Friday, June 17, 2011

SPEAK EASY NOTES #53 - When Silence Is Golden

Dear Wordsmith,

I’d like to know if you agree with how I handled a certain situation at work last week. I am a mid-level manager in a large insurance company and one of my coworkers observed some communications between my boss and me and came up to me afterward and said, “Sydney really is difficult!”, with a very supportive facial expression and showing me a good deal of sympathy. I decided that the best response was to say nothing. My friend that I’ve worked with for years had made a disparaging remark about my boss to me and I felt like it was very important to avoid agreeing or making any negative statements about my (yes, very difficult) boss that could be repeated or distorted and then used against me in some way down the road.

In retrospect, I feel I made the right choice. I’m a positive person and am respectful of the hierarchy that exists in the workplace. I don’t like complaining and want to be sure I’m seen as a strong contributor and positive team player. What do you think of my choice to say nothing at all? I really don’t like the thought of getting bitten down the road because of some stupid off the cuff remark I made.




Dear Zipped,

What a great example you presented. First of all, I’d like to praise you most of all for your great attitude and your goal to avoid being seen as a negative force in your workplace. Good for you! It’s hard to refrain from going down the road of taking advantage of an easy opportunity to throw a dagger at your difficult boss, especially with a coworker you’ve known and worked with for a long time who is a friend.

I agree strongly that there are many times when silence is a very good choice following certain types of communications. The motivation behind your silence is smart and legitimate. Your choice to say nothing was based on clear goals and values that are important to you. I would like to point out some alternative interpretations of silence that you may not have considered: Sometimes when a person is silent, it might be seen as agreement or acquiescence. This means that rather than being seen as a non participant in negativity, you could have been perceived as being in complete agreement with the remark your friend made. It’s also possible that your facial expression and eye contact conveyed something different from your silence.

Rather than recommend one best way to handle this type of situation which might include or exclude silence as the optimum way to respond, I’d prefer to give you a variety of responses for a coworker – that are in line with the goals and values you described – to choose from, including silence, that you could use in  various versions of the circumstance you described:

“I appreciate your being supportive. Sydney keeps me on my toes all the time and it really has elevated my attention to detail and my delivery of excellence.”

“It’s always good to feel that you have my back. I believe in accepting and seeing people, particularly bosses, as they are, without seeing them as either difficult or easy. My approach makes working with Sydney smooth and productive and keeps me on an even keel at work."

“Thanks for reaching out to me. I like to think of my boss from a different perspective. I know what demands are coming down on Sydney from the top so I just keep that in my mind when the demands on me from Sydney are high."

And there are many other types of responses that might work well. It would be good for you to think through these options and create the version that would work well for you so you can be ready for your future.

Sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all. In our communications we often dig ourselves a hole and then can’t get out of it. Frequently, we feel it’s necessary to respond, defend, disclaim, explain, or even, attack when silence would be the ideal choice.

Acknowledging through facial expression, eye contact and head nodding may be the ideal communication in many situations. You can convey that you’re listening, you’re sincere and you’re giving attention, without saying a word.

It’s critical to remember that a look of annoyance or frustration will convey more than words; if silence is the desired communication, your face must be silent as well.

The less comfortable you are with silence, the more likely it will be that you will rush in to participate when non-participation would be the best choice possible. This is a silence of self-benefit, different from acquiescence or tail-between-the-legs silence. This is a silence of active listening and attentive acknowledgement.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Friday, June 10, 2011

SPEAK EASY NOTE #52 - The Boss Who Threatens Rather than Praises

Dear Wordsmith,

I love my job and I hate my boss. Your input and advice would be really helpful. I have risen to a significant leadership role in a short amount of time. I work for a large national consulting firm that is a very demanding work environment known for its cutting edge innovation. I have thrived and enjoyed working for all of my previous managers. I have recently been promoted to a newly created area of the company that has no former track record of any kind and where I have a tremendous amount of visibility.

My new manager is at the top of the food chain in the company and must think that talking down to people and threatening them are the ways to get the most out of them. I, actually, for the first time in my career am feeling like I want to quit my job. This manager never praises anything I do or gives me credit for all of the elements we have put in place. My team is working so hard and has produced on a high level in a challenging timeframe. Some appreciation would be so valued. I just had a performance review  and was actually dumbfounded by my manager's lack of acknowledgement of anything positive about the past six months. I basically said very little in this meeting. It was very upsetting and one-sided. It is very bizarre because I was told by my HR business partner that my manager's written ratings that were provided to Human Resources which I did not receive or see were actually fairly good although certainly not at the level that matches my efforts and successes. Please help me see this in a different way. I feel like I am at the end of a rope, hanging by a thin thread.




It must feel so bad to have worked so hard and achieved so much, without getting any praise or recognition. And I’m sure the contrast to what you've experienced before makes this even worse. You have obviously been a top performer to have come so far in such a short time and been placed in charge of a new visible area that is important to the company.

My first recommendation is to make sure that you remember how you got where you are and to reconnect with your former managers to rekindle your sense of accomplishment and to get their perspectives on your work delivery and on your current manager. It would be hard to believe that this punitive and threatening behavior is directed at you, specifically. It sounds like this is most likely your manager’s standard M.O. Sometimes there are cultural background components and gender issues that contribute to this kind of behavior and the individual actually believes that this kind of condescending, reprimanding behavior and communication are motivating and appropriate. Sometimes managers are hardest on their best performers, thinking this will get the most from them. Sometimes people get to the top through performance and connection without having any leadership or management skills to go with those assets. It’s important to see this challenge as a gift for you to be able to respond and communicate in a strong professional manner. There’re always going to be demanding and diverse people in your work settings at every level. Learning how to be effective with difficult people is an art and requirement for success in the workplace.

Often when people describe these types of exchanges to me there’s an underlying permission that’s being given to the senior individual through acquiescence and submission. Make sure you work on your communication skills and comfort level with speaking to your manager so that you can clearly and specifically present the contributions you've made and strongly address whatever points your manager has critiqued. You want to make sure you convey what motivates you and what de-motivates you without being emotional or sounding whiny, hurt or angry. You will want to connect everything you say to your manager to what you and your team are doing for the company. People respond well to being told what they’re doing well and what they’re required to do to succeed. This is what you want to hear from your manager so it’s important to make sure you present what you want to say to your manager, avoiding any of the negative approaches that the manager used in communicating with you. Research shows that attack, criticism and finding fault are de-motivating and produce the opposite effect on the desired outcomes. One individual I’m working with who reports to a micro-managing difficult boss, described the response to this negative managerial approach as survival mode where it’s impossible to look at the bigger higher priorities and where fixation on small insignificant details takes over and mistakes increase.

Here’s a valuable link to a wonderful classic article from the Harvard Business Review by Daniel Goleman that looks at the components of Emotional Intelligence and how they interweave with various leadership styles: Leadership That Gets Results. This article will help you gain perspective and skill in these communications as will this excerpt from my book, SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide For Career And Life Success:

Over the years, I’ve heard a wide variety of reactions to situations in the workplace.
Person A will say,

“I’m so used to hearing my boss, Grace, fly off the handle like that. I just ignore her. She always calms down eventually and sometimes she even apologizes. I know it’s more about her frustration than it is about me, even though she directs such hostility towards me sometimes. She’s really pathetic that way. The main thing for me is that I feel good about myself and my work. I really love what I do here and I wouldn’t let her bad behavior change that for a second. I’d be happier if she’d calm down and stop attacking everybody. It would be better for the company too.”

Person B, in the same setting with a similar job and an exactly parallel relationship to that manager, will have a completely different experience of the same type of communications from the manager and say,

“No matter what we do, Grace is never happy with our work. Some days I can barely get myself to come in to the office; I never know if it’s going to be a horrible day because she’s in such a frenzy and will make me crazy and depressed. I just don’t think I can listen to her attack me the way she does anymore. I hate having a boss who is constantly criticizing me like that. I’ll probably leave the company before the end of the year because of how she treats me.”

What gives Person A the ability to separate herself from the attack of her boss? She clearly gets the “sticks and stones break bones and words never hurt you” message. What comes first for Person A is her own self-esteem which is closely aligned with her focus on and enjoyment of work. She also disconnects her boss’s erratic attacking behavior from herself, by seeing it as generalized rather than targeted at her.

Person B has a much more personal experience of what his manager says to him. His self-esteem suffers and he lets his manager completely obliterate his ability to focus on anything other than how destroyed and distraught he is because of his boss’s constant criticism. He’s a defeated victim and his work-life is a picture of total stress because of his boss.

If we could gain some distance and perspective to examine the whole of our individual lives from beginning to end, surely the importance of a single person’s negative behavior, in the grand scheme of who we are, would take on an entirely new perspective and be relatively insignificant. When we give others the power to destroy our well-being and our ability to communicate effectively, we’re actually feeding the monster.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Friday, June 3, 2011

SPEAK EASY NOTE #51 - Job Seekers with Special Needs

Dear Wordsmith,

A friend of mine has a 45 year-old daughter who is in a wheelchair. She has a Master’s degree in Library Science. She’s worked for 13 years at a major consumer products company before her position was downsized. She also worked on Wall Street before that. She has concern about searching for a job in this difficult job market with such high unemployment. Since she is confined to a wheelchair, she is worried that many employers will pass when they see her. She isn’t telling employers about her disability and is just showing up for interviews in a wheelchair. My opinion (which I told my friend) is she should mention her disability in her cover letter. This way, if she gets a call, the disability probably isn’t an issue.

I certainly can speak with her and offer advice but I thought there would be no one better than you to ask what your views are about this challenging situation!

Concerned Friend


Dear Concerned Friend,

Thank you for the high value you place on my viewpoints.  I am pleased to share my perspectives regarding this special situation.

I have the opposite opinion from yours. I feel it’s best and appropriate for a person who is wheelchair-bound to refrain from indicating that in any initial communications with potential employers. If the person were to get an interview, it would be up to her to decide at that point if she wants to inquire about wheelchair access to the appointment location. We live in an age where diversity of all types is an accepted part of our workplaces, protected by law and that can’t be used as excluded grounds for employment. We also know that the vast majority of employment is networking-related and that leveraging contacts and relationships is always the strongest route to gain employment for everyone. This is certainly a more key factor for individuals with special challenges. She certainly has a good track record of employment and a solid credential. I would also highly recommend that she become as technology/digitally fluent as possible and highly informed about social networking if she has not yet gained these capabilities and areas of expertise. I hope my thoughts and recommendations are helpful.

Here is an excerpt on good networking strategies from my book SPEAK EASY – The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success:

We will encounter much more success in all of our endeavors when we recognize the high value of gathering information from real people who’ve traveled the road before us and of building strong and lasting bonds with them.

There is great variety in individual styles and comfort levels when it comes to engaging new people and nourishing relationships with those outside of an already well known or familiar circle.

The word, NETWORKING, is used so freely and widely that its basic meaning has been diluted and it has lost many of its most important nuances and benefits. When career advisors emphasize the importance of networking, they often neglect to teach its subtleties adequately and to fine-tune their clients’ networking communications well. It’s easy to see why many jobseekers think that networking is simply informing as many people as possible that they’re looking for a new job.

Certainly, letting people know you’re looking for a new job is a much better strategy than simply sitting by the phone, waiting to see if someone will call you up to offer you a job. However, if your bottom line is no more than a numbers approach of seeing how many people you can get your resume in front of, the benefits of the fine art of networking will be sadly missed and the process of continuing the endeavor will become stale and unrewarding. After all, how many times can you say to someone, “Here I am again, still looking. Got anything for me?” No wonder people become so disenchanted with networking – both on the asking AND on the receiving end!

Until next time,
The Wordsmith