March 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm #155925
Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a intelligent and highly motivated young woman who told me she thought she was being a PIA at work. From what she told me, I believe she was right. She hadn’t set out to be a PIA, but she had hit a wall. For no apparent reason, communication had broken down between her and a Program Manager she was hoping to get information from.
She had struck a nerve that she didn’t know was there.
She found a program she felt she could contribute to. She was affiliated with a university & worked out an agreement to allow her to do an in depth study and identify ways to improve it. She was excited.
She did her homework and found a few bits of information online, but was missing what she felt was key information on the program: budget, strategic plan, etc. As a responsible person, she didn’t stop. She made some calls and tracked down the Program Manager. She also found the budget people. She called, set up meetings, and followed up. Things started off great, but soon the discussions just stopped. Scheduled meetings were cancelled. Phone calls were not returned. She was wondering what happened.
I’m not in the PM’s head, but I’ve been one myself and worked with many over the years. Based on what my friend shared with me, here’s what I believe happened: My friend had become a threat. She was looking for budget numbers because she knew that some of the resources this PM was using were “borrowed” from labor pools that were not reported by the program. She was looking for a strategic plan that either wasn’t written, wasn’t agreed to by everyone, or was out of date.
Exposing this would have caused the PM pain. If the PM was borrowing labor, then he/she had probably spent a lot of energy building relationships. Exposing line items that were not reported as part of the program would raise questions, put the program at risk for a possible money sweep, and possibly put the PM’s hard-earned relationships in jeopardy. Not having a strategic plan may be just an embarrassment that the PM didn’t have the time or will to remedy.
Getting things done without striking a nerve is a skill that all of us benefit from learning. Here are a few ideas to keep our well meant actions from being interpreted as a threat:
- Always ask yourself “What’s in it for them?” If you want something from someone, asking yourself this question will help you formulate a strategy to get it. Maybe there is no incentive for a person to give you information you need. Maybe someone else has incentive to get you what you need. Maybe you need to build a good relationship with them so that keeping the relationship alive becomes the incentive.
- Use a feedback loop. It takes two people to deliver a message. One sends the message while the other receives, mixes it with experience, and interprets it. Find ways that are comfortable for you to test for the way your message was received. Without trust, they may not tell you that you’re a threat, but you may pick up on clues from their body language that they are uncomfortable.
- Find a mentor. Mentors who have experience with things you don’t can point things out that you may not have considered. In the case I described above, my friend never considered that her questions might dry up the PM’s resources if she published her analysis. Knowing that this is a possibility, she’s adjusted her strategy and now has a better chance of success.
- Don’t always use the front door. Sometimes, walking up and asking someone a question – even if it’s a good question, can ruffle feathers. It is sometimes better to find someone who would benefit from sharing the information you seek – or at least someone with whom you have built up enough trust to know how you will use it.
- Focus on relationships. This isn’t always the case, but I’d say in most cases it’s better to build relationships first, than relentlessly pursue information at their expense. A former IG expert once told me that the process of conducting a good investigation is all about the relationships. Charging in like Dick Tracy may seem appropriate, but often a good relationship will produce a lot more than hard hitting tactics.
What ideas for avoiding hitting a nerve am I missing?
What experience do you have with hitting or avoiding nerves in your life?
March 19, 2012 at 7:15 pm #155945
PIA = Pain in the Asks? 😉
March 19, 2012 at 7:46 pm #155943
Great piece, and great advice.
Often people may not realize they do pose a threat, even though they do not intend to do so.
I think everyone who does a job that they consider hard, and requiring dedication, needs to feel they are doing a decent job AT their job. They need, and deserve, that little bit of dignity. Sometimes, one can imply, even if obliquely, that so-and-so is NOT doing as good a job at their job as they might. And when that happens, they will fight you, and consider you not just a PITA, but a royal one.
Some years back, I was teaching a course on what I guess one might call psychology of the workplace, and was required to teach a module on harassment. I drew examples from an excellent book of case files that I heartily recommend for discussion ( http://www.amazon.ca/Harassed-Define-Inappropriate-Behavior-Workplace/dp/1556237960 ). I assigned the students the task of writing a letter to their manager, as the victim in one of the scenarios. Their goal was to rectify a situation in which a long-time employee was belittling them (a female employee who had been with the firm for a little under a year), and stealing sales accounts from them.
The younger ones, without much work experience, generally came out with both guns blazing; “I wish to complain about being harassed…”, they would start out. I drew their attention to the fact that the manager would have known the offender much longer than them, probably had some moderately friendly relationship with that employee, and starting with an accusation implied that the manager’s judgment of character was inherently flawed; i.e., they were too stupid and blind to realize one of their long-time employees was a miserable S.O.B. and harassing others. From the student’s perspective, they thought of themselves as merely getting to the point quickly, but they didn’t realize they were immediately conveying a subtext that the manager was incompetent. Unlikely that the manager would be terribly cooperative. The more mature students, with more work experience, were more likely to pitch the letter in terms of a situation that had started out well (i.e., the manager’s judgment was non-problematic), but that things had gradually broken down in a counter-productive way. They would emphasize a desire to fix the situation, rather than insist on the dismissal of the longtime employee (reiterating the view that the manager’s judgment about employees was sound).
I guess the advice that follows from this is Never make it about their competence, not even indirectly. Leave folks with their dignity intact, and they will generally be far more cooperative and giving.
March 19, 2012 at 8:04 pm #155941
Sure. Or a Pain In the Another area. 😉
March 19, 2012 at 8:05 pm #155939
This is a great example! Thanks for sharing, Mark!
March 20, 2012 at 12:02 am #155937
My pleasure, Dave.
I might add that this is why whistleblowing can often be so divisive within organizations, why people can often react very poorly to it, and why no legislation will ever be able to handle it effectively.
Once person X determines that person Y has acted improperly and makes a disclosure that evetually becomes public, it requires everyone to take sides…almost like an ugly divorce. Unless the perpetrator is so clearly in the wrong that everyone is one the same side, once you find yourself on the “other side” from a work colleague, it becomes an implied declaration of either incompetence (“How could you side with that idiot / against my capable coworker?”) or an implied declaration of their lack of moral fibre (“How could you side with that creep / against my friend?”). That can have devastating effects on the morale and climate of a work unit, and sometimes a whole organization. A buddy of mine who writes on the topic of whistleblowing refers to it as “morally ambiguous”.
To avoid derailing the thread, I’ll return back to the theme. This is yet another example of how employees can end up being perceived as posing a threat to each other despite having absolutely no intent to do so.
I take the view that there are finite limits to human co-operation, and sometimes it can be very easy to run up against those limits.
March 20, 2012 at 2:37 am #155935
You summed up the dynamics of whistleblowing pretty well. That could be a whole new post!
In the case I’m referring to above, she simply was a little too forward. Nothing as serious as whistle blowing going on here. A little tact and diplomacy is all that’s needed. She’s a smart young woman. I’m positive she’s getting it figured out.
March 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm #155933
Dorothy Ramienski AmatucciParticipant
This is really excellent advice. I think Mark’s point about existing relationships and confidence levels is really on point, too. Being new in an office can sometimes be really daunting, and learning to navigate a new space isn’t easy, especially if a majority of the employees are older. We ‘youngs’ sometimes forget that being forward and saying what’s on our minds is not always the best way to get something accomplished. 🙂
March 20, 2012 at 4:56 pm #155931
March 27, 2012 at 8:05 pm #155929
Telecommute. Really? The avoidance method. Clever.
Candace hit a good point re: being positive and compliment openly. Sounds like a page taken from The One Minute Manager. A book anyone can read in 15 minutes, but advice that lasts a lifetime. 🙂
Stacy has my vote though with chocolate covered fruit. Awesome and creative. Nice.
March 27, 2012 at 8:06 pm #155927
Never heard of “youngs” before, but I like it. 🙂
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