Make a list of the 30 people you work with most closely. Over the next few days, imagine answering questions like these about each person:
- What are their career goals?
- What parts of their jobs do they like most? Least?
- How are they doing on their most important tasks?
- Are they in trouble in anything they're doing?
- Are they concealing any of those troubles?
- How do they plan to resolve the problems, if there are any problems?
We don't usually speak candidly about these things. We might have a few close confidants, but for most of us, they number much less than 30. Most of us talk honestly about these things only outside of work. At work, we're mostly blank slates to each other.
Well, not totally blank. When we lack information about other people's motives, concerns, worries, or yearnings, we tend to speculate. We just make it up. Often, we believe we know what's going on for the people around us. And many of us just make it up without realizing we're making it up.
Many of us are working with semi-fictional or mostly-fictional representations of each other. It's risky, because the judgments and assumptions people make about each other are usually wrong. That collaborations work as well as they do is almost miraculous.
What can you do about this? When you can, help others avoid speculating by filling in the blanks about yourself.
- You can't deny the obvious
- When you're in serious trouble, so serious that it's obvious to many, denying its seriousness just isn't credible. "Everything is under control" isn't believable when the roof is falling in. Acknowledge the problems. Acknowledge that some aren't yet being addressed effectively. Say something about how you plan to change that. Detail isn't required. Demonstrating a grasp on reality is required.
- Be (judiciously) open about your plans
- If you have plans with regard to your area of responsibility, be sure your boss knows about them. Keeping your plans to yourself leaves opportunities for anxiety and worry. One exception: if your boss is a micromanager, openness about your plans invites yet more micromanagement. Be judicious.
- You can't conceal personal problems completely
- Most of us When you're in serious trouble,
so serious that it's obvious to
many, denying its seriousness
just isn't crediblecan't consistently hide personal problems from everyone. The word gets out. Maybe people can't tell exactly what's troubling you, but they can tell that something is. Waiting to be asked, or denying that anything is wrong when you are asked, only adds to others' concerns. By contrast, preempting the inquiries by disclosing just a little information usually dampens curiosity. To those rude enough to demand details, you can respond, "I'd rather not say more." Since they probably wouldn't be satisfied with any level of detail, you'd eventually reach that point anyway. The sooner the better.
Filling in the blanks for others works best when you first fill in the blanks for yourself. Acknowledging my concerns begins with me. Top Next Issue
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See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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