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.