Lessons learned

ARRRGGH! overlaid on email logo
Image modified from pixabay.com / CCO Public Domain

A brutal email from a co-worker received Friday has been eating away at me all weekend. I’m trying to brush it off. After all, I don’t believe it will have any long lasting repercussions, at least not for me. For her, it will reflect badly for some time.

She was angry, and the emotion came through loud and clear. Actually, the words screamed rage, and her statements came across as marching orders. This commandeering was inappropriate on several levels, First of all, I don’t report to her, and she does not outrank me. However, even if that was the case, it would not justify the harsh tone. In the corporate workplace, professionalism and civility should take priority in all communications. Unless, we’re on a coffee break and chatting about personal matters, the office is out of bounds for emotionally charged talk. Additionally, her boss had already emailed me about the matter and in a more civil tone, so the co-worker’s email was superfluous and came off as a cowardly attempt to distance herself from any shared blame.

Having said that, she had a point. I had handled a situation badly. With a demanding tone of voice that is counter to our company values, she previously asked me to perform a task out of scope for my job. I consulted others for direction who agreed it was in fact her role to execute this but recommended I compromise. As a result, rather than taking a clear position to either decline the request or accept the lead to get the job done, I engaged other stakeholders to get the ball rolling without sharing this approach with my co-worker. This backfired, and I knew there would be pushback. Her manager’s email to me, which included an apology for not setting clear expectations, was acceptable. The co-worker’s email, on the other hand, was over the line.

So, how do I deal with stuff like this and stop obsessing over it? I look for lessons learned from the experience to glean value from it. In the past, I tried to erase such experiences from memory but have since decided that is a futile exercise and a waste of potential opportunity. I prefer to discover a takeaway, now that I have already invested so much time stewing over it. Here’s what I plan to do and not do next time:

  1. Use her email as an example of what not to do should I find myself in her shoes. It is unprofessional, unbecoming, nonproductive and inevitably perceived badly by colleagues and those up the chain who have read it via copy or forwarding.
  2. I should trust my gut instinct about the potential fallout of my own actions and take proactive steps to avoid it.
  3. In the future, I would make it a point to respond decisively, albeit diplomatically, to inappropriate delegation of tasks.

I am also examining my work style. There was a time when I shouldered problem resolution to the point that I didn’t even ask others for advice or support. My approach was: my work, my problem. When I became aware of how frequently others consulted me or asked for help, I decided I had been foolish in feeling that I was always on my own. But I went to the other extreme by following advice I knew, though well-intended, was likely to end badly. From now on, I will look for the middle ground. Using others as a sounding board is fine but in the end, it may be better to use your best judgment based on experience and emotional intelligence to anticipate what will produce the most favorable outcome.


Beware of messages that sound defensive

Today, I had an experience at work that may sound familiar to you. A manager questioned the time it took me to complete a project.

I received an email from a manager asking me to account for my time on a project completed two months ago, requesting a breakdown of the activities and the associated hours worked. It would have been easy for me to go on the defensive and reply back that I simply don’t remember and have never received this request before, but I followed one of my own rules that I want to share. First, do not be quick to respond. Take a deep breath, walk away and think about it. Then come back with a rational state of mind, and put yourself inside the other person’s head.

Keeping in mind that people have their own agenda, which likely has nothing to do with me, I composed a response that conveyed a positive outlook, showed an understanding of the request and provided as comprehensive an answer as possible. I began the email stating that I was happy to offer him the activity details though unable to backtrack on the activity timeline, and then proceeded to list each action I took to complete the project.

Beware of the word “unfortunately.” It sends the wrong message. Just answer the question. Don’t make excuses. Then proofread the email. Walk away, come back and proofread it again, not just for spelling and grammar but for tone as well.

When someone asks you for information and you cannot give them everything they want, give them something. Keep the tone professional and polite. People remember that, in a good way. Going on the defensive only serves to enrage people, and that will come back to haunt you in the end.


Armed with the power of influence

I remember an incident on a new job when I successfully swayed someone who was on the fence about an important decision. Not being aware that my manager was all ears, I was surprised when she approached me after the call and said, “You have good influential skills.” I suppose it came naturally to me because until then, I didn’t even realize this was a skill. However, once aware, I built on it and and now consider it a valuable proficiency.

An article on Inc.com offers ten tips for influencing people. I would add one more that partners with an essential communication skill: adapting to someone else’s style. People are not typically influenced by someone they don’t like and we tend to dislike those whose communication styles are very dissimilar.

If you’re talking to someone with a calm demeanor, tone down the volume and adopt a soothing inflection. If your listener is outgoing and personable, show your personal, friendly side. Depending on the person’s professionalism, language level, state of mind, etc., adjust your language, tone of voice and animation to bring yourself into their comfort zone. Stay focused and organized to influence someone who is detailed and cautious. Avoid too much detail with someone who is overwhelmed and hurried. Likability is key whether you’re selling, servicing or soothing. This skill also applies to interviewing, on both sides of the table.

The ability to influence is not restricted to politicians. Almost every field requires this skill; sales, customer service, law and politics, to name a few. And remember, if executed correctly, not only will you win over the person on the phone, but you may earn accolades from your manager who is listening.

Does delivering and receiving feedback make you uncomfortable?

If feedback makes you uncomfortable both giving and getting, you’re not alone. I dread every performance appraisal even when I am confident it will be positive. It’s just so personal. Then I found an article on ProjectsAtWork.com that offered a refreshing perspective in the form of 9 great tips. If you are studying business management, this may help:

business coaching
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/freedigitalphotos.net
  1. Approach the conversation with curiosity about the other person’s point of view.
  2. Set the stage as partners in the conversation by gaining consensus on the purpose and mode of communication.
  3. Avoid the long-standing assumption that negative feedback is easier to swallow when sandwiched (positive/negative/positive). Ask the recipient how they would like to receive it.
  4. State your concern and ask for their point of view – don’t make people guess.
  5. Ask how you may have contributed to the issues.
  6. React to defensiveness with curiosity about how they’re feeling.
  7. Do not use anonymous feedback – the reaction is sure to be defensiveness.
  8. Honor a statute of limitations – waiting too long erodes the value.
  9. Solicit feedback on your ability to give feedback.

Number 7 is my personal favorite. In my opinion, being told that someone said something, but their identity cannot be revealed, is frustrating and of no value.

These pointers are useful for situations outside the workplace too. What works for you?