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Business Communication Archive

Want Critical Thinkers? Reward Asking Questions.

When my son started pre-school, I attended new parent orientation. I had never sent my son to school and I had lots of questions. I asked my questions at the orientation; I was the only parent who asked questions. The mom sitting next to me wasn’t even sure she qualified for the program. Her child was enrolled in a parent-tot program; parents had to attend with their child and couldn’t send a caregiver. The mom worked full-time and couldn’t attend herself. Even though she wasn’t sure her child could participate in the program, she didn’t ask any questions. It was just me asking all the questions. By the end if the evening, I could feel the other parents’ eyes on me, wishing I’d shut up so they could go home and relieve their babysitter.

One of managers’ and employers’ biggest complaints is the inability to hire critical thinkers – employees who question. I hear this complaint all the time. Yet we often find the people who ask questions irritating and bothersome. “Why do they have to look for what’s wrong? Why do they have to question?”

Questioners are often seen as boat rockers, challenging the status quo. They are ‘difficult’.

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t hire people who think critically, who don’t question.

I’m not talking about people who can’t make a decision and are constantly asking managers to validate their solutions or employees who use managers as google rather than doing their own research. I’m talking about squelching the counter-point-of-view.

If you want employees who identify and solve problems and create new products and ways of working, then you need to reward those who question.

One of the reasons employees may not ask questions is the fear of appearing as if they don’t know. Who likes to admit they don’t know something at work? Not knowing makes us appear less valuable, less reliable. It takes strength to admit, “I don’t know.” Managers and leaders need to model the behaviors they want to see. We need to ask our own questions visibly and regularly. We need to admit when we don’t know. We need to be willing to be wrong and to let others see it.

There is an old workplace adage, you get what you reward. Does your organization have an award for the employee who asks the most questions? If not, create one. Do you recognize employees publicly who are willing to point out inefficient processes and costly systems? Do you have a reward system in place for employees who fail trying to fix a problem or create something new? If we get what we reward, what are we rewarding?


Save Face When Making Mistakes at Work

Our company got a shipment of products this week that were partially defective. When I called our vendor to tell him about the defective products, he sighed knowingly. He knew part of our order was imperfect and waited for me to find the problems versus telling me himself.

What?!?!

I love surprise gifts, trips, and discounts. But I don’t like surprise errors and your internal and external customers don’t either.

Everyone makes mistakes at work. Making a mistake is not necessarily a problem. It’s how you deal with the error that matters more. Letting those who are impacted by a mistake be surprised damages your reputation and working relationships much more than coming clean as soon as you realize the error. Rather than waiting to get caught, tell your customers about mistakes and work together to make things right.

Here are a few ways to tell people you made a mistake, while saving face:

Fessing up to making mistakes at work tip #1: When you realize you’ve made a mistake, pick up the phone and tell the person live, as soon as you know. Don’t wait.

Fessing up to making mistakes at work tip #2: Apologize and work with your customer to develop a solution. Be part of the process. Don’t leave your internal or external customer holding the bag.

Fessing up to making mistakes at work tip #3: Don’t give a bunch of reasons or justifications for what happened. It sounds like excuse management and no one cares. Your customers just want to know how you’re going to solve the problem.

Fessing up to making mistakes at work tip #4: Say something like, “I realized we sent you a report with incorrect information. I’m so sorry. I’d like to work with you to make this right. Here are a couple of ideas of what we can do… Would any of these suggestions work for you?”

Or you could say, “I realized parts of your order are imperfect. I’m so sorry. Here’s how we’d like to make things right. Are these solutions satisfactory to you?”

Or consider saying something like, “I’ve realized we can’t fulfill your order by the date we promised. I’m so sorry. Here’s what I suggest we do to get you what you need in a timely way. Does this work for you?”

We all make mistakes. How you handle mistakes determines how your internal and external customers view you and how much they trust you. Come clean quickly. Take responsibility. Don’t provide a bunch of reasons for a mistake. Help make things right. And you’ll likely preserve your reputation and business relationships.

making mistakes at work

Onboarding New Employees Virtually – Build Relationships First

Starting a new job is like the first day of school. It’s scary. Who will I have lunch with? How do I make copies and get reimbursed for expenses? Who do I need a good working relationship with? Starting a new job virtually is even more challenging. Who are these people I work with and how do I reach them?

We need to help new employees acclimate to people and processes, and this introduction increases tenfold when starting a job virtually.

“People leave managers not jobs” is an old phrase. I’ll widen the net a bit – people leave companies, not jobs. People unhappy at one company often take a similar job at a different company. They like being an accountant, auditor, marketing manager, they just didn’t like working for __________ (fill in the blank) at __________ (fill in the blank).

Here are six practices for helping new, virtual employees acclimate and feel at home quickly:

  1. Focus on relationships first and workplace goals second.

I onboard all new employees – virtual or in-person – with a handful of Team Building and Manage People Candor Questions. My first meeting with employees has nothing to do with goals or objectives. Instead, we talk about working-style preferences and pet peeves. We get to know each other and build trust. As Stephen Covey said in his book the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Deposit into the emotional bank account.” And as William Ury said in his book on negotiation, Getting to Yes, “Go slow to go fast.”

2. Make it safe and easy to ask questions.

Few people like to admit they don’t know something. I’d rather have my new employees pick up the phone or email me with a question than spend 60-minutes of frustration searching for an answer.

Ask, “What questions do you have” each time you meet and wait longer than you think you should for the answer. People always have questions. Make room for them to ask.

3. Have multiple people train new employees.

Training a new employee develops the person doing the training and builds immediate relationships.

4. Set up a system for people to ‘interview’ others throughout the organization – a virtual meet and greet of sorts.

5. Have team meetings on video.

I know, I know, people are tired of video meetings. Make them short, sweet, and regular.

6. Meet one-on-one weekly with new employees.

I suggest weekly meetings for at least the first six months, and protect the meeting time. If one-on-one’s with employees get cancelled, reschedule immediately. Cancelling meetings with direct reports without rescheduling sends the message that the direct report isn’t important.

Working with people virtually isn’t that different from working with people in person. Pick up the phone. Use video. Talk with people weekly. Ask questions. Wait for answers. Make sure new employees ‘meet’ and are exposed to a lot of people throughout the organization. People leave companies, not jobs.


Saying No Is Better Than Saying Nothing

Many people struggle to say no. As a result, when someone has a request that we can’t or don’t want to meet, we often say nothing. We simply don’t respond. Or we put the person off telling them we’ll get back to them. Then people wonder. “Did they get my request? Should I send the request again? Will I look bad if I ask again? How many times should I ask before I just let the request go?”

Saying no is better than saying nothing. No gives people closure. Silence leaves people in limbo wondering what they should do next.

Saying no is hard. We don’t want to disappoint or let people down. And yet, you can’t say yes to everything. You can say no and still sound like a responsible, easy-to-work-with, accommodating professional.

Here are ways to say no:

  1. Thank the person for asking. “Thank you for asking me.”

Saying “thank you” acknowledges the other person and buys you time to think about their request.

  • Tell the person you need some time to think about their request. Ask, “Can I have a few days to think about it? I’ll get back to you by Friday.”

You don’t need to reply in the moment. I often regret things I agree to without thinking through the request thoroughly.

  • Consider what you really want and are willing to do. It’s much worse to over commit and under deliver than to simply say no or renegotiate requests.
  • Get back to the person in a timely way (when you said you would) and tell them what you’re willing to do.

How to Say No Option One:  Simply say no.

Example:  “I really appreciate you asking me to write the proposal for the __________ RFP. I’m not able to do that. Can I recommend someone else who has the expertise and time to do a great job?”

Don’t give a bunch of reasons for saying no. People aren’t interested in why we can or can’t do something; they just want to know if we will do it.

How to Say No Option Two:  Agree and negotiate the time frame.

Example: “I’d be happy to do that. I can’t do it before the last week of the month. Would that work for you?” If the answer is no, negotiate further. Ask, “When do you really need it? I can certainly do pieces by then, but not the whole thing. Given that I can’t meet your timeline, who else can work on this in tandem or instead of me?”

How to Say No Option Three:  Say no to the request but say what you can do.

Example: “I can’t do _______. But I can do ________. How would that work?”

A review of how to say no:

  1. Acknowledge the request by getting back to the requestor within 24 hours.
  2. Give yourself time to think about and respond to requests.
  3. Negotiate requests to your and the requestor’s satisfaction.
  4. Agree on what you can and are willing to do.
  5. Keep your commitments.

Saying no is always hard. But it’s always better to say no than to ignore requests, or to say yes and do nothing.


Your Boss is Not Your Friend – Manage Perceptions

Your boss’s job is to help you eliminate obstacles, ensure you have the resources you need to be successful, and to be a coach. A manager’s job is also to evaluate you.

Managers only have so many points of reference to evaluate their employees’ performance. If you tend to vent with your boss how your internal customers are difficult to work with, your boss doesn’t know that you don’t do this with everyone. It’s a point of reference that makes an impression. How do I know this? I learned it the hard way.

My last boss, before I started Candid Culture, was the best boss I ever had. He always had my back. He was knowledgeable about the business and happy to share his knowledge. He trusted me and gave me a lot of latitude. And I confused that positive relationship with that of a confidante.

I felt comfortable with my boss, so I complained about my internal customers to him. I thought he was a safe person to do that with. I was wrong. He eventually told me he had no way to determine that I didn’t vent with everyone. My naïve decision to vent to my boss was a point of reference about my professionalism and not a good one.

It would have been fine to tell my boss I was struggling to work with an internal customer and to ask for suggestions for how to work better with the person. It would have been fine to say that I was frustrated or discouraged and was in need of support. It’s ok to share problems and breakdowns and leverage your boss to find solutions and to get help. Asking your boss to help you solve a problem you haven’t been able to solve yourself is expected. Using your boss as a therapist is not.

I don’t want you to be paranoid, to feel that you have to watch every word that comes out of your mouth, and that you always have to be on your guard. Just know the role people in organizations play. Leaders and managers have to determine who is successful in their current role and who is a good fit for future roles. So be mindful of how you show up and to whom.

We all know impressions are formed quickly and are hard to change. If someone sees you once a week, one a month, once a quarter, what are they seeing? People only know what we show them and what others tell them.

I know this post is political. I’m almost hesitant to write it. But I don’t want you labeled as someone with poor judgment or someone who can’t manage their emotions. Remember, let your boss see the poised professional you are. Let your friends and family see the rest.


How to Give Feedback – Be Yourself

Many people worry about giving feedback because they’re concerned they don’t have the ‘right’ words. They’re concerned they’ll say ‘it’ wrong and damage their relationships.

Feedback is hard enough to give without worrying about saying everything perfectly. Worry less about having all the right words and more about whether or not people trust your motives.

When people trust your motives – why you’re giving feedback – you can say almost anything. When they don’t trust your motives you can say almost nothing.

Getting negative feedback is hard. It’s easier to listen to feedback when we trust the person who’s giving us the feedback – we know their intentions are to help versus to judge or hurt us.

Speak from the heart, be authentic, and worry less. Be yourself. If you’re nervous to say what you want to say, tell the other person you’re nervous. If you’re struggling to find the right words, say so. If you’re worried you’ll damage the relationship or that it isn’t your role to give the feedback, say that. Authenticity goes a long way.

How’s how to give feedback you’re apprehensive about:

How to give feedback phrase one:  Consider saying, “There’s something I need to talk with you about but I’m concerned that I won’t use the right words and will damage our relationship.”

How to give feedback phrase two: “There’s something I want to talk with you about, but I’m concerned how it will come across. Is it ok if I say what I need to say?”

How to give feedback phrase three: “I want to give you my thoughts on something but I’m concerned that it’s not my place to do so. Is it ok if I share my ideas about _________?”

Other people aren’t expecting you to be perfect. But they do want to know they’re working with a human being. And human beings are fallible. We have fears. We make mistakes. And sometimes we don’t say things perfectly.

You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be real.


Want to Work Well Virtually? Pick Up the Phone.

The most frequent question I’m getting these days is how to manage business relationships virtually. Here is the short answer – talk to people. Pick up the phone. You don’t need to have video calls, if you don’t want to. Showering is a personal choice. You just need to talk to people.

People need human contact. We even need to connect with the people we don’t like – when we work for and with them. Text and email don’t replace talking to people.

We stopped talking to each other long before so many people began working from home.  Email has been overused for years. We emailed the people we sat next to at work. We exchanged 20 emails on one topic rather than picking up the phone.

We ask permission to call our friends to catch up. Texting a friend to ask, “Is it ok if I call you tomorrow morning?” is the norm. We exchange 50 texts to determine where and when to meet for lunch.

Maybe people thinking email and texting is easier, less intrusive, faster. Less intrusive, yes. Easier, sometimes. Faster, no.

Call the people you work with. Ask for the best time to call, if you like. Check in on them. Ask how they’re doing. Yes, there may be a crying child or a barking dog in the background. It’s ok. Calls don’t have to be long. People just need contact. They need to know that you care and are ‘in it’ with them. And while you’re on the phone, get questions answered in five minutes rather than with 25 emails.


Talk About Work Environment and Constraints – Cross the Line

It’s been eleven months that many people are working from home who would ordinarily go into an office. Some people are content with the fancy-on-the-top, jammies on the bottom video-work life, others are feeling lonely and isolated. Some employees have a private, uninterrupted work setting, others are trying to find a quiet place to participate in meetings while a partner and kids are also at home. Working from home amid distractions and loneliness is tricky and we need to be able to talk about it.

Managers, your employees don’t want to tell you they’re struggling, lonely, distracted, or can’t make certain meetings or deadlines. They want you to think everything is fine, that they’re fine. Who likes to admit to their boss that they can’t keep up or are unhappy at work?

If a manager loves working from home and has a quiet, uninterrupted work environment, it may be easy to miss employees’ challenges. Managers need to cross the line and ask questions they otherwise wouldn’t.

Don’t assume employees are fine. Don’t assume employees will tell you if they’re not. They likely won’t. You need to ask and make it easy and safe to tell you the truth.

Managers, ask employees these questions:

  • What’s your work environment like?
  • What constraints are you under?
  • What’s a realistic work schedule right now?
  • What do you want me to know?
  • What do you need?

It may seem like it’s too late to ask. It’s not. It’s never too late. Simply be honest. It could sound something like, “I wanted to check in and see how you’re doing working from home. I want to ask some questions so I can support you. I wish I’d asked before. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

Managers who are willing to tell employees they wish they’d done something differently earn loyalty and trust for showing vulnerability and humanity. Strong managers admit mistakes.

If you’re nervous that employees will delve into arenas that are too personal, set parameters for the conversation. It’s ok to set boundaries when asking questions. You could say, “I want to talk about some of the constraints you may be under working from home. I’m sorry I didn’t ask before. Let’s focus on things I can support you with and stay away from items I can’t help with like finances and personal relationships.”

Then be prepared to help employees problem solve. Maybe employees need a different work schedule or different deadlines or deliverables. Maybe employees need help setting expectations with peers and clients around when they can and can’t attend meetings.

Make it safe to talk about how employees are really doing and what they need to be successful in today’s circumstances. Tell employees that you really want to know, you’re sorry you didn’t ask before, and that it’s safe to tell the truth. Then problem solve with employees. And ask the same questions periodically. Make talking about work environment, schedule, and expectations a regular conversation.


Retaining Employees by Setting Clear Expectations

Organizations are working hard to retain employees. Employees are watching how their organization’s leaders and managers work, and often make career decisions based on the hours the most senior people keep. Not a recipe for retaining employees.

Many employees pay particular attention to how often managers and senior leaders take time off and whether or not leaders attend meetings and respond to emails while they’re ‘off.’ Employees observe the late nights that leaders and managers put in and the emails sent at 11:00 pm and on the weekends. I’ve heard lots of employees say, “If I need to work like my boss works to get ahead in this organization, I’m not interested.”

Retain Employees

Managers, one of the keys to retaining employees is to communicate expectations. If you’re available while you’re on vacation, but don’t expect employees to do the same, set that expectation. If you send an email outside of regular business hours but don’t expect employees to respond until the next business day, tell them so. They don’t know. Many employees assume that if you email them at night, you expect a reply.

Instead of allowing employees to make assumptions about what managers do and don’t expect, set clear expectations. Be overt and clear. Tell employees, “I work most evenings and weekends, but don’t expect you to do so. And I work these hours because I enjoy it, not because I have to. If I email you outside of regular business hours, I am not expecting you to reply.” Retaining good employees begins during the interview process when initial expectations are set.

Managers, if you expect employees to check and respond to emails outside of regular business hours and to be available while on vacation, tell candidates during the interview process. If working long hours is a criteria for promotion, set that expectation. It’s completely fine to expect long hours and for employees to be accessible outside of regular business hours. There is nothing wrong with either expectation. There is only a problem if employees don’t know that’s the expectation.

Employees, if your manager emails you outside of regular business hours and she doesn’t tell you whether or not she expects you to reply, ask. Simply say, “I often receive emails outside of regular business hours. How will I know when you need me to reply?” Likewise, if you notice your manager emails you on vacation, you can say, “I typically hear from you when you’re on vacation. Are you expecting me to check in while I’m off?”

The need to ask questions and set expectations goes both ways. Don’t wait to be told. Ask.

Managers and employees, ask these Candor Questions about working style preferences to aid in retaining employees:

  • How do you feel about being contacted outside of regular business hours?
  • If I need to reach you over a weekend or in the evening, what method is best?
  • Would you prefer I text you so you don’t have to check your email outside of business hours?
  • What time is too early and too late to call, text, and/or email?

Ask more. Assume less and make retaining employees easier.

Retain Employees

Writing Effective Emails for Better Business Communication

When I get an email that has multiple paragraphs I look at it, decide I don’t have time to read it, and close it out, promising to go back to it later when I have more time, which never happens.

Here are a few tips for writing effective emails that are more likely to be read:

  1. Put a specific subject in the subject line that says what the email is about.
    1. This does not include your name. We already know your name.
    2. Ex.:  “Meeting” (that’s not specific). Instead try:  “Meeting to agree upon February goals.”
  2. Highlight and bold important parts of the email
    1. Limit this practice so what’s bolded and highlighted stands out.
    2. If everything is bold, nothing stands out.
  3. Use bullets
  4. Use the fewest number of words possible
  5. Use links that send readers to relevant information
  6. Offer additional information, if desired

The shorter your emails are, the more likely they are to get read. You can always offer additional information, but readers won’t get to the detail if they never read the email.  When it comes to writing effective emails, shorter is better.


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