When we work in groups, either in collaborations or merely cooperating, we occasionally encounter minor difficulties of our own making — call them speed bumps. For example, asking a question phrased one way can produce a helpful reply. But phrase it only slightly differently, and it becomes a speed bump — the response can be hostile and defensive, if you get a response at all. When working with others, seemingly minor differences in approach can create enormous savings by smoothing the way to the outcomes we seek.
This is Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps in everyday workplace situations. Have a look at Part I for more.
- Instead of what?
- If you're an Ace — very good at what you do — you're probably maxed out. People want an Ace to handle the issue they care about because they know it will get done right. And since you're maxed out, when a seeker (your boss, say) wants you to handle one more thing, X, two ways to find time to do X come to mind most readily. Choice A is to take time from something you're already doing. You reject A immediately, because you're an Ace and you don't want to do anything halfway. Choice B is to take time out of your personal account — your non-work life. If you're like most Aces, you often choose B.
- If you habitually choose B — taking time out of your personal account — and if you're still single, or single again, or stressed to the point of sleep disturbance, or overdue for a vacation, or if you haven't seen a dentist in a while, habitually choosing B might be an explanation for your condition.
- There is a choice C.
- You can ask the seeker, "Instead of what?" In other words, you can ask the seeker to choose which of the things you're now doing needs to be set aside for now while you deal with X. Try this approach. But find some words to say that are less harsh than, "Instead of what?" Maybe something along the lines of, "Sure, I can do that, if we can work out what to say about whatever it is I have to set aside to get time to do that. Help me with that?"
- When do you want it?
- When a task or assignment (call it X) lands in your hands, you'll likely need to set a priority for it. And you might have a fairly clear idea what X's priority should be. Even so, you might have a priority in mind that differs from the priority the seeker has in mind.
- The delivery When working with others, seemingly
minor differences in approach can
create enormous savings by smoothing
the way to the outcomes we seekdate isn't directly what you want to know. The delivery date is just one measure of the priority the requestor has in mind for X. Asking for a statement of the delivery date can help you determine how well your sense of X's priority matches the requestor's sense of X's priority.
- Frequently, the seeker's response to your query will be, "As soon as possible." That isn't much help. To smoke out a little more truth, your response to that could be, "OK, I'll get started on X right after I wrap up task Y." In other words, you're saying that X is a lower priority than Y. If the requestor agrees, you have a deal. If not, then you can negotiate relative priorities, which is what you wanted from the outset.
- When do you
- Needs and wants are different. A need is an input that causes major disruptions rippling through the organization if it isn't available. In the project context, most people prefer to reveal their wants rather than their needs.
- Even if you can steer the conversation away from wants toward needs, some people "pad" their needs so as to manage the risk of not receiving what they truly need.
- Still, you have a slightly better chance of learning their true needs if you ask them to tell you what they need instead of what they want.
- In a crazy system, you might need to break the rules
- Some human systems are inherently broken. In a broken system, there is just no way to get the job done if you follow the rules. Obviously, unless you have the power to change the rules, you have three options: (a) you can exit the system, or (b) you can satisfy yourself with low (or zero!) performance, or (c) you can break the rules.
- Exiting the system could involve voluntary termination or internal transfer. Those options can take time, assuming they are available. Until then, you must live with low or zero performance, unless you're willing to break the rules.
- Breaking the rules isn't an option we like to consider. But it is an option to consider.
- When you need time off, ask for it
- On rare occasions, you need time off on a particular day or dates, and you know about it in advance. A birth, a family reunion out of town, a court date, surgery, whatever. Among the most common mistakes people make about asking for time off for these constrained situations is procrastination. Avoid that mistake. Let people know about your need well in advance. When they know early enough it's easier for them to accommodate your need.
- Be prepared to answer a question about why you need the time. They have a right to ask, and you have a right not to be very specific. "Personal reasons" is a reason. And be prepared for questions about whether you can adjust the date. If you can adjust it, do so. If you can't, say so.
Collect these tactics, and others. Add to your collection any techniques you see others use effectively to avoid the speed bumps in their paths. The techniques of special interest are those that you believe might help you avoid speed bumps you've encountered in your experience. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Beyond WIIFM
- Probably the most widely used tactic of persuasion, "What's In It For Me," or WIIFM, can be
toxic to an organization. There's a much healthier approach that provides a competitive advantage to
organizations that use it.
- Interviewing the Willing: Tactics
- When we need information from each other, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose
critical facts. Here are some tactics for eliciting information from the willing.
- Nasty Questions: II
- In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information.
Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part
two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- The Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: II
- Where the handshake is a customary business greeting, it's possible to offend accidentally. Here's Part
II of a set of guidelines for handshakes in the USA.
- The Major Annoyance of Mini-Digressions
- Digressions are expensive. They limit progress in meetings. They're most noticeable when they deflect
the entire meeting from its stated purpose. There is another kind of digression that's less noticeable,
more common, and just as costly.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 31: When Your Boss Leaves Before You Do
- At some point in your career, your supervisor will leave his or her position and you'll end up reporting to someone new. It can be a harrowing experience, even if you prepare. Nevertheless, preparation usually produces a better outcome than winging it. Available here and by RSS on May 31.
- And on June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
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