoundly more detached that any previous one due to our behaviors and choices.  “I don’t have kids” you say.  But no doubt you grew up making eye contact with people other than your parents.  You still do this today, though probably not as routinely, because you learned how.  We all need to get back to this.  We all have a stake in the game when we too are at risk of experiencing violent or deadly behaviors.

An FBI study of shooter incidents in the United States from 2000 – 2013 shows an alarming trend of an increased frequency of such incidents.  What else has changed drastically in that time period?  Not gun ownership, not mental health issues.  What has changed is our use of and reliance on social media.  In fact it has grown with exponential force. 

As a society we need to bring change.  None of us can excuse our own behavior when it involves using our smart phone while in the company of others.  Whether we know the people we are with or not.  We must realize that we are a part of the problem and a part of the solution.  Failing to do so is damaging the fabric of our society, and with each new act of violence, we feel our safety compromised, and the rug being ripped out from underneath us a bit more.  We must connect.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

What if?

Today, in our latest experience of terrorist threats, I am compelled to ask….

What if the threat is real?
What if we are in danger?
What if we can’t do anything about it?
What if we had a choice?
What if we looked at our options?
What if we looked at each other?
What if we looked to each other?
What if we looked each other in the eyes?
What if we did that for a moment longer?
What if we joined hands?
What if we held hands?
What if we banded together?
What if we could bond together?
What if what’s missing, is connecting? 
What if you could take steps to change that?
What if we could feel safe?
What if it only took making an effort?
What if you did make that effort?
What if we all did?

We feel safe when we are with others.  Even, especially, when we are in danger.  We need to stop isolating.  We need to stop connecting in a superficial way and begin doing it in a meaningful way.  With our children, our parents, our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, the waitress, the store clerk, the stranger we pass in the hall, or on the street.  We need to start.  We need to take control of the life we want to lead.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Workplace Violence - Stop the Wait and See NOW

Yesterday's shooting in San Bernadino, CA - while now known as a terrorist attack, also serves as a horrifying reminder of the potential for workplace violence.  It prompted me to share this (updated) article from three years ago.  This article is a reminder that there are warning signs, and there are things we can do to prevent workplace hostility.  Waiting, and hoping for things to magically get better, isn't an acceptable solution.  Gun legislation won't change the situations that cause someone to want to get a gun.   Something else has to give.
All too often we miss the warning signs...and there are many.  Single incidents of conflict or tension may upset or confuse, but they don’t trigger a drastic response.  Rather, it is the historical repetition of events – be it bullying, intimidation, refusal to cooperate, or other unfair, unkind behaviors – which lead to reactive and explosive measures.  The problem is, if we focus on the violence, we are looking for solutions in the wrong places.
As a conflict resolution and management expert, I frequently see bad workplace behaviors that have gone unchecked.  And while most individuals don't respond with violence - they do respond.  You see it in the form of employee turnover, increased absenteeism, theft, harassment claims, EEOC complaints, etc.  
Most, if not all, of this is preventable.  It begins with staff having a trusted place to bring their concerns.  It continues when they believe that by bringing their concerns forward, they will get help.  It is complete when there is a firm resolution, by leaders and managers, to bring swift, decisive intervention when problems perpetuate. 

Conflict management readiness is, for this reason, vital to all businesses.  Staff must learn skills in conflict communication.  Human Resources, leaders and managers must have skills for addressing workplace problems in a way that empowers, rather than punishes, staff whenever possible.  And formal conflict resolution, such as mediation, must be engaged at the earliest possible time if other efforts fail to yield the desired results.
If you have questions about how to address these issues, or want to discuss the concerns of your workplace, please contact us for a free consultation.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Lessons Learned from a Blue Dog

As I was driving my daughter home from school one day we discussed her most recent, holiday inspired, work of art.  I suggested that we temporarily place it where we had hung her “Blue Dog” painting.  She agrees…and then a few moments later asks, “Don’t you like my Blue Dog?”  Surprised, as I absolutely love her art work and frequently tell her so, I said “Of course I do.” – Then I went on to explain the limited space we have for hang-able art.  “But” she says, “I heard you say you didn’t like ‘Blue Dog’”.  And she was right.  I had said exactly that.  What she didn’t know however, was that I wasn’t referring to her artwork, but a restaurant I wasn’t fond of.  That conversation had happened two weeks earlier.  Right in front of her.  And I never gave it a thought.
For two weeks my daughter sat with that criticism while her Blue Dog hung prominently in our home. 

Why does this matter to you? 

This misunderstanding hits at the core of how many conflicts develop.  My daughter heard me right – but understood me wrong.  How could she have known – or even anticipated that?  How did this impact her for the two weeks she sat on it?  How often were her emotional outbursts and challenging behavior (which were worse during that timeframe) directly related to her being hurt by me?

In both our workplace and our personal lives we are capable of experiencing these misunderstandings.  We feel certain and convinced that the hurt was intentional – How could anything else be the case?  And yet, the Blue Dog teaches us.

Here are the lessons I hope to bring:

Be Brave.  When you feel hurt, talk about it with the person that hurt you.  (If a 6 years old can do it, so can you).
Give the Benefit of the Doubt.  It may look, sound, or feel like someone is being unkind, unfair, or intentionally hurtful.  But before you make that determination, talk to him/her.  There may be more going on than meets the eye.
Ask Questions.  Don’t look to prove your case or find evidence supporting your belief.  Instead, ask questions to find out more information.  It’s ok to be persistent if you are confused by the initial answers.  Had my daughter simply stopped asking questions when I said “Of course (I like her Blue Dog)”, she may have thought I was lying or trying to deceive her. 
Be Open to the Conversation.  When you are being asked questions about your intent, or more to the point, being told you’ve hurt someone, listen to them.  Try to understand where your actions have created pain or harm for someone, and offer clarity, perspective, or even an apology when appropriate.
Forgive.  Hurt, caused with or without malice, can bring out the worst in us.  My daughter had to make peace with the knowledge that I had not intended to hurt her so she could release her pain.  I had to let go of my irritation with the anger she had been displaying.  We both needed to forgive each other.

I was reminded of all this and more from my daughter.  I thanked her for her courage.  I encouraged her to continue to confront the things that hurt her.  I forgave her for the behavior that had come out of that experience. 

I encourage you to do the same.   

Wait…Emotions Matter? Facebook Says So.

I recently heard a news reporter talking about a big change on Facebook.  Emoticons, called “Reactions” will soon be available in our news feed response options.  With them, rather than simply being able to “Like” a post, we will be able to display an array of other emotions including anger, sadness, and surprise.   The reporter went on to talk about how actively this was used in test markets, adding with surprise, “People really liked being able to express their emotions!” 

Was this really such a surprise?  In our computer and technology dominated world, where everything is expected to be fast, simple, and quantifiable, have we really lost site of own humanity, complete with emotions, such that this comes as a surprise to us?

And there’s more.  According to R. Gonzalez of, “With Reactions, Facebook has pared down that most economical mode of communication to its barest of bones.”  While being able to consume more data, and respond to it in less time, is certainly a benefit to our time online, it has implications beyond the internet as well. 

A technology driven wake-up call
Facebook may be using the ‘novelty’ of emotions to improve ad sales and increase consumer usage, but any business has a lot to gain by adding emotions back into the equation.  Here is a jump start of ideas for enhancing business by using emotions in the workplace: 

Customer Service – Engage your customers.  Get rid of the script and have your employees ask questions to get to know their caller and his/her needs.   This builds rapport while providing you with added information that can make your client even happier.  (Added note - If you don’t trust your team to do this, you’ve got the wrong people in customer service).

Employee Performance – Ask employees directly about what encourages, inspires, frustrates, and angers them at work.  Job performance is directly impacted by how we are feeling.  Learn how to bring out the best from your employees.

Self-Expression – Just as emoticons allow a speedy way to show surprise, sadness, and the like, so too does speaking about our emotions.  Imagine how much easier communication would be if we stated our emotion before and after a conversation.  We would immediately know if things are better or worse as a result of the exchange, and have instant feedback on what we need to fix or do differently next time.

Conflict Resolution – Tensions among co-workers always has an emotional under-pinning.  But fear of asking/finding out how someone is feeling, or why they are acting in a negative way, leaves information hidden and conflict unresolved.  Help your managers and your employees learn how to express emotions appropriately and purposefully at work.

Data Collection – We can track and collect data about emotions just as we do any other aspect of business to determine trends, patterns, and information.  Perhaps in conjunction with the suggestions above your company will be able to determine what builds a repeat client, a dedicated employee, or a peaceful work environment. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Stuck - With A Big Black Man

I learn a lot from my clients.  While listening to their concerns, I also learn about them, and sometimes, about myself.  A few weeks back, while interviewing a young man, the question of racism came up.  The man described that he had been subjected to racism at work, and described how a colleague had referred to him as “a big black man”.  I waited for the rest of the story.  But that was it.  That was his story. 

Twice before I had heard that exact same expression, “a big black man”.  Once, as said by a relative; the other time by a different client who was relating an issue of conflict in her workplace.  In all three circumstances, it was a middle-aged (or older) white woman who gave that depiction. 

This had me thinking.  I too felt this statement was descriptive, yet innocuous.  But was it?
I asked the young (black) man further about the situation and shared with him my confusion.  I suggested to him that this expression was intended to be descriptive, not judgmental or racist.  He shared how it felt unfair and biased.  Together we agreed, the expression was used to describe a feeling of being fearful or intimidated.  We continued talking.

It turns out that beyond the words, the context of the message had been missing.  The colleague who casually made this reference, had not explained that she was relaying the fears of another person (an elderly white woman).  Nor had she intervened in her conversation with the elderly woman, to defend the character of her black colleague.  Instead, she merely informed him, matter-of-factly, as if the fear the old woman expressed was reasonable or even justified.  This young man was subject to prejudice at work, as his colleague stood idly by.

There are several learning points here. 

First - Context.  It’s the “why” of what we’re saying.  “Why” the elderly woman (might have) said that.  “Why” the colleague wanted her co-worker to know.  This essential part of our communication is lost more and more in part because we rely on a tweet, text, or a quick email, to share information.  We need to work a lot harder to relay all the information at hand – including the “why?” Read more about the need for "Why".

Second – Teamwork.  This colleague did not demonstrate that she had her co-worker’s back.  She did not speak to his good character or gentle spirit, but instead let the prejudicial opinion sit unquestioned.  If she felt compelled to remain quiet, she could at least share that with her co-worker (and offer context).

Third – Trust.  This young man did not trust in the good intentions of his colleague.  He didn’t question why she would so openly share the information she did.  Instead, he jumped to the conclusion that she herself was racist and was lumping him into some stereotypical pile.  Ironically, doing the same thing to her, that he thought she had done to him. 

Fourth - Responsibility.  The young man did not share his frustration or anger with his colleague.  Instead he stewed about it.  But without knowing how her comment came across, how could his female colleague learn what to change? 

This is our biggest lesson. We are all responsible. For understanding the “why?” For sharing what upsets and hurts us.  For learning what we’ve done wrong and what to change.  For making the changes that matter.  Without this, we are likely to remain stuck.  Stuck in our own sheltered, often misinformed opinions of each other.  Stuck following rules (like political correctness) that don’t necessarily help, but separate us more.  Let’s be better.  Let’s make new rules.