Thursday, January 29, 2009
Many of us are more comfortable sending e-mails or memos at work, never having to directly face other human beings who — gasp! — want to ask us questions.
But sometimes you have to speak with people face-to-face, and sometimes it can get uncomfortable. Like when you're required to make off-the-cuff remarks or answer difficult questions.
“Why are you late with that project?" “You're being paid more than me and we do the same job. Do you think that's fair? “I know we don't get along, but will you be a reference for me?” These are a few of the queries we might be asked that put us on the spot, making us long for our keyboard where we would have time to tap out a response.
Of course, you want to sound reasonable when someone asks you a question. You want to sound intelligent. But somehow your brain goes into denial, causing you to stammer and then blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Then for hours or even days, you beat yourself up about how you should have given a better response, but you were unprepared for the question.
And that's the key. In order to avoid being caught flat-footed, you must be aware of what questions may be asked, and then write out what your answer should be. And, of course, don’t assume because a subject is unpleasant that someone won’t bring it up.
That's why the first thing you've got to do is give some consideration to the questions from hell that may come your way, then decide what a reasonable response will be. If you can’t come up with an appropriate answer ("How much money do you make?" then ask someone else for help. That way, you get the answer with the right "spin" and one that you feel makes sense.
If you feel like you need to gain better control over your face-to-face interactions, here are some tips that may help:
* Keep moving. Let's say you're giving a presentation or speech, and someone asks a question. Provide a concise answer, but try to move onto other audience members as soon as you can. That way more people feel included, and keeps you from getting into long-winded discussions or confrontations with just one person.
* Build in thinking time. When you're asked a question, repeat a few words of it back to the person. This gives you time to formulate your answer. It also helps take some of the bit out of a hostile or awkward question. You can ask the person something like, "What would you like to see happen?" or "In your opinion, what is the best outcome?"
* Keep the answer manageable. If you are asked a difficult question that defies a quick answer, break it down by saying, "There are three parts to my answer and the first part is..." This helps you keep track of where you're going and makes the other person feel like you're giving a thoughtful answer.
* Don't admit ignorance. Perhaps you don't know the specific answer to a question, but you can say, "That's a great question, and I'm looking into it. But did you know that..." This helps you save face and still provides your listener with information.
What are some other ways to deal with tough questions?
Monday, January 26, 2009
I feel for managers these days, I really do. Or, at least I feel for the good managers. The evil troll managers I don't really think about too much, because they're going to get theirs one day no matter what I think about them.
But the good managers -- those men and women who are trying to hold it together when it feels like the entire workplace is a huge Titanic without Leonardo DiCaprio to at least provide a distraction from the looming iceberg -- I feel for what they're going through.
I know they're losing sleep. They're worried about their job, sure, but they're worried about dozens or even hundreds of others. The good managers know their people really well. They know who has health problems and can't afford to lose insurance coverage. They know who is struggling to pay a mortgage with a kid in college and they know who is a single parent with no help.
So, they go into work every day trying to stay calm and rational and upbeat. They're trying to keep frightened and disillusioned employees on track, trying everything to keep employees feeling creative and productive.
That's why it's time managers got a little weird.
Let me explain. I once interviewed a restaurant manager who needed to make sure employees were cleaning the place thoroughly, but knew that constant nagging would not help. In fact, it would probably just make workers annoyed and angry, or perhaps apathetic. Not a good thing when a health inspector was on the way.
So instead he devised a system where he stuck small colored stickers in various places around the eatery. Employees who cleaned well would soon find these stickers. And, by turning these stickers over to management, they gained a prize — and the restaurant gained quality work and a top-notch health inspection.
While such a practice sounds simple, many managers wouldn't even think of such a different approach to work. They simply keeping nagging employees — and losing morale and motivation in the process.
But if managers these days want to keep their best workers -- and that is another huge worry -- they've got to quit caring what someone else will think of their methods and just focus on getting people to do what they do best.
In other words, give the employees a reason to get out of bed in the morning and not worry about what may be around the corner. Someone else might think your methods are a bit weird, but hey, you're just being a good manager.
So here are some ideas given by other managers as a way to make a job more interesting and fun for a worker, while gaining higher productivity and quality work:
* Let them play. Everyone knows that employees play solitaire on the computer, or some other kind of game. In fact, studies show that a little “down” time is good for recharging the batteries. So, why not devise internal company games that get employees to solve crosswords or anagrams or puzzles that have to do with company products or history? That way, employees are being educated while having fun.
* Put mentors in reverse: It’s not only the older employees who have something to teach younger employees. Many younger workers can help older employees master some technology dilemmas through interactive sessions where information is shared in a relaxed way.
* Use training theater. I learned that one manager feared that some of his younger male employees were being a little too forward with female customers, so instead of lecturing them, the manager had several male managers dress as women (heels, lipstick, dresses) and role-play with other male employees. It soon became apparent after the laughter died down that some behavior was not appropriate, and it brought the message home without pointing fingers.
* Take a road trip. Take employees to visit a competitor and find out what the other business “does right.” Or, visit businesses known for their customer service, even if it’s not your particular industry. Many retailers are known for top service — ask employees what they noticed about how employees in these stores behaved.
*Put out the welcome mat: Every month have one department hold an “open house” for others in the company. Handouts should be given telling what the department does, as well as a tour and narrative that gives information about how the department functions, who works there, etc. (It’s always a good idea to offer a little food and beverage — one company found a cotton candy machine to be a big hit.)
What are some other ways managers can help ease the stress and engage employees?
Friday, January 23, 2009
There have been many requests for a piece of the bailout pie from lots of companies, including Hustler magazine and the guy from "Girls Gone Wild."
Exactly who is going to finally get some of the TARP (Trouble Asset Relief Program) money remains to be seen, but here are 8 signs your company may have received a bit of that bailout pie:
1. The boss arrives for work in a plane piloted by Tom Cruise. Katie Holmes is a flight attendant.
2. The entire third floor of the company has been converted into a golf driving range and practice tee. Tiger Woods gives lessons every Thursday afternoon.
3. Pizza for the Friday afternoon pizza party is flown in from Italy. Empty pizza pans are flown back to Italy to be washed.
4. Any executive who shows up for work during a month with an "R" in it automatically receives a new condo in Bermuda because of such workplace dedication.
5. Company memo says that while the holiday party for employees was canceled because of costs, the executives will be traveling to Paris for a Valentine's Day getaway with significant others. The stress has been brutal on families, the memo notes, and the execs need some "snuggle bunny" time.
6. Cirque du Soleil has been hired to do the window washing. Management says the former washers "lacked synergy."
7. The company board of directors says they can't think creatively in the current conference room, so they're converting it into a water park, complete with surfing feature. The board chairman is now to be referred to as "Top Dude."
8. When asked about salary transparency, the CFO laughs so hard he wets himself.
What are some other signs an employer may have received a recent infusion of cash from the government?
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
As Barak Obama begins his first days in office, he'll be surrounded by trusted advisers.
Before he makes a decision, he's likely to consult members of his Cabinet. He'll probably ask their opinions on everything from foreign policy to domestic issues. In the end, of course, the final decision will be his. But he will make that decision based on input he's received from people he trusts and respects.
So, who is in your Cabinet?
You may think you don't need a trusted group of advisers. After all, you're not the president of the United States, and may believe that it's a luxury reserved for world leaders.
Not so. In fact, no one may need a Cabinet today more than the average worker.
That's because times are tough. It's hard not to be pessimistic about the future, or at least concerned that your portfolio has taken a huge hit and no raise or bonus is on the horizon. But with a Cabinet in place, you not only can do a better job of keeping difficult times in perspective, but you can have in place people to advise you when times are bad -- and good.
Who should be in your Cabinet? Well, let's consider who Obama has chosen. Some descriptions that come to mind: Smart, savvy, experienced and diverse. His advisers are not wilting lilies -- and Obama has reportedly encouraged them to be true to themselves and offer their unbiased opinions.
That's exactly what you're aiming for with your Cabinet: Smart, savvy, experienced and diverse. Now, let's look at how you put a Cabinet together:
* Make a list. Think of those you've worked with in past and current positions, or others you've met through various professional functions. For your Cabinet, it's best to steer away from personal friends and family members. You want people who are more concerned with what's best for you professionally, rather than just becoming emotional about what happens in your career.
* Don't rush. Putting together your Cabinet won't happen overnight. You need to carefully consider each person, and the strengths and experience they can offer. And, you need to be able to offer something in return. You're not a monarch -- this is supposed to be a relationship that is beneficial for them as well. Perhaps you'll be a Cabinet member for them or be able to offer valuable contacts or help when needed. If you don't think you can offer reciprocal benefits, you may need to consider someone else.
* Who has your back? In the working world it can often be tricky to know exactly who to trust. A person may say they have your best interests at heart, but actions speak otherwise. When looking for a Cabinet, think about who has covered for you at work without whining about it. Or, the person who gave you a heads up about a new project that you might like or the person at another company who alerted you to a great new job that was opening up. Your Cabinet members should be supportive of you, and show they have your best interests at heart.
* Always assess your Cabinet strength: If you put a Cabinet together and then discover that someone isn't really contributing, it's time to cut your losses and find someone else. Don't be ugly or unprofessional about it -- just tell them that you've learned a lot and probably won't need to be calling on them as much in the future. Remember: You never want to burn bridges with professional contacts.
* Be realistic. Your Cabinet isn't going to do your work for you. That's still your responsibility. They're in place to give you advice, to act as a sounding board and to give you their honest opinion whether you're doing the right thing or headed for disaster. Don't abuse their talents and don't take them for granted. Make sure you always offer something of value in return, and you and your Cabinet will go far in the coming years.
What are some other considerations for a career Cabinet?
Thursday, January 15, 2009
These are the words being echoed in workplaces across the world.
Be creative in coming up with new ideas to grow the business.
Be creative in finding ways to outsmart the competition.
Be creative in finding ways to work more efficiently.
Be creative in coming up with ways to cut costs.
They're just words, but two words that pack a wallop for a lot of people.
Be creative. OK. But....how?
What if your idea of being creative is taking a different route to work? Or wearing a blue shirt with brown pants instead of black? Bosses have said over and over that those who add the most value will be the ones who keep their jobs. Does that mean if you're uncreative, you could be in danger?
Probably not. If you're adding value by doing a great job, then there's no reason to believe your lack of creativity will hurt you. At the same time, coming up with new ideas is a sure-fire way to not only solidify your position currently, but possibly even garner you a promotion -- or increase your appeal to other employers who may be willing to pay more for your creative talent.
And let me be clear here: Creativity is not just the purview of those in areas such as marketing or design. Every workplace needs creativity in order to survive in today's highly competitive marketplace. You may not believe you're a creative person, but I bet you are. You may just need to exercise different muscles in order to really get yourself in top shape so you can call on your creativity more often.
So, let's look at some ways to develop your creativity:
1. Play. I'm not talking Guitar Hero. I'm talking about learning to look at everything in your world as something to explore. There's a reason that kids rip into toys on Christmas morning and then spend more time playing with the box it came in. It's more fun because it can become anything and everything for that child. Start playing with things in your job -- would you be more productive if your desk faced another way? Should invoices be another color or another shape to avoid getting mixed up with other paperwork? Why can't all meetings have a big bucket of Legos for everyone to play with? Experts say that children learn through play -- so why have we stopped playing as adults?
2. Challenge yourself. The next time you're stuck in traffic, look at what's in your glove box. Think of how you could use each item if you were a) stranded in the woods b) asked to make an art project or c) had to describe each item using at least 10 words. You can also do this while at home -- just use items in a desk or kitchen junk drawer.
3. Understand "no" is your friend. Lots of creative folks are told "no." John Grisham is a famous case, receiving dozens of rejection letters for his first novel. Why do you think artists are often starving before they are multimillionaires? It's because they were told no over and over again, but kept plugging away. Often, being rejected really boosts your creativity. So if your boss says "no" to an idea, that just means you're being pushed into a new realm of creativity. Be grateful for it and keep thinking.
4. Be vulnerable. No one likes to do things they're not good at. You don't want to take ballroom dancing lessons if you're so klutzy you can't take a flight of stairs without tripping. You may think art classes are for people who actually know the different between white and ivory. Not so. In fact, the more inept you believe yourself to be at something or the more you don't like it, the more you should embrace it. If you're conservative, take the most liberal person at work to lunch. If you hate country music, listen to Hank Williams. Learn to speak another language. Only by exposing yourself to new and different experiences can you start to jump-start your brain into seeking out new ideas.
5. Go for it. Once you begin embracing your new-found creativity, you may be shy about sharing it. You may hesitate to propose your new ideas to the boss or co-workers. I'll be honest -- they may reject them in the beginning. After all, if you've not been known for your creativity, people may be a little taken aback when you seem to have morphed into something new. We often have a hard time initially accepting change. But don't let that stop you. Once you consistently offer new ideas, others will begin to see you in a new light -- as someone who is creative and energetic, as someone who is willing to pursue new ways of doing things in a challenging marketplace. And who doesn't want someone like that around?
What are some other ways you can become more creative at work?
Monday, January 12, 2009
Recently, I posed this question on Twitter: "What was the name of your favorite teacher and what did he/she teach?"
I immediately got nearly a dozen responses, and the enthusiasm was palpable. English, history, economics, drums and literature teachers were lauded by fellow Twitterers who noted how the favored teacher was "encouraging," "brilliant," had "patience" or a sense of humor.
What I also found interesting was that no one forgot the name of that great teacher, which is kind of amazing when you think how many people claim they are "bad with names" even if they've met someone in business many times.
So, this got me to thinking about the power of teaching, and how we can use that in our careers.
While using LinkedIn and Facebook and other online networking tools can be helpful, and attending business and industry functions can be beneficial to your career, don't forget that teaching may have one of the greatest positive impacts on your success.
Teaching, I believe, can take many different forms in the workplace. You can teach the new employee how to use the phone system, you can teach an older employee how to streamline a process, you can teach your boss how to access material on the Internet or you can teach a co-worker how to handle a difficult colleague.
The point is that you're doing what great teachers do: Giving of your time and efforts with the purpose of passing on the gift of knowledge so that the student's life will be enhanced, better and richer for having met you.
Don't ever believe that you're not patient enough, or smart enough or giving enough to be a teacher in the workplace. Even the smallest effort to pass on your knowledge can have a huge impact on someone else, and that's very valuable in a workplace culture that is often so fast-paced and stressful that we forget someone's name the minute we delete their e-mail.
Think back to your favorite teacher. What did he or she offer you that made you always remember him or her? How did they help you expand your mind and absorb the knowledge they offered you?
Now, consider what you have to offer someone else in the workplace. How can you use that knowledge to make yourself memorable, to form a connection that will last? Because let's face it: Solid connections in the workplace not only benefit you now but in the future. Who do you think will help you when you're looking for a new job or an important business contact -- the person you helped teach, or the person you brushed off because you were too busy to help show the ropes?
"Teaching," Albert Einstein said, "should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.”
What are some ways you can "teach" in the workplace?
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Is your definition of success a fatal mistake?
For some, success is defined in terms of the dollar amount on a paycheck. For others, it's the title on their business card. Others may define success in terms of the accolades and awards they have won.
But the problem with how people define success these days is that when they're forced to change it, they can't. Look at the businessmen who have committed suicide because they have lost fortunes. Consider the workers who are fired and then go back to work, armed with a gun.
Extreme cases, sure. Not everyone considers killing themselves or others when their livelihood is threatened. But it does point out that maybe we need to revisit our own definition of success.
Start by completing this definition: "Success to me is...."
After you complete this sentence, then review it and determine if you're on the path to achieving that success. If you were to lose your job or money tomorrow, would your definition of success still be valid? Or, would you consider yourself a failure?
I remember a job where I worked long, stressful hours and often labored for a boss who had mood swings like a freaking roller coaster. It made for a tense situation, to say the least. One day I was talking to a co-worker and the exhaustion was overwhelming. I felt so dissatisfied, frustrated and even angry. Then it hit me: If I died that day, I didn't want the only thing on my tombstone to be "Always met her deadlines."
Ugh, I remember thinking. I wanted my life to account for more than that. It wasn't until months later that I started making some real changes in my life, changes that I know made me much better able to balance my life and devote time and effort to more than my job.
Right now, times are tough and some of us are beginning to panic. But I think it's a golden opportunity to really think about what is important in your life, and weed out the things that don't really matter.
You are the one who must define what success is to you. One thing I know for sure: You are more than a job title, you are worth more than a number on a paycheck and you are more than an award to hang on your wall. Is the destination you have in mind worth the road you must travel? Only you can answer that.
So, how do you define success?
Monday, January 5, 2009
"Excuse me, Brianna, but I was reviewing this report and it looks like there's an error in the numbers. I need you to look them over and see what you can find so I can go ahead and submit this to the client today."
"Gee, Jennifer, I doubt there are errors, but I'll look it over. I know that you can't add more than two numbers together unless you've got a calculator nearby."
"Uh...whatever. Just let me know what you find, because the boss wants an update."
"Oh, I'm sure he does. And I'll just bet you ran to him first thing to tattle that you found an error. Sounds just like something you would do."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Please. Don't play the innocent. Everyone here knows that you are such a suck-up to the boss because you're too insecure to speak up for yourself. These games you play are so juvenile."
"Games? What are you talking about? I work just as hard as anyone here and I'm not insecure!"
"Oh, please. Get a grip. You always overreact to anything anyone says. You can't even handle constructive criticism without falling apart. Don't worry -- I'll fix your problem. I'm used to it. You're such a child sometimes."
Most of us understand that criticism is part of our working life. We know that our performance is going to be judged by a variety of people, from customers to the boss to co-workers. But what happens when that professional criticism becomes a personal attack?
That's when things get tough. Because when people are sarcastic, condescending, rude or hateful, we often have a tendency to revert back to our childhoods when a sibling's taunting made us either furious or mute in disbelief and hurt. And, if others are around to witness a personal attack at work, then it seems to be even worse. We're humiliated and demoralized by our own failure to handle someone attacking us.
I interviewed several psychologists and workplace experts recently, and they all seem to agree on one thing: Personal attacks in the workplace are never about the person being attacked. They're really about the attacker.
"You're like a cardboard cutout to these people," says Sharon Melnick, a psychologist and executive coach in New York City. "You're not real to them."
Melnick was one of more than two dozen experts who responded to my press query about how to deal with personal attacks in the workplace. Much of the advice focused on realizing that you can only let the attacks hurt you if you make that choice. Still, several commented that as much as you'd like to let a personal attack just slide off you like a snake shedding skin, the truth is that when criticism takes on a personal tone ("you're so stupid") it can be damaging to us both personally and professionally.
"Personal attacks are not only rejecting. They are abusive. Unfortunately, most of us react to them with our stockpile of old hurts from earlier experiences (family, teachers, peers). It's the peers memories that significantly affect how we react at work," notes Elayne Savage, a psychotherapist. "It's hard not to take personal attacks personally. Unfortunately this leads to hours, days and weeks spent dwelling on what happened. As you can imagine, work productivity is affected significantly."
At the same time, some experts believe personal attacks are growing in intensity.
Peter Getoff, a psychologist in Los Angeles, told me that a century ago the American workplace had stricter rules of conduct, governed by the social norms that took place outside the job. "People were less likely to be strangers," he says.
That means that as communities and workplaces grew, we began working with people we didn't really know. That made it easier to challenge those social rules and not feel the repercussions for behaving badly, Getoff says.
Still, the experts agree on one thing: You are not powerless when confronted with this situation. There are steps you can take to deal with a co-worker who criticizes you personally in a professional setting. They advise you should:
1. Walk away. If you have a tendency to lose your temper when attacked, this will be tough. But responding in anger can only make the situation worse. Tell the person that "I'm not going to be talked to this way. We do need to talk, but I will talk to you about this privately later."
2. Focus on yourself. When under attack, focus to stay calm by breathing in through your mouth and out through your nose, Melnick suggests. Or, as Jodi R.R. Smith, an etiquette expert says: "Imagine the words bouncing off of you and rolling onto the floor. Visualize this person as a toddler having an all out tantrum. When they run out of steam, ask: 'Is there anything else?'"
3. Be prepared. Dr. Mark Goulston recommends pausing for five seconds after the attack and then calmly say:
* "My mind wandered for the past couple of minutes. Could you repeat what you said?"
* "You seem either angry, frustrated or at least disappointed in me. Tell what you'd like me to do differently that's reasonable and fair to both of us, and I'd be happy to do it. If you can't come up with something, it seems to me that you may want to just stay angry at me rather than make it better. That's not acceptable to me."
* "I can't hear what you're saying when you speak to me in that voice. Please speak in a normal tone of voice so I can start listening."
* "Do you really believe what you just said?"
4. Consider the source. As Melnick pointed out, the attack on you has probably been triggered by something going on in the attacker's life. Getoff agrees, and notes that the attack can be a result of many different things, including stress from an unpaid mortgage to personal problems to mental illness. And sometimes it happens because the attacker doesn't know not to do it. "(It) sounds simplistic, I know," Getoff says. "Many of us grow up with certain habit patterns ingrained in us that we owe to our families of origin. We may have been reared in a family where name-calling, yelling, bullying were accepted ways of expressing anger, dissatisfaction and managing conflict."
5. Become a better person. "As hard as it may be to accept, any disturbing behavior that you observe in another is a reflection of what you yourself have done - maybe not to the same degree or in the exact same form; but if you examine your own conduct, you will see that you have behaved similarly, perhaps toward family members, perhaps toward yourself. Now that you see how harmful the launching of personal attacks is, you can tap the motivation to deepen your commitment to stop engaging in it yourself, to be kinder and more constructive in your relationships," says Bob Lancer, an author and consultant.
While some experts recommend taking your complaints to human resources or the boss, it's clear that such a decision can have consequences: It can either make the situation better -- or worse. Whatever the decision, it's clear that with the increasing stress of layoffs, pay cuts and dismal financial news, more employees than ever may be facing a workplace that isn't always kind to the psyche.
What other suggestions would you have for someone personally criticized on the job?