“I am frustrated!” a manager said.
“What is the issue?” I asked.
“We are implementing a significant software upgrade. Every week, I meet with the project team to discuss issues and challenges. Toward the end of each meeting, I make a big point about schedule and ask each team member to ensure me that we are on schedule.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “All along, your team has confidently reported that they are on schedule. But as the deadline approached, team members started describing “unexpected” occurrences and began asking for more time.”
While managers anguish over messaging and rumors, researchers Triandis and Gelfand report that upward communication contains more distortions than other directions.
While dealing with upward communication about complicated matters may be akin to wrestling with an eel, some managers erect unnecessary barriers by reacting negatively when they get bad news. Employees sense this quickly and often stretch the data to avoid riling their leaders.
So what is the cure? First, always treat employees with dignity and respect. Second, when mistakes do occur, conduct an autopsy but avoid blame. Third, drill down with question after question after question. Insist on data, documentation and other support.
“As I was walking into the office,” commented a manager, “out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Cade (a long-time team member) entering through another door. I’m sure Cade saw me, but I pretended that I didn’t see him and hurried off.”
The manager feared that Cade was frustrated and communication would likely be unpleasant.
At the end of the previous day, a customer and Cade got into a snit about a delivery issue. After the encounter, Cade criticized his manager to several peers. “I should never have had to deal with this. The boss misled the customer and I’m expected to clean it up.”
The manager admitted, “I was concerned about the customer but I had other commitments and just did not want to deal with Cade at that moment.”
Awkward encounters are challenges for most us. We know we need to have a candid conversation. We rationalize our decision to postpone as in, “I had other things to deal with.” “That’s not how I wanted to start my day.” “I thought I should let things cool down a bit.”
So when the voice in your head shouts, “retreat,” it is likely a signal that you should charge into the fray.
A vendor explained, “I have a customer who always insists on haggling over price.”
“How do you deal with that?” I asked.
“I simply add about ten percent at the beginning. We exchange messages, do our little dance, and I agree to knock off eight or ten percent. Eventually the customer agrees, with a sense of satisfaction I’m sure, gained from haranguing me into submission.”
After reviewing negotiation research, Georgetown University professor Jeremy Yip and others concluded that gratitude and forgiveness in competitive relationships can be costly.
As in the example above, aggressive stances with competitors are more beneficial. Understand there may be some unnecessary posturing and babbling. It’s not personal. Leave room for compromise. Aggressors expect this.
Competitive negotiators will likely see grateful, cooperative negotiators as naive–opportunities to be plucked. Cooperatives often get their feelings hurt and strive to avoid the sordid mess. Many stalled negotiations are of this mix.
Whatever the approach, both parties must eventually see the final agreement as beneficial. It is delusional for one party to see him/herself as smart enough, big enough or bad enough to consistently take advantage of another party.
Ascham admitted, “As I was driving to work, I knew I needed to talk to Reginald. He has an ego as big as the parking lot.”
Reginald, an employee with excellent work skills, sometimes produced excellent work– sometimes not. Last week, Reginald disappointed his team with a sloppy analysis on a critical issue. When questioned, Reginald became defensive, blamed others and stated, “I don’t think this is important anyway.”
Ascham said, “When I arrived at work, Reginald was on my mind; but I decided to respond to a couple of emails. It took longer than I intended. Then I got a call from the vice-president asking for a status update.”
Mid-day approached and Ascham had still not contacted Reginald. “I intended to stop by after lunch but decided to go back to my office and update a couple of proposals,” Ascham said.
Just prior to leaving work, Ascham finally stopped by and had the awkward conversation with Reginald. “If I had taken care of this first,” Ascham said, “I would not have worried about it all day.”
Mark Twain said that if the first thing you do each day is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that this is probably the worst thing that will happen to you.
“I am exasperated,” proclaimed Jamison, “I’ve bent over backwards to help Jerry. He shows no appreciation.”
“Is Jerry a good employee?” I asked.
“He has good skills but if he does not like a task, he starts griping and does just enough to get by.”
Jerry was friendly and nice when Jamison became his manager. But after about three weeks, Jerry began coming in a late. When Jamison approached Jerry about his attendance, Jerry responded rudely, “We’ve been working too much overtime lately. Why are you on my back?”
Jerry is a bullying employee. He saw that Jamison was a kind, caring manager and perhaps vulnerable. Jerry first endeared himself to Jamison (an effort to cause Jamison guilt feelings). Later Jerry tested Jamison with rude behaviors.
While Jamison was compassionate and well meaning, Jerry saw him as vulnerable and he escalated his defiant behaviors.
Maybe it is the “law of the jungle,” but aggressive employees seek out leaders who may be vulnerable and they test them with inappropriate but acceptable behaviors. Appeasing and patient leaders may actually encourage increased employee aggression.
When dealing with predatory animals, school-yard bullies, or aggressive employees, one must respond confidently and firmly to avoid becoming prey.
A very successful, but frustrated, manager reported to me, “During annual performance appraisals, we must have an improvement plan for low ratings.” The manager further explained that he rated two employees low on the “quantity of work” scale.
“Did you develop a plan?” I asked.
“Yes, both had good attitudes. I spent a lot of time with them and they did improve.” The manager admitted the employees did not blossom into stars and probably never would. Still, on the next appraisal, they earned “meets expectations.”
“Then what is your frustration?” I asked.
“When I submitted my appraisals, my manager said that my ratings were too high. He said I needed at least some ratings that were “below expectations.”
“I think I see the cause of your frustration,” I responded. “You are required to improve employees’ performances and, at the same time, your manager expects you to report lower ratings. This seems like a no win situation.”
“That’s my point, exactly!”
Performance appraisal ratings create more frustration than a ref’s bad call you your star player in the final seconds of a game. Why don’t we just do away with ratings? Replace them with a brief listing of an employee’s achievements and areas of emphasis for the future.
Lucius said, “My new manager is very friendly. He’s always asking about my kids and he likes to talk golf. I thought we had a good relationship.”
Lucius continued, “Yesterday, the boss got upset because he thought I had not done enough to help to a younger employee. I tried to help the new guy but he ignored my advice.”
To Lucius, the manager was unpredictable because he seemed to turn from “nice guy friend” to “jerk boss.” Author Bruce Tulgan calls this the “Jekyll and Hyde” problem.
The Jekyll and Hyde issue emerges when managers build relationships based on sharing personal matters at work. Eventually, a manager will need to have an awkward conversation about a work problem. Employees are surprised because they see the relationship flipping from boss-friend to corrective-parent.
Managers, Tulgan believes, should save most of their personal talk for after work, social events and other encounters. At work, the boss’s role is to keep people laser-focused on quality, deadlines, customers, safety. This requires constant work talk.
Effective leaders strive to create trust and rapport with employees by mature discussions about what is going well and what needs improving. For most, there would not even be a relationship were no for the work.