Who Else Wants Good Relationships With Colleagues?

Posted on | March 16, 2010 | No Comments

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What’s in a Word?

Recently I was working with two colleagues, Joe and Daniel. They had been friendly and had worked well together for close to two years, but their relationship had suddenly turned sour and was affecting the entire office. Their boss called me to ask if I might help.

I embarked on a fairly typical process to help the two parties work this out, starting with individual conversations.

Daniel claimed that all was fine and there was no need to get in a room and talk.

Joe said that Daniel was temperamental and had frequent outbursts, but that he had come to live with it. Joe also said that he wanted to talk about Daniel’s performance—and went on to cite numerous incidents of work not being done as instructed. Joe readily admitted, however, his tendency to have high standards and to get upset when things were not done exactly the way he wanted them done.

I was not at all sure how the mediation would go, as Daniel was so reluctant to get in a room with Joe. The meeting started slowly with them both tentatively acknowledging the value of working this out and articulating each other’s strengths. As they got closer to talking about “the problem” they started arguing in great detail about each step of their standard operating procedure (SOP).

In the midst of the debate, Joe said, “I told Daniel to own his work.” This was an accusation that Daniel was somehow responsible for the errors because he was not talking responsibility.

I asked Daniel if he recalled Joe telling him “to own” his work. Daniel said, “Yes.” I then asked Daniel what owning his work meant to him. His response was to do his work the way he thought it should be done even if it varied from the SOP.

Next I asked Joe what “owning” his own work meant. Joe replied, “Doing the work the way I said it should be done.”

Ah, a small word—“own”—but a huge difference in interpretations!!

In that moment they saw their problem. Though they both heard the same word, they had sent and received very different messages. Neither actually cared about the SOPs, but they both cared about getting the work done efficiently and effectively. They were colliding, if you will, over who got to decide how the work got done on a number of occasions. Joe thought he had permission to do things his way, and Daniel thought Joe was to do it precisely the way Daniel wanted it done.

Now you might think that the decision on who makes the call about process was the issue, but it was not. They easily cleared that up. The ultimate problem was that Daniel often gave vague instructions when telling Joe how he wanted it done. The words we use count. This was their biggest learning—that when they discuss work togther they have to be sure they are communicating well. They agreed to simply restate their understandings when they finished planning so that they both could agree to what was decided.

This is not an unusual problem. It happens in two-way conversations and it happens in meetings. People assume they all have the same information because they all heard the same words. Not always true! Here are a few tips:

1. At the end of every conversation or decision, someone in the room should be asked to restate the conclusion. This allows everyone to hear the message once again. If there are just two of you, you both should say what you heard. Be careful to be as specific as possible.

2. Use a flip chart and make a point of writing the decisions, agreements and next steps. A visual will help people notice if they have misunderstood.

3. At the conclusion of a meeting when there have been several conversations, always review the major points, decisions and next steps.

4. When summarizing or giving directions, paint a picture. Describe exactly what it would look like if it were done as agreed. Be as concrete and specific as possible.

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