Communication Breakdown: Why we can’t get along

I’m often called into a situation where a communication breakdown has occurred. People have stopped talking to one another or refuse to talk without the presence of a manager or third party. 

The reasons why this might happen are… countless. In this video, I talk about reasons to keep talking, or to resume talking if you have stopped.

The goal of resuming a conversation is not necessarily to change the other person’s mind. That might not be possible. But what is often possible, in the face of disagreement, is mutual understanding and respectful acknowledgement of one another’s position. And that can happen only with discussion.

If you’re in a silent stalemate – with a friend, relative, neighbour, or business associate – try re-starting the conversation. Maybe start by sending a link to this video.

Lessons Learned: Julie Payette Harassment Allegations

What we can learn about “toxic” workplaces from the Rideau Hall complaints

Within the federal civil service, working with the Governor-General at Rideau Hall should be a plum position. Instead, news reports suggest that routine verbal harassment created a “toxic” workplace. I should note that these allegations have not been proven.

Here are the lessons that business owners, managers, and HR leaders can take away.

One: Make sure everyone understands the expectations for a respectful workplace

The sources who spoke to the CBC report that Governor-General Julie Payette and her secretary Assunta Di Lorenzo yelled at, belittled, and publicly humiliated employees. People were seen leaving the office in tears. One report described how trips abroad were particularly stressful for all. In-flight debriefs on the way home could last “hours” while Payette verbally attacked employees over what she considered sub-standard work. Di Lorenzo apparently accused people of being “lazy and incompetent.”

Such behaviour is clearly unacceptable in the workplace. It is the responsibility of leaders – business owners, managers, and HR personnel – to make sure that everyone understands expectations for respectful behaviour. (You might think that we can assume people would know, for example, that just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can yell at people who report to you. Unfortunately I’ve been working in this field long enough to know that this isn’t the case.)

Two: Structural factors can make harassment harder to address

Employees at Rideau Hall who felt harassed had a few options: They could take it up with the HR department, or with their direct supervisor, or with the Ombudsperson. The problem was that all of these roads lead directly to Di Lorenzo, the Governor-General’s secretary and her close friend. (And who, you may remember, is herself accused of workplace harassment.) Employees felt like they had no place to turn. This made an already stressful situation even more stressful.

This is a structural issue I see frequently in smaller organizations and sometimes in large ones as well: employees who are harassed do not feel that they have anywhere to turn. The person they are supposed to come to with concerns is not genuinely independent and is seen as a friend or associate of the person perpetrating the harassment.

Three: Employees will leave (and not just the ones who experience harassment directly)

In the Communications section alone, five employees have left for good and two have taken leaves of absence. One was quoted as saying, “Life’s too short. I don’t want to come to work in the morning and spend the day feeling like I’m going to cry or not feeling like I could speak up.”

People will leave a good-paying job if it causes them significant stress. Most people don’t want to go into a workplace that has too much “drama.” It is upsetting to see colleagues being treated poorly. Those who aren’t being harassed will wonder, “Am I next?”

Four: Word will get out

Workplace harassment in your organization may not make the national news, but people do talk. In larger organizations, people will know which departments are particularly dysfunctional. In smaller industries, people know which companies have bad reputations. Tools like Glassdoor make it easy to spread the word.

Five: “Abrasive” managers often feel that their actions are justified

According to reports, Payette’s “outbursts” were often a result of being upset with the quality of someone’s work and the belief that she “has to do everything herself” because everyone else is incompetent.

Such sentiments are a clear indication that a manager needs coaching in how to manage effectively and respectfully. Workplace harassment guidelines are meant to protect everyone, not just those who are highly competent. People don’t improve their job performance when they are harassed. In fact there are plenty of indications that the opposite is true – employees who are harassed feel stressed and under pressure, which makes their job performance worse.

Finally, some MPs and government ministers are calling for an investigation into the allegations against Payette and Di Lorenzo. This is a high-profile workplace and many people are paying attention. Whatever the response, those involved have a responsibility to get it right.

About the image:  Photo by Johanie Maheu, Wikimedia Commons

Black Lives Matter

Something new – Anti-racist reading group

Like many of you, I’ve been outraged and saddened by the recent violence against people of colour, both in the U.S. and in Canada.

One of the messages I keep hearing from racialized communities is that white people have work to do, and that work begins with self-examination. This could mean recognizing one’s own unconscious biases or trying to understand how white privilege contributes to sustaining racism.

This work is particularly important to me as a mediator in a multicultural society. Many of the conflicts I’m brought into have a racial component.

After reflecting on how I might be able to contribute and to do some of this work myself, I decided to organize and facilitate a group to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, a book that appears on many anti-racism reading lists.

My plan is for us to meet on line once a week for about an hour to read and discuss one chapter.

Rather than charge a fee to join the group, I’m asking participants who are able to make a contribution to a non-profit working to improve the lives of black or indigenous Canadians. (For example, Black Lives Matter Canada, Legacy of Hope Foundation, U for Change, or Black Legal Action Centre.)

If you are interested in joining me in reading and discussing White Fragility, please fill out the form on this page

Stay safe everyone.

About the image:  Photo by James Eades, Unsplash.

Remote Work and Creative Collaboration

I will just say it: There is no magic formula to ensure a highly creative remote team. 

If you lack the foundations, moving a team to virtual meetings will not suddenly make everyone more creative. The good news is that if a team already works together effectively, then there is a good chance they will continue to come up with creative solutions even if they can’t meet in person.

Let’s review the basics: Two key features make creative and collaborative problem-solving much more likely. First (and most important) you must have a culture where people feel that their input is welcome, and that their ideas will be give fair consideration. If you have somehow given the impression that critical feedback is not welcome, people will hesitate to speak up.

The second factor in a creative team is diversity. In particular, you want team members with a diversity of experience, viewpoints, and temperaments. If everyone around the table is pretty similar (say male, white, 40-ish, wearing chinos, grew up in Toronto), you might want to consider expanding the team to get a greater variety of outlook and attitude.

Let’s assume that the basics are in place. Moving to remote team meetings will still pose challenges. For one thing, attention spans are shorter when people aren’t in the same physical space. If the meeting seems dull, people will be tempted to minimize the meeting window on their computer screen and check email or look up news reports instead. On top of this, there are all the distractions of home, plus less accountability. There is no one beside you to notice that you’re not fully engaged. For these reasons, I would suggest that remote meetings be shorter than in-person meetings. (Most meetings are too long anyway – but that is a topic for another day!)

Second, it is harder to have genuine personal contact in virtual as opposed to in-person meetings. The person facilitating the meeting therefore has to make an extra effort to have people connect with one another. One way to do this is to start the meeting with a “check-in.” Have each person answer a question like, “How is the day/week going for you so far?” or “What has been your biggest win this week?” or “What is your biggest challenge at work right now?” or even “How did you spend the weekend?” The meeting chair should answer first. Others will take their cue from the first person who responds and likely answer at similar length and with a similar demeanor. If the chair answers in a joking way, that is likely how others will respond as well. 

Finally, the person chairing or facilitating the meeting should make a practice of repeating and summarizing what has been said. This will help keep everyone on track and focused, as well as help everyone catch-up if technical problems cause glitches. (Obviously, use your judgment. Don’t interrupt a good discussion to repeat and summarize – wait for a natural break.)

While no one knows exactly what the post-Covid workplace will be like, every indication is that remote work (and remote meetings) will be more common. So it make sense to master best practices and get the best from your team as soon as possible.

About the image:  Dali Atomicus, Salvador Dalí and Philippe Halsman (1948): Wikipedia

“We tried that already.” Handling Objections during a Meeting

You’re chairing a team meeting and you ask for suggestions. Farrah, relatively new to the group, makes a proposal. She’s reading from prepared notes and it is clear that she’s put some thought into this. You’re about to thank her when a voice comes from the other end of the table. It’s Sam, a 10-year veteran of the organization. “We already tried that and it didn’t work,” he says in a weary voice, sighing audibly. Farrah looks down, crestfallen. The others shift uncomfortably in their seats and stare at the table in front of them. What do you do?

How you handle Sam’s objection will have ramifications beyond today’s meeting. Some of the factors you have to navigate:

  • Farrah deserves recognition for preparing for the meeting and speaking up. You want to encourage her to keep offering ideas and suggestions.
  • Sam might very well be right. In most teams there is one person who can be counted on for a critical viewpoint. If this person can express their criticisms in a respectful manner, he or she is a great asset to any organization. However  if this person shares their views in a way that undermines others, he or she will create resentment and lower morale. Some managers will push to silence or remove someone like Sam. If Sam’s behaviour crosses the line into workplace harassment, you do need to do something. If the behaviour is not so severe, removing Sam sends the wrong message about critical engagement. Every team needs a Sam (or Samantha).
  • What about the rest of the team? If you show irritation with Sam or otherwise discourage him from speaking up, you risk sending the message that it is better to keep one’s opinion to oneself. The team may not like Sam but he is still their colleague and you are their manager. A public scolding could turn them against you very quickly. 
  • Sam may need some coaching, but you can hardly take care of that in the moment. You need to send the message that critical feedback is welcome, as long as it is delivered respectfully.

How to work with the Sams and Samanthas of the world is a bigger topic. When you are faced with dismissive criticism in the moment, the best thing to do is to lead by example. Be curious, open to feedback, and respectful to everyone. Here’s what that might look like:

Repeat Sam’s objection, “You say that we already tried that and it didn’t work.”

Draw him out. Ask him to elaborate. “Tell me more. Please remind everyone of what happened when we tried that.”

Repeat back and summarize the details.

Turn back to Farrah. Give her a chance to defend her proposal. Ask, “How is your suggestion different from what we tried in the past?” If Farrah really is suggesting something that has already been tried, ask, “Have the circumstances changed? Should we try it again?”

Ask the rest of the team if they have anything to add.

Thank Farrah, Sam, and anyone else who spoke up.

A goldsmith in his shop

Trust and Remote Work: How to do it Right

I was recently brought in to do an assessment of a department with very low morale and high staff turnover. I found one of the main sources of dissatisfaction to be the remote work policy.

That’s not exactly correct. The organization had a generous policy. Unfortunately the department manager refused to follow it.

This manager insisted that people show up at their desks at 9 and stay until 4:30 everyday. She was, frankly, a control freak and allowing people to work from home made it more difficult for her to control them.

Attitudes to remote work vary widely. Not everyone thinks it is a good thing, and some industries and jobs are not well-suited to it. Yet every indication is that the future will bring more remote work as companies do the math and calculate the possible savings in real estate costs. And more people, having had the experience of skipping their commute and working from home, will want to continue working remotely.

This brings me to a thorny topic: trust. Trust is probably the biggest barrier to successful remote work. If employees are not on-site, employers may be suspicious that they are not putting in a full day’s work. The flipside is resentment by employees who may be working just as hard or harder as they do at the office, but feel constantly monitored or micromanaged. Add to this mix a remote work policy that is unclear or unevenly applied and you have the makings of an unhappy workplace.

How can employers ensure that the work gets done when their staff are not physically present? And how can employees be sure that their efforts will be recognized?

We usually think of trust in personal terms. We trust some people but not others. Yet in a workplace setting, thinking of trust only as a personal attribute leads to problems in the long run. I’ve seen enough managers make the wrong choice in deciding which employees to trust to make me think that none of us may have very good judgement in this regard.

Instead of deciding which employees are “trustworthy,” set out clear expectations for everyone and put your trust in a system that tracks employee’s results – not the amount of time they spend at their desk.

Whatever system you come up with will depend on your particular industry. If you have different people doing similar tasks, you will need a way to compare them to one another. If you have a split workforce, with some working remotely and others on-site, you will also want to compare their results. Just make sure everyone knows what is going on, what outcomes you are tracking, and why. This is a case where more transparency is better than less.

I’ve heard about companies that make employees who are working remotely “sign in” at specific times and remain on-line for a set number of hours. Unless this is absolutely necessary for employees to accomplish their tasks, I would avoid such a system. First, there will always be people smart enough to get around whatever system of surveillance you put in place. Faking actual results is much harder. Second, one of the main benefits to employees of remote work is the ability to structure their time as they see fit. Some people are happy to be at their desk by 7 am, so that they can take their dog for a long walk mid-day. Some people need frequent breaks but are ready to put in a longer day. Forcing everyone into the same rigid timeframe removes one of the main benefits to employees of working off-site.

Next: Remote Work and Creative Collaboration

About the image: Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop (Public Domain, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Dealing with the doubters

Does any of this sound familiar:

  • Coronavirus is being blown out of proportion.
  • The flu kills more people every year. This social distancing is over the top.
  • If I get coronavirus, I get it – nothing much I can do about it. I’m at low-risk anyway.
  • A virus isn’t going to stop me enjoying life and seeing my friends.

Maybe there are people in your family or social circle who express these views. In this post, I offer some practical guidelines for respectful disagreement over how to respond to a public health emergency.

(If you’re one of the “doubters” yourself – keep reading. I won’t refer to what the experts say about protecting yourself and others, and I won’t scold. My guidelines can help with any strong disagreement, regardless of your position.)

If you’re trying to protect yourself and your family during a public health emergency, interacting with people who don’t share your sense of the risk, or who refuse to follow public health measures, is extremely frustrating. How to respond to your neighbour who wants to send her child over for a playdate at your place? What about your parents who refuse to cancel the weekly family dinners?­­

The single most important factor to get through this kind of conflict is to adjust your own mindset. The key is to distinguish between the things you can control and the things you cannot control. A moment’s reflection will tell you that “other people” is at the top of the list of things you cannot control. The sooner you understand this, and the sooner you are at peace with it, the better.

The next thing you have to come to grips with is that (generally speaking) a better understanding of facts does not change people’s behaviour. For example, smokers tend to be equally informed about the health risks of smoking as non-smokers. The knowledge doesn’t help them quit. Most people who are overweight are fully aware that they should eat less and exercise more. Explaining the health risks of carrying on as normal under coronavirus is probably a waste of time. The risks and possible consequences have been repeated frequently.

Understanding that you can’t control other people’s thoughts or actions, you must focus on what you can control – namely, your own thoughts and actions. Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Decide on the measures you will take to protect yourself and your family. What boundaries will you observe?
  2. Do not get into arguments with people who have different boundaries. Not only is it a waste of time and energy, it will make it harder for them to back down eventually if they change their views.
  3. If you are challenged or drawn into a discussion of your boundaries, it is fine to simply state your position and keep it at that.
  4. How much of an explanation you offer for your position will depend on your relationship to the person you’re speaking with. What you say to close family members who disagree will differ from what you say to casual acquaintances.
    • To the father of your child’s friend who suggests a playdate: “We’re keeping the kids at home, and we’ve told them no visitors.”
    • To your client who wants an in-person meeting: “As long as the public health advisory is in force, I am holding all meetings by video conference.”
    • To your parents who want the whole gang to come over for dinner: “We love you and miss you – and we don’t want anyone to get sick. As soon as the danger has passed we’ll get back to our regular dinners. Think of how we would feel if you got the virus because of one of us.”

What all of these responses have in common is that they are respectful, they do not attempt to persuade, and they do not invite further discussion.

  1. If someone “won’t take no for an answer” or tries to draw you into an argument, simply say, “It looks like we see things differently” (or some equivalent) and either change the subject or end the conversation.
  2. Whatever boundaries you set need to be clear and consistent. They are your boundaries – you don’t need anyone else’s approval and you don’t have to justify them or convince anyone else that you’re right.

(What I have said about the importance of mindset draws on my understanding of Stoic philosophy, and in particular The Handbook by Epictetus.)

About the image: Salvador Dali walking his pet anteater in Paris. Source: Open Culture

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Sharing space when you’re working from home

A classic cause of conflict is competition for scarce resources – be it sources of fuel, arable land, or access to fresh water. Today, as many of us adjust to the challenge of working from home, the “scarce resources” are more likely to be peace and quiet.

Like most conflicts over scarce resources, conflicts over how to share living and workspace can be resolved through negotiation. (Mediation is just negotiation facilitated by a neutral third party.)

Sit down with your family or housemates and decide the following:

  • Who will work where?
  • How will you handle it if one needs quiet and the other has to attend virtual meetings?
  • What will you do if one person needs to make a confidential call?
  • Will you eat lunch together?
  • What if one of you is working at the kitchen table and the other decides to make a smoothie using the fancy blender that is louder than a jackhammer?
  • How will you share childcare?

Look for creative solutions and be prepared to make trade-offs. If you need to take a call while your housemate is working quietly, can you step outside or onto the balcony? Can you attend that video conference from your car?

None of this is rocket science.  However it can require adjustment if you’re not used to sharing working space with another person.

More important than the details of whatever arrangement you decide upon is making a mental adjustment to the new reality. No one knows when things will be back to “normal” or what the new normal will look like. Assume that you’ll have to share space for the foreseeable future and make a long-term plan.

About the image: Husband and Wife. Source: Lorenzo Lotto, Wikimedia Commons

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Managing your own emotions

“Secure your own oxygen mask first, before helping others.”

This phrase started out as a straight-forward instruction to airplane passengers and has become a cliché of self-care. And despite being a cliché, it is pretty good advice. If you don’t look after yourself, you won’t have the capacity to look after others.

A large part of self-care during these very uncertain times is managing one’s own emotions and coping with the generalized anxiety that seems to hover in the air. People are fearful about their health, the health of their loved ones, and the economic fallout from the pandemic. While this is all understandable, it doesn’t make the negative emotion any easier to manage. At the same time, we’re getting used to many new realities: staying at home, perhaps looking after children who miss their routines and their friends, gyms, shops, and places of worship closed. We’re both in closer proximity with some people and separated farther from others.

A lot of people are on edge. Managing one’s own emotions is crucial. Conflicts can be sparked by trivial matters. It is important not the allow small disagreements to escalate.

A number of philosophical and religious traditions from around the world stress the importance of our attitude to events. The tradition I’m most familiar with is Stoicism. To the Stoics, the key to happiness is to have the right mindset. What this means now is to recognize that while many people are under extreme stress, you have power over your own thoughts and attitudes. You can care for others without taking on their anxiety. You can focus on what is going well in your own life and on doing what you can to improve things in the moment.

Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Being honest about your fears will help you keep them in perspective. Have at least one person in your life you can be honest with.
  2. You also need one person in your life whom you can vent to about daily annoyances. (If possible, this should not be someone you live with.) But keep it brief. Limit a “gripe session” to five minutes. Going on and on isn’t good for you, or for the person who has to listen to you.
  3. One sure way to get out of your own head is to ask yourself what you can do for others. Remember to reciprocate, and give your “venting partner” an opportunity to share his or her anxieties with you. (Again, limit this to 5 minutes or so.)

Taking the time and effort to manage your own emotions in a stressful time is one of the most effective ways to practice self-care and ensure that you have the emotional capacity to care for those around you.

About the image: Royal Australian Air Force Leading Aircraftswoman gives a safety brief to passengers. Source: photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch, Flickr

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Bullying in the virtual workplace

In the course of a recent workplace intervention, one of the employees I interviewed described a pattern of harassment via text message. While this woman was on vacation, one of her co-workers sent her a stream of angry messages berating her for (allegedly) leaving her files in a mess and letting everybody down.

Apparently thousands of miles isn’t far enough to eliminate workplace harassment.

Based on my experience there will be many people who are relieved to work at home and avoid having to face a feared supervisor or dreaded colleague in person. (This is one “silver lining” in these difficult times.)  At the same time, I also know that workplace bullying will continue in new forms, and that more than ever, leaders must insist on respectful behaviour.

Managers have to observe a delicate balance. On the one hand, everyone is under stress and we are all capable of less-than-gracious behaviour. Being forgiving in these trying circumstances is humane. At the same time I have been in too many organizations where poor behaviour is never addressed. The cost – in terms of morale, lowered productivity, and human emotion – is enormous. Leaders need to set clear boundaries and expectations around acceptable behaviour.

Here is what managers can do to ensure open dialogue and respectful behaviour during virtual meetings:

  1. Tone at the top is more important than ever. Participants will take their cues regarding behaviour from the leader. So set a good example.
  1. Begin each meeting with a quick “check in” to ask people how they are doing. This is more important than ever as employees are likely to be under a great deal of stress. A check-in gives people permission to speak personally, but doesn’t oblige them to. (Sometimes clients ask me – doesn’t this take up valuable time? On the contrary, my experience is that check-ins are a good use of time because they help everyone to focus. People will often mention something that has been preoccupying them and saying it out loud to others allows them to let go of it.)
  1. As the leader, you should start the check-in. How you answer will set the tone for how others respond.
  1. If you notice disrespectful behaviour during a video meeting – snide remarks, audible sighs, eye-rolling, or a sarcastic tone – you need to address it. However do this privately, in a separate call or video meeting. Public shaming – even of individuals who may “deserve” it – is not good for workplace culture.
  1. When addressing disrespectful behaviour, be matter-of-fact and name the behaviour that you found disrespectful. You can say something like, “You seemed on edge during the meeting. I noticed that you rolled your eyes and sighed deeply when Sally was sharing her ideas. Whether you meant it or not, your actions came over as disrespectful.  Please share your perspective in a way that doesn’t involve…”
  1. End the meeting with a “check out.” Depending on your workplace culture and the type of organization, you might ask participants to share something that they learned, something they appreciate about a co-worker, or one action they will take based on the meeting. Again, the leader should go first and how he/she speaks will set the tone for the others.

Stay tuned for a future post on maintaining a positive culture when you’re back to interacting in person.

About the image: Excluded from the Group. Source: Stuart Miles, StockVault