Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Family Teamwork = Better Caregiving

Part 2

Author's Note: This series of posts was written in alliance with Carebuzz, a site that offers resources for caregivers. Please visit their site at http://carebuzz.com.

In the first post in this series we discussed building a high performing family team by keeping the information and conversation going to better serve the loved one. Here’s another recommendation for family caregivers on how to build a supportive team.

Whether in the workplace or in the family, use all the resources at hand. It’s important that family members discuss how to share responsibilities to achieve a common goal of providing the best care. Too often one person tries to do it all, quickly becomes overwhelmed, and then resents that no one else pitches in to help.

Because of geography, skills or financial resources, caregiving usually falls to one or two family members, and the rest are left to wonder what’s going on and why they’re out of the loop. They may want to help but don’t know how and hesitate to offer their services. The primary caregiver may be too stressed out to think about how to divide up the work or simply doesn’t want to ask others for help.

Neither the care recipient nor the family members benefits from one person taking on all the work. Think about a football team; each player or group of players has a different role, and all the roles need to work together effectively for the team to win consistently. The quarterback may call the plays, but if he tries to do everything himself, disaster follows.

In my own family experience, others have helped with everything from researching the medical condition or facility to supplying “insider” medical knowledge, doing laundry, running errands and pet sitting. Everyone has a talent that can help in sharing the load and making caregiving a more pleasant experience for all. Those at a distance from the care recipient can still accomplish a lot via the internet, phone or library. Those who can’t contribute financially can help with household chores or other work.

And remember that, in many cases, the care recipient also has gifts to offer to the family team. If they are still able to do things such as writing notes or making phone calls, those small tasks help keep them connected to others. When my mother was in a nursing facility, she insisted on filling out her own menus; it saved us time and helped her feel useful. The most effective teams use everyone’s strengths to the best advantage.

What has been your experience with using all the talents in your family to provide better care?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Family Teamwork = Better Caregiving

Part 1

Author's Note: This series of posts was written in alliance with Carebuzz, a site that offers resources for caregivers. Please visit their site at: http://carebuzz.com

When helping mom and dad, siblings often face issues such as coordinating their medical appointment schedule, home care and health crises. Applying “team building” concepts to family caregiving can ease stress and greatly improve a loved one’s care.

In this series of posts, we’ll explore the major keys to building a high performing family caregiving team.

The first key is communication. Lack of it often trips up the family team and prevents the best care. Usually one person in the family is the primary caregiver and is often overwhelmed with everything that needs to be done. He or she simply does not have the time to keep all family members updated.

Absence of communication then sets up a situation where others make incorrect assumptions about the family member’s condition or the caregiver’s intentions. We have all seen what happens when people make assumptions, don’t bother to check if they’re correct, and then act on them.

Pretty soon you have a lot of needless worrying, finger pointing and anger that tends to get worse as time goes on. Some family members may completely withdraw from any caregiving responsibilities; others will form “cliques” within the family and criticize the main caregiver or other family members. None of these behaviors contributes to improved care.

In many situations siblings do not have a plan for keeping each other up to date. Because everyone doesn’t have the same information, they disagree on what constitutes “best care” for parents and experience dysfunctional behavior. So what can families do to prevent that from happening and improve communication?

It’s a good idea for family members to agree, ideally when the caregiving begins, on a means of communicating, the items to be communicated, and frequency. If family members are comfortable using the internet, there are great sites such as CaringBridge and GenerationsUnite where they can set up a page to update everyone. Family members can reply, ask questions, send greetings, suggestions and offers of help. Even Facebook and Twitter can be used to keep the information flowing, although privacy concerns must be addressed on public sites.

A less high tech method is for the primary caregiver to phone a designated family member at regular intervals or during a medical crisis, and have that designated person then call everyone else or set up a phone tree to complete the calls. The phone call method is simple and has worked well for my husband’s large family. Whatever the method, the goal is to continue the conversation with each other. In a later post, we’ll look at how to handle conflict when it occurs—and it will.

What communication tools do you use to enhance family teamwork?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Never Car Pool With Your Boss—
And Other Lessons Learned From
40 Years in the Workplace

Part 3

Part 2 of this series pointed out how, in relationships, “right” can sometimes be “wrong” and why we shouldn’t store up grievances. This installment continues the series of lessons learned from 40 years of participating in and observing workplace behavior—my own and others’.
Persistence pays off

When I was a child, my father often referred to me as “stub bor n”. Since being stubborn is not an especially attractive trait, I like to think I turned that quality into persistence. Most of what I’ve achieved in life has come through being persistent: not giving up even though all around me were saying “that’s enough”.

A few years ago while on the treadmill at the gym, I began talking to a woman on the machine next to me. After we discovered we had been in the same high school class, a light bulb when on for her, and she exclaimed “YOU’RE the one.” When I asked what she meant, she replied, “You’re the one who stayed in French class long after everyone else quit. We all talked about you and wondered how you did it.” In fact, by my senior year in high school, I was the only student in fourth year French. The teacher was beyond tough, with many unannounced tests and no mercy shown to those who struggled with the language or didn’t do their homework. Although my stomach was in a knot most days, I stuck with it.
 The payoff for my persistence was a scholarship to study in France for a summer, a perfect score on my French SAT exam, and permission to skip two years of college French. To my way of thinking, this was not a bad tradeoff for the sinking feeling when seeing those maps pulled down over her surprise blackboard tests. And after she became my private tutor (because I was the only class member), we actually developed a cordial relationship that was far removed from the tyranny she exhibited elsewhere.

That situation was just the first of many times during my career that I wanted to give up but kept going to achieve a goal. I’m certain that some parents and students at the high school thought I was being more stubborn (and stupid) than persistent. And maybe I was. However, I believe that persistence wins the day in most cases. The meek may not inherit the earth, but sometimes the quietly tenacious do.

Capture the lessons in every failure

All of us have no doubt experienced a lot of failures and bad times along the way to success. I know I have. What’s important is not how familiar you are with failure but the lessons you’ve learned from it. Capturing lessons and making appropriate adjustments to our actions are a key accompaniment to persistence. After all, if we persist in doing the same things in the same way, we will not move forward. This concept applies to organizations as well as individuals. Too often, organizations lose the knowledge gained through failure because they are so intent on punishing the guilty parties.

When things go wrong in our careers or in life—when employees quit, when we get fired or laid off, when the client or boss yells at us, when the project doesn’t meet expectations—it’s critical that we stay focused on:

What can I (or have I) learned from this experience?
How will I use this information to improve myself or a future situation?

The bad days will be forgotten but the lessons will become a part of who we are. When I was just starting out in my career and would become upset at a small downturn, I sometimes vented to a much older colleague in the next office. He would listen calmly to my ranting, then respond, “This too shall pass.” His response often saved me from giving up too easily or making myself ill from stress. I still say the phrase to remind myself when I’m in the midst of bad times that don’t seem to end. After I acknowledge the temporary run of not-so-great results, I ask myself the two questions shown above. This blog series is one outcome of my answers over the years.

Look for more lessons in part 4 of this ongoing series.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Never Car Pool With Your Boss—
And Other Lessons Learned From 40 Years in the Workplace

Part 2

Part 1 of this series focused on not getting too “intimate” with your boss, and on cultivating relationships for long-term career success. This installment continues the series of lessons learned from 40 years of participating in and observing workplace behavior—my own and others’.

Sometimes “right” can be “wrong”

I have always been proud of my ability to come up with the right, most effective answer to my clients’ dilemmas. There’s nothing wrong with being “right” in that context. However, when it comes to relationships, being “right” can sometimes result in garnering last prize instead of the win we were going for. Just think about the friendships and marriages we’ve all observed where one party goes to great lengths to prove he or she is correct (usually accompanied by some degree of gloating). How long do those relationships last—or at least, how long are they happy ones? The problem is that, to be “right” within a relationship, we usually have to make someone else “wrong”. My experience has been that when people are told they’re “wrong”, they shut down/withdraw, sulk or act like cornered raccoons. None of these reactions leads to increased productivity or successful relationships.

At one point I was a member of a team in which two people were in constant conflict with each other, each continuing to insist the other was wrong, no matter the issue at hand. Numerous attempts to mediate the conflict or coach the combatants were unsuccessful. Although they were able to avoid each other most of the time, the team suffered from their stubborn insistence on “rightness”. The sad part was that both of them were very capable people who had much to contribute to the organization; they just refused to acknowledge, at least to each other, that perhaps their solution or method was not the best one.

Don’t store up grievances for a rainy day

While it’s a good idea to save money for lean times, it’s not advisable to store up grievances and complaints for someday. As someone who for many years was no stranger to conflict avoidance, I understand the desire to not tell someone the truth about problems, resentments or sticky issues between the two of you. And yet, it seems we can only store those things in our hearts for so long before we either make ourselves sick—physically, mentally or spiritually—from so much internal garbage, or we explode. Usually those explosions are in the form of a lengthy data dump of past grievances upon the other person; sometimes the explosion can be in the form of physical violence.

I vividly remember a meeting I attended a few years ago in which one person literally unrolled the scroll with a list of complaints, some going back 2 years, against the leader of the organization. As she systematically went down the list, the leader became increasingly distraught and finally began stuttering, a problem he had supposedly overcome in his youth. When I asked when she had first made the leader aware of these issues, she answered that she had waited for an appropriate opportunity to communicate, and that opportunity hadn’t happened until the meeting. I’m not certain what opportunity she was waiting for, other than a large enough audience, but the ultimate result of this mountain of negative feedback was an unhappy one for all concerned, not just the two people directly involved.

When we’re not pleased with someone’s performance or behavior, we need to be willing to give that difficult feedback as soon as possible after the event and in a constructive way. Unlike good wine, difficult feedback will not get better with age, and we are not doing the other person or ourselves any favors by holding back. This does not mean that we should constantly nitpick what others do. We need to ask ourselves, “How important is this issue in the bigger picture?” and “How much do I value this relationship?” The answers to those questions will help us decide whether to deliver the feedback or let it go, never to resurface. Once we’ve decided to let it go, we need to be careful not to dredge it up again later during a heated debate. The whole subject of how to give effective feedback is for another blog post.

Look for more lessons in part 3, coming soon.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Never Car Pool With Your Boss—
And Other Lessons Learned From 40 Years in the Workplace

Part 1

Zig Ziglar said: “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.” I’ve often thought that my purpose in life is just that: to help others achieve their goals and dreams, thereby achieving mine. This series of blog posts on lessons learned from 40 years in the workplace is my gift to those just starting their careers, stuck somewhere in the middle, or reinventing themselves in second and third careers. Enjoy the posts, use what you can, regift or toss out those lessons that you don’t think apply to you. The lessons are in no particular order of priority. Here’s part 1:

Never car pool with your boss

This is another way of saying don’t get too “intimate” with the person who approves your work or leads your team. Early in my career I car pooled with my boss and two colleagues. It was a disaster, although it led to many amusing, almost unbelievable stories, plus content for a retirement roast. My boss was personable and seemed knowledgeable in his field; we liked and respected him, which led to the car-pool decision. What could be wrong with riding to work together and having additional opportunities to discuss business while sitting in traffic? A lot, it turned out.

We found out things we really didn’t want to know about the boss. For example, most mornings he barely made it halfway down the driveway before his wife came out onto the porch in her bathrobe yelling, “did you take your pills?” or “you forgot to take out the garbage.” After dealing with whatever issue she brought up, he got into the car, bringing with him the strong scent of recently fried bacon. My colleague’s theory was that the boss’ wife used his suit coat as a splatter shield. Weather extremes were a trial. He refused to fix a $10 item that would have heated the car during the winter, and rolled down the windows during Baltimore summers rather than run the air conditioning. We even had to plead with him to leave earlier on mornings we were facilitating training sessions. He became a laughing stock rather than a respected leader, and, one by one, each of us came up with a flimsy excuse to exit the car pool.

It was like being in a long marriage, where every little quirk begins to annoy the other party to the nth degree, yet with none of the benefits of marriage (other than a continuing paycheck). We simply knew more than we wanted or needed to know about our leader’s idiosyncrasies. What I learned was: be friendly, helpful, professional with your boss. Discover enough about him or her to understand where the leader is “coming from” and draw the line there. I’m sure I’ll hear from people who married the boss and lived happily ever after, but my experience tells me they’re the exceptions.

Cultivate relationships

This may seem to contradict lesson #1 but you don’t have to be best friends with someone to make their day. If you go the extra mile to offer congratulations, sympathy, best wishes on birthdays and other special days, your colleagues will more likely remember you and help you be successful. Moving up the scale of difficulty, be happy for your colleagues even when they get an opportunity you wanted. Love people even if you don’t always like their behavior. And do all these things with no expectation of returned favors. I’m not suggesting you go for sainthood or doormat status, just take the high road when others take the low. You might be surprised by how many people actually will love you back.

One of my bosses (not the carpool man) was someone I had known since age 3. We worked for the same company for years and developed a great professional respect for each other. Toward the end of my tenure with this company, I had a chance to be promoted, I thought, and then all of a sudden they moved him into the position I wanted, and he was now my boss. Both of us were a bit uncomfortable with the new situation, so we talked openly about how we felt and agreed on how we wanted to move forward. After that, we went on with our work and enjoyed being part of a team that was making a difference. We never had a problem with each other, and he later became—and is still—one of my clients. The trusting relationship we had cultivated over many years helped us get through a rough patch.

A few years ago Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval wrote The Power of Nice, in which they described how their business became one of the country’s fastest growing ad agencies by being “nice” to people. I remember thinking, finally, someone has acknowledged how powerful it can be to build warm long-term relationships instead of burning bridges on your way to success.

Lessons Learned Part II coming soon.

Friday, February 5, 2010

When Is “Strength” Not a Strength?

Author’s Note: Some of you have noticed that I haven’t blogged in months. Although I hate excuses—mine or anyone else’s—this post may help my readers understand.

My mother died in October after a summer-long illness. Her death came only a few weeks after my father-in-law had passed away suddenly. I thought I was handling everything quite well; I made the funeral arrangements, delivered the tribute at her memorial service and served as executor of her estate. For months I had been doing my best to keep my business running while going to the hospital or nursing home every day to ensure that my mother was well cared for. I wrote most of my blog posts and client reports in those sterile rooms, to the hum of my mother’s oxygen tank.

Even during the December holidays I was able to suck it up, shop, clean, cook dinners, entertain guests and play keyboards for several church musical events. I had quit writing anything; I was too tired, not interested and considered it a low priority. During this time I heard frequent comments from friends and colleagues along the lines of “You’re so strong” or “You’re the strongest person I know” or my favorite “You look great for all you’ve been through”. I wondered if they expected me to dress in black and wear no makeup. Unfortunately, their expectations fueled my desire to keep going and not disappoint them.

So it was quite a shock to buttoned-up and busy me when, after the holidays, the sneaky grief I had been holding back suddenly hit me during a remembrance service at church. At the end of the service I sat sobbing, unable to even get out of the pew, and upset that these strong emotions had hit me in a public place where I serve as a leader (Board chair). What would my team members think of this meltdown? After all, they were counting on me to help lead the way during a very difficult period for the church, a year in which 9 members had died. For the next few days I could barely get out of bed or pajamas.

Then a curious thing happened: I became energized and productive again, wanted to write and knew exactly what the topic of my next post would be. It had dawned on me during my grief meltdown that holding back that torrent of emotion in the interest of showing “strength” was not a strength at all. It also occurred to me that a lot of leaders in our organizations do exactly what I did, lest their followers perceive them as weak, ineffective or “too emotional”. The only thing any of us accomplishes by showing that kind of strength when we’re not feeling strong is for others to see us as “human doings”—going, going, busy, busy until we inevitably collapse in a heap as I did.

Most of our organizational policies and practices allow for a few days to a week of “acceptable” grieving for a loved one and then it’s back to business—or is it? Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking, writes: “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be . . . Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” A friend of mine whose sister and mother died a few years ago said that because we’ve come to expect instant everything in our world, people want and expect quick healing, whether from a physical illness or grief.

How many walking wounded are pretending to be OK as they go about their daily business? And how many grieving leaders keep it all inside so that their followers will admire their “strength”? Perhaps it’s time for us to treat both leaders and followers as human beings rather than human doings. I’m not suggesting that we lower our expectations about performance and productivity, or encourage people to indiscriminately spill their guts about personal issues, or return to a time when mourners wore black for a year. But maybe we need to allow for those waves of grief or sadness to wash over us occasionally so that we can regain our true strength. Sometimes a “fallow time”—or a pj day—can work wonders in restoring our energy and sense of purpose.