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Want More Innovation In the Workplace? Make It Safe to Tell the Truth

You’ve either seen the video or heard about the group think that happened before NASA’s Challenger exploded in 1986. One engineer felt strongly that there was a defect in the Challenger’s design. He spoke up, others disagreed. He continued to speak up, until it became very uncomfortable to do so.

Most employees don’t even get that far. Many employees are afraid to speak up at all, feeling that it’s not ok to have a counter point of view, and that those who disagree with ‘management’ are eventually fired. I honestly am not sure where this comes from. It hasn’t been my experience, and yet the fear of speaking up is pervasive. I hear it in almost every organization with which I work.

If it’s not ok to express different opinions, your organization will deliver the same-old products and services you always have. If staying the same works in your industry, great. But stagnation is a killer to most organizations.

If you want more innovation in the workplace, you have to make it safe to speak up and offer a different point of view. Saying new, different, and even controversial things must be encourage and rewarded.

Five Ways to Encourage Innovation In the Workplace:

  1. Ask for new ideas and different points of view.
  2. Wait until you get both. Don’t allow a meeting or discussion to move on until you get new, opposing, and different points of view.
  3. Positively acknowledge people who risk and say something new or different from the norm.
  4. Ensure people with new ideas and different points of view are allowed to finish speaking before they’re interrupted or before someone else tries to negate their ideas.
  5. Create a few new awards in your organization and announce winners publicly and with great fanfare. You get what you reward.

Create Awards to Encourage Innovation In the Workplace:

  1. Acknowledge the person who fails massively trying something new.
  2. Award the person who brings new ideas to the table, regardless of what happens to those ideas.
  3. Celebrate the person who willingly gives you the worst news.

The fear of speaking up and saying something new or different will kill your innovation efforts. It will also kill your employees’ ambition and ability to be creative. Make it safe to tell the truth, even when the truth is hard to understand or unpopular, and see what happens to innovation, creativity, and employee productivity and morale.

Innovation In the Workplace


Giving Feedback – Don’t Give Unsolicited Advice

It’s hard to watch people do things that damage them – personally or professionally. And yet, if they haven’t asked for feedback, people likely won’t listen to unsolicited advice, so don’t bother giving it.

If you really want to give unsolicited advice, ask for permission and make sure you get a true “yes” before speaking up.

The conversation could go something like this:

“I noticed we’re getting behind on the XYZ project. I have a couple of ideas about what we can do. Would you be interested in talking about them?” Or, “That Monday meeting is rough. I feel for you. I used to run meetings like that. Would you be interested in talking about some meeting management strategies? I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned.”

After you offer to talk (aka, give your opinion), listen and watch the response you get. Do the person’s words and body language portray a true “yes, I’d like your opinion” or what seems like an “I know I’m supposed to say yes, but I’m really not interested” reply? If you get the latter, you’re likely just giving unwanted advice that won’t be heard. If that’s the case, let it go. But if the person appears generally interested and open, proceed.

You could also say something like:

“Last week we were talking about your frustrations about not being promoted. I have a couple of ideas about that. Do you want to talk about them? Either way is fine, but I thought I’d offer.”

Or, “That was a tough conversation during today’s staff meeting. It’s hard to present ideas and not have them be embraced. I have a couple of thoughts about ways you can approach the conversation during the next meeting. Do you want to talk about them?”

If you extend the invitation to talk, the other person has to be able to say no. An invitation is only an invitation if “no” is an acceptable answer. You can’t ask if the person wants your input and then keep talking if he verbally or physically said no.

Be brave. If you care about someone personally or professionally and you see him doing something that gets in the way of his success, ask permission to say something. If you get the go ahead, proceed. If you get a “no thank you,” accept that and move on. You’ve done your part.

How to Say Anything to Anyone


Be A Change Agent – Make It Easy to Tell You Yes

Concerned about something happening in your workplace? Don’t just tell someone about the problem, propose a solution. It’s fine to raise challenges. It’s better to raise challenges you’re willing to do something about. If you think two departments don’t talk to each other, bring them together. If you think a process is inefficient, propose a different way to get the work done. If you’re dissatisfied with software you’re using, offer to source three potential vendors and set up a demo. You’re doing the legwork and asking for a small investment of time.

When we ask for something at work, our request often requires time, money, or both.  Thus when an employee asks for something, it’s easier for a manager to say no than it is to say yes. “No” requires no work and no financial outlay. A “yes” may require both.

You make it easy to say yes to requests when you’re acting as a change agent:

  1. Propose a solution to a problem.
  2. Offer to do the work to solve the problem.
  3. Ask for small things that are easy to approve.

If you’re overwhelmed and want to hire an additional person, but your boss isn’t convinced you need the headcount, ask for a temp for a finite number of hours. It’s much easier for a manager to say yes to a small and known investment amount than to the long-term commitment of hiring someone new.  The point is to ask for something that is easy for your manager to approve.

The word “pilot” is your friend. If you want to make a major change, pilot a scaled down version of your proposed solution in one or two locations, rather than in your organization’s 10 locations. Again, asking for something small makes it more likely that you’ll be told yes.

The bottom line is to be part of the solution – as trite and overused as that phrase is. Don’t be the person who says, “That’s broken” without also saying, “and here’s how we can fix it.  Can I give it a try?”


Career Management – You Create Your Future

Last week some unknown person sent me emails predicting my future. According to the anonymous clairvoyant, in ten years my life will be going well. I’ll have a second child who is amazingly athletic, and I will be offered a job in Oshkosh that I shouldn’t take. After the third predictive email, the sender wanted to know if I had questions about my future. I didn’t.

  1. The whole thing was wildly creepy.
  2. No one should take advice from someone with this much discretionary time. The emailer needs a volunteer job.
  3. Why would I want someone else to tell me my future? That’s something I enjoy creating.

I see myself as 100% responsible for everything that happens to me. As antithetical as it sounds, life is easier when I’m accountable. If I miss a plane because of traffic, I should have left for the airport earlier. If I get overcharged in a restaurant, I should have checked the bill more carefully. If I do a bunch of work for a client and later find out that the work I did isn’t what the client really wanted, I should have asked more questions upfront and asked for feedback earlier.

When I’m responsible for what happens to me, I have some control. When someone else is responsible, I have no control.

Instead of seeking answers about what might happen, pursue the things you want. If you want a different job in your organization, tell someone who can do something about it. If you got passed over for a job, ask the hiring manager for feedback of what would have made you a better candidate. If the hiring manager doesn’t give you any information, ask your current boss to get the information for you. If one of your co-workers excludes you from projects, ask him why. If someone you work with seems to dislike you, ask for feedback about what you did to damage the relationship. Regardless of how challenging the situation and how disappointing the results, there is ALWAYS something you did to either contribute to the situation or something you can do to change the situation.

I don’t mean to tell you what to do. Nor do I mean to minimize how hard some life circumstances are. But I do want you to see yourself as in charge of what happens to you.

Create the life you want by:

  1. Asking, “What do I really want, and what’s one thing I can do right now to get closer to that goal?” Then take one step. Then take one more, and so on.
  2. If negative things are happening, ask, “What could I have done differently to have a different outcome?” Or, ask, “If I could do this over again, what would I do differently?” Then next time, do it differently.

Regardless of how hard or bad something is, there is ALWAYS something you can do to make the situation better. Take your life, your career, and your relationships into your own hands where they belong.


Be Specific in Your Business Communication – Vague is Unhelpful

Vague communication is unhelpful. Being vague instills doubt in the people around you and reduces your credibility.

When a customer service agent answers my questions with words like, “That sounds right, I think so, or that should work,” I hang up and call back, hoping to get someone who can give me an affirmative answer. People do this to you, too…they just don’t tell you about it.

Watch your language. If the answer is yes, say “Yes.” If the answer is no, say “No.” “I think so,” says neither yes nor no. Saying, “I think so” tells people you don’t really know.

A few phrases to avoid and what to say instead:

Avoid:  “That should be done by Friday.”

Instead, be specific and give a final date. “That will be complete by Friday. If I can’t get it done by Friday, I’ll call you to let you know by 5:00 pm on Thursday.”

Avoid: “Sounds right.”

Instead, be specific and say, “That’s correct.”

Avoid: “We should be able to do that.”

Instead, be specific and say, “We can do that.”

Avoid: “I guess.”

Instead, be specific and say, “Yes” or “No.”

When I teach feedback training, the biggest thing training participants struggle with is specificity. “You’re difficult to work with.” “Your clothing is inappropriate.” “I just find you to be negative.” “You did a good job on that.” “It’s a pleasure to have you on the team.” All of this is vague and thus unhelpful to the feedback recipient. And the same is true when answering questions and making promises.

Tell people exactly what to expect. Be specific. Even if they don’t like your answer, they’ll be happy to have a clear answer.


Make It Safe to Tell the Truth – Holding Peers Accountable

Giving feedback upwards is hard. Giving feedback downward is hard. Giving feedback to peers can be the hardest of all. We work closely with our peers. They’re often our friends. And still, we need to be able to speak freely when our coworkers violate our expectations.

The key to being able to give peers feedback (to give anyone feedback) is to agree that doing so is not only acceptable but expected. Before agreeing to give and receive feedback, peers need to set clear expectations of how they’ll work together and treat each other.

Telling people how you want them to behave is always easier than correcting a behavior. But it often just doesn’t occur to us to tell our peers what we want and need from them. We’re busy. They’re busy. And don’t they already know what courteous workplace behavior looks like? Return all emails within a day or two, keep your workspace quiet so others can focus, turn off your personal cell phone alerts at work, take personal calls away from your desk, and don’t wear anything scented at work. Aren’t all of these behaviors fairly obvious? Do I really need to people these are my expectations? Uh….yes, you do.

If you don’t want employees dumping these challenges at their managers’ doors, help employees talk to each other.

Here are seven steps to help people who work closely together set expectations and hold each other accountable:

  1. Schedule a meeting during which people working together can discuss the working environment they need to be satisfied and productive. Then facilitate a discussion during which the group creates 5 – 7 behavior guidelines each person agrees to follow.
  1. Post the list of agreed-upon behaviors on a poster that is large enough to be read from any place in the work environment, or virtually. Leave the guidelines posted indefinitely.
  1. Give each person in the group permission to talk to individuals who violate the guidelines. This is very, very important. For the most part, employees won’t tell a peer s/he is missing deadlines, gossiping, talking too loudly, has too many visitors at her desk, listens to music or videos without headphones, or is distracted with personal calls/texts. People will suffer in silence and avoid the offender rather than speak up about the behaviors that frustrate them.

Ask the group to grant each other permission to speak up when guidelines are violated. Giving each other permission to speak up will make future conversations possible – difficult but possible. Without permission and these agreed-upon behaviors in place, people will suffer in silence or talk about each other, not to each other.

  1. Ask everyone in the work group to take feedback graciously, responding with “thank you for telling me,” rather than with defensiveness.
  1. Two weeks after making the list of guidelines, get the group together to review the list and make any necessary changes to it. Discuss behaviors that were omitted, aren’t realistic, and are realistic but aren’t being followed.
  1. Then follow up by facilitating a monthly conversation during which group members give honest feedback about which guidelines are being followed and which are not, and problem solve as a group. These conversations aren’t a chance to embarrass or call people out in front of a large group. If one person is violating a guideline, that conversation should happen individually. Group conversations keep the lines of communication open – which is essential to making working with others work.
  1. You will need a strong facilitator for the group discussions. The facilitator must tease out people’s thoughts, while making sure no one gets blasted in front of the group. Don’t let concerns, that you know exist, be brushed under the rug. Group members must openly and regularly discuss what is and isn’t working about their work environment, or frustrations will build, and unhappiness and dissension will ensue.

It’s not too late to put these practices in place, even with a group that has been working together for a long time. Just schedule the conversation and explain why you’re having it. People will be relieved and grateful.


Email Productivity Tips. Reduce Stress. Get More Done.

Reading emails as they come in is killing your productivity.

You’re at your desk working on a project. Aka, doing actual work. You think, “It’s been three minutes. I should check my email.” So you take your attention off your project and check your email. Then you read the five emails that came in since you last checked email. You then go back to the project you were working on and spend 10 to 20 minutes trying to get your head around what you were doing before reading those very important emails. Finally, you’re back in the groove. You do five minutes of work and think, “I should check my email.”  Then it’s 5:30 pm and you realize, with frustration, that you finished nothing all day.

Email ProductivitySound familiar?

Living in our email inbox is why many of us start work at 5:00 pm or come into the office at 7:00 am to get “something done while it’s quiet.” It’s why we sleep and go on vacation with our phones, and are never really off.

I am most productive on airplanes without WIFI. Without WIFI I’m not tempted to check my email every three minutes or check Facebook to read about what people I barely know and don’t really care about are doing.

Without WIFI all there is to do is what I need to do. There are no other meaningful distractions, except for the B-grade movie I didn’t really want to see anyway. I am focused. And as a result, I get a lot done. I’m also less stressed. Because I’m focused, doing one thing a time, I’m not worried about everything I still need to do.

If you want to get more done and be less stressed, do one thing at a time, for a defined period of time. Decide how long you’re going to work on something, and work on that item for that period of time, with no distractions or interruptions. You may only work on something for ten or twenty minutes, but do only what you said you would do for that time period. Then you can check your email.

Productivity experts suggest you only check your email three times a day, for example, once in the morning, right before or after lunch, and at the end of the day. I find this hard to do. Like you, I feel pressured to check my inbox. Or I use my email to avoid the work I really need to do. But I know that constantly being in my email inbox has me distracted and not doing the work I really need to do. And as a result, I’m stressed and spend my evenings and weekends working on projects that require focused time.

Do one thing at a time, for a defined period of time. Just try it. If you’re going to read your email, give yourself 20 minutes, and do nothing but read, reply, and delete email. At the end of 20 minutes, do whatever you said you would do next, for as long as you decide, and nothing else.

See if you get more done, in less time, with less stress. You might just leave work earlier and have time to do something besides work.

 

 


Good Communication Starts with You

You’re talking with someone. He asks a question demonstrating he didn’t understand or hear what you said. You let out an exasperated silent or audible sigh and say, “Like I just said…” Saying “like I just said” or “as I just explained” tells the person that you good communicationthink he’s stupid or doesn’t listen. Both might be true, but saying so won’t help your relationship.

I consider myself reasonably smart. And for the most part, I listen. If I ask a question about something you said, consider the possibility that your explanation wasn’t clear and find a way to rephrase what you said the first time. Resist the temptation to tell me and the people you work with that we’re stupid.

Letting people save face is an art that takes patience, good communication, and the desire to have good relationships.

Here are five good communication tips that will strengthen you relationships versus alienate you from others:

Good communication tip number one: Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume good. People are doing what they know to do.

Good communication tip number two: If someone doesn’t understand what you said, take responsibility for delivering unclear information. It’s easier to change your communication style than alter someone else’s style.

Good communication tip number three: Put your desire to have good business relationships above the desire to be right.

Good communication tip number four: Consider that you may not explain things in the way others learn. Vary your communication methods. Most people don’t learn solely by hearing. Make your explanations hands on and/or visual, and you’ll reach more people.

Good communication tip number five: Bring your patience to work.

It’s tempting to tell people where they’re lacking, but it won’t get you very far. Say what you need to in order to get your point across. And if people are unclear, know the easiest thing is to alter your message. Take the path of least resistance; let people save face.

good communication


Personal Questions & Unsolicited Advice This Holiday Season

During the holidays we often see people we haven’t seen in a long time. Your family and friends care about you and want to hear what’s happening in your life. Caring and curiosity can lead people to ask questions that you don’t want to answer.

Unsolicited Advice

Friends and family don’t need to know everything that’s happening in your life. None of your business – said a bit differently – is a perfectly acceptable reply. You decide what to share.

Here are a few possible replies to questions you don’t want to answer:

Question: “What’s happening with that nice young man/woman you’ve been dating?”

Answer: “Things are going great. Thanks for asking.”

Question: “Are you guys serious?”

Answer:  “We like each other a lot. If it goes further, I’ll let you know.”  Aka, this conversation is over.

Here’s another scenario:

Question: “Are you dating anyone?”

Answer:  “No, not right now.”

Question: “You know, I met my husband on Match.com. Have you tried online dating?”

Answer:  “That’s great that you met online. I don’t really want to talk about my dating life. What else is happening?”

The next thing she says, “You really should try it. You need to be open. You just never know.”

Answer:  “I really appreciate your interest. I’m not looking for dating advice right now, but I really appreciate your concern.”  Aka, shut up.

The examples above are about romantic relationships but they could have been about careers, kids, or finances. Your response can be the same. You don’t need to tell anyone anything you don’t want to. It’s ok to tell people to back off and that something is none of their business. You can say it nicely. Just don’t let yourself get cornered into giving information you don’t want to share.

An appropriate answer to almost any personal question is, “I don’t have anything to report on this front, but I’ll let you know when I do.”

An appropriate response to any type of unsolicited advice is, “Thanks so much for your concern. I’m not looking for advice on _____, but I really appreciate you caring.”

Telling someone to back off is perfectly appropriate. S/he’ll get the point and your personal life will remain personal. Boundaries are your friend.

Read How to Say Anything to Anyone, and be ready to manage intrusive questions and unsolicited advice this holiday season.

unsolicited advice


Set Expectations and Be Happier at Work

People are not us; they do things their way, not ours. This is so obvious. Yet violated expectations are consistently a source of lots of frustration and upset, both personally and professionally. “How could you not check your work before submitting information to a client?” “What do you mean you didn’t call that person back?” “You said what?!”

The most frequent request we get at Candid Culture is for feedback training. The call usually goes something like this, “The Set expectationscommunication isn’t great at our company. Managers don’t give a lot of feedback. People don’t talk directly to each other when there are problems, they talk about each other. Can you help?”

Sure, we can help. But once we’re having this conversation people are already frustrated. Trust has been violated and relationships and reputations have been damaged. Instead of waiting for problems to occur, expect the unexpected. Set clear expectations before people don’t proofread reports, miss deadlines, and do other things you wouldn’t dream of doing.

How to avoid violated (often unstated) expectations? Ask more questions.

Here are five questions you should ask every person you work with to set expectations. And if you do, your workplace will have fewer frustrations and violated expectations:

  1. What’s most important that you’re working on right now? What are your goals this quarter?
  2. What are we both working on that we can work on together? Or what should one of us stop working on?
  3. How do you like to communicate? Phone, in-person, by appointment or drop by’s.
  4. How do you like to receive information – email, voicemail, text message or instant messenger?
  5. If I need information from you and I haven’t heard back from you, what should I do, and is it ok to do that?
  6. What are your pet peeves at work? How will I annoy you and not even know it?
  7. How do you like to be interrupted? (You’re going to be interrupted. You might as well have a preference.)

I know. That was seven questions, not five. I could keep going. But this is a good start.

Here’s the philosophy and practice: People aren’t you. Anticipate challenges, breakdowns, and violated expectations, and talk about them before they happen. Make requests. Ask questions.

It’s always easier to ask for what you want than to give feedback.

set expectations


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