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Career Management Archive

Just Say No to Saying Nothing – Speaking Up at Work

Several years ago, I was doing frequent training and consulting with a client and was in their offices weekly. One of their employees confided in me that she could see the train wreck coming on her team but wasn’t planning to say anything. She was going to watch the predicted mayhem happen without saying a word.

Why wasn’t she planning to speak up about the breakdowns she could see were coming? Did she care not care about her job or company? Was she not invested?  The problem wasn’t any of those things. She simply didn’t believe that anyone wanted to hear what she had to say, the negative consequences for speaking up felt high, and quite simply, it was easier to say nothing.

When we were little our parents told us, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” As young professionals, when we did speak up and someone didn’t like what we had to say, we got ‘in trouble’. And no one wants to hurt people’s feelings, damage relationships, or get labeled as the person who complains. The odds are stacked against speaking candidly.

The problem is, when employees don’t speak up about concerns avoidable breakdowns happen, innovation is stifled, and dissatisfaction festers. We must find a way to speak up, even when we’re afraid or uncomfortable.

Many years ago, a fellow trainer said to me, “The truth is one ingredient in the recipe, it’s not the whole meal.” I can’t take credit for this bit of wisdom, but it stuck with me. You don’t have to say everything you’re thinking, you can just say a little.

If you want to speak up at work but are hesitant, test the waters. Provide a little bit of information and see what happens. Was the person receptive? Did you face negative consequences? Were you treated unfairly? If the person handled your message well, give a little more information. See how that goes. Be judicious in how much input you provide. Remember, every time you give someone negative feedback, you may bruise their ego and every person and organization has its own pace for change.

Silence leads to stale ideas, employee turnover, and cultures where people don’t want to work. Speak up, just a little.


Manage Control Freaks

Frustrated by a control freak, micromanager, or a high-need-to-know type? Controlling behavior stems from a need that isn’t being met. Identify the need, meet it, and your life gets easier.

This is similar to what salespeople learn during good sales training. The customer wants to buy the car but doesn’t make a purchase. She visits the dealership three times, but just can’t pull the trigger. She has some sort of concern. If the salesperson can identify the concern, he can possibly resolve it, and sell the car. Working with control freaks is the same.

If someone wants more updates, information, or involvement than you’re comfortable with, he has a need that isn’t being met. When you meet the need, the person will likely back off.

I ask the people who work for me to never make me ask for something twice. Meaning, if I ask for an update the week before a speaking engagement, anticipate that I’ll want that information for all engagements. Confirm by asking me and then provide the data without being asked for all future engagements. Getting the information regularly without having to ask builds trust and credibility.

Here are six tips for working with control freaks:

  1. If you don’t know, ask:
  • The person’s work-related goals. What are they working on this quarter and year?
  • What the person is concerned about at work? What are they worried about?
  • How does s/he like to communicate – in-person, email, phone, video, voicemail, or text.
  • How often does s/he want information, in what format, and with how much detail.

2. Provide more information than you think you need to, and then ensure the person wants that information in the future.

3. If you’re asked for information, ask why the person wants it, and if s/he wants it in the future. Then provide the information before you’re asked.

4. If someone is overly involved in your work and you feel you have no freedom, state your observation and ask for information. That could sound like, “You’ve been involved with each major decision with this project. I’m used to working with less oversight. Do you have a concern about my approach?” Then you negotiate. Everything is a negotiation.

5. This will put the other person on the defensive. A less confrontational approach is to discuss and agree upon levels of involvement and supervision when projects begin. That could sound something like, “What kind of involvement do you want to have in this project? What do you want to do? What do you want me to do? What kind of updates would you like, how often, and with how much detail?” It’s always easier to prevent a problem than to fix one.

6. Lastly, don’t take anything personally. Oversight and involvement may be a reflection of how someone feels about your performance, but it might not. When in doubt, ask.


Make It Safe to Tell the Truth – Working Well With Coworkers

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 to work with them is always easier than asking someone to change their 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, tell people if you’re running behind on a project and will miss a deadline, and call into meetings on time from a quiet workspace. Aren’t all of these behaviors fairly obvious? Do I really need to tell people these are my expectations? Uh….yes, you do.

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

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

  1. Schedule a meeting during which people working together can discuss what they need from each other to be satisfied and productive. Then facilitate a discussion during which the group creates 5 – 7 behavior guidelines each person agrees to follow.
  2. Put the list of agreed-upon behaviors in a shared folder. Leave the guidelines there indefinitely.
  3. 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, or is distracted during meetings. 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 workgroup to take feedback graciously, responding with “thank you for telling me,” rather than with defensiveness.
  2. Two weeks after making the list of guidelines, get the group together on a call 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


Giving Feedback – Be Specific

Want to know why people get defensive when you give feedback and why they often don’t change their behavior? Because what you’re giving them isn’t actually feedback.

“You’re awesome to work with” isn’t feedback. Neither is “You did a great job.” “Your work isn’t thorough” isn’t either. Neither is, “You were inappropriate.”

Most of what we consider feedback isn’t feedback at all. It’s vague, unhelpful language that leaves people wondering what they need to do more, better, or differently.

There are only two reasons to give feedback – to encourage someone to either change or replicate a behavior. Unfortunately, most of the ‘information’ we give is too vague to help people do either.

When you coach or give feedback, you serve as someone’s GPS. Like the GPS on your phone, you need to be so specific the person knows precisely what to change or replicate. If you were driving and your GPS said, “Good job” or “I think you’re off track,” you’d throw the GPS out the window and get a map.

If you give someone what you consider feedback and he says, “I don’t know what you mean, can I have an example?” you’ll know you weren’t helpful.

Here are six tips for giving helpful feedback:

Giving feedback tip one:  Write down what you plan to say, then strip out half the words. Shorter feedback with fewer words is better.

Giving feedback tip two: Practice what you plan to say out loud. Have you noticed that what you ‘practice’ in your head is typically not what comes out of your mouth?

Giving feedback tip three:  Before having the ‘real’ conversations, give the feedback to an independent, third-party and ask her to tell you what she heard. Ensure who you talk with will maintain confidentiality. Your organization doesn’t need more gossip.

Giving feedback tip four: Tell someone else about the conversation you need to have, and ask him what he would say. Anyone not emotionally involved in the situation will do a better job than you will. Again, ensure confidentiality.

Giving feedback tip five: Ask the feedback recipient what he heard you say. Asking, “Does that make sense?” is an ineffective question. “Do you have any questions?” isn’t any better.

Giving feedback tip six: Give one to three examples of what the person did or didn’t do, during the conversation. If you don’t have an example, you’re not ready to provide feedback, and anything you say will evoke defensiveness rather than behavior change.

Giving feedback doesn’t have to be so hard. Be so specific that your feedback could be used as driving directions. The purpose of feedback is to be helpful.

Just say it feedback training

Office Culture: Your Job Isn’t to Make Everyone Happy

I want each of my employees to be happy and to enjoy their jobs and enjoy working for me, every day. That can’t and won’t happen, especially right now. Some days are hard. Some are dull. Sometimes I’m fun and easy to work for. Lots of days I’m not.

I had a manager years ago who told me that my need to be liked by my employees would take me down. He was right. Unfortunately, I’m not the only manager with this challenge.

Lots of managers tell me they’re hesitant to give feedback because they’re afraid employees will quit. Other managers do work they know they shouldn’t be doing because they don’t want to burden their employees.

Not every day will be great. And that’s ok. Work is a roller coaster. Some days are awesome. Others are the pits. Your job isn’t to make people happy at every moment, it’s to create a supportive environment and ensure people have the tools to be successful.

My employees have all the tools they need to be successful. I work hard to set clear expectations and give timely positive and upgrade feedback. The rest is up to them. Some days I’m sure they’re happy. Most days, hopefully. And I’m sure there are days that other jobs sound appealing.

Here are five actions to create a positive culture at work:

Office culture tip #1: Set clear expectations at the beginning of every new project and task. The root of frustration and unhappiness is thwarted expectations.

Office culture tip #2: Ask for and be open to feedback from your employees and coworkers. Ask for feedback regularly and work to respond with, “Thank you for telling me that.”

Office culture tip #3: Respond to feedback by changing what it makes sense to change. Giving feedback that is never acted upon creates cynicism and distrust.

Office culture tip #4: Provide a rationale for your decisions. It’s fine to do things the way you want to do them, even if others disagree. Explain your rationale. You’ll get more buy-in.

Office culture tip #5: Don’t be afraid to make decisions that are unpopular. There is a reason that you want to do what you want to do, the way you want to do it. Vet your plans, when appropriate. Be open to others’ input. And then do what you think is right (within the scope of your role).

Your job isn’t to please everyone and trying to do so will likely produce lesser results and be exhausting.


Don’t Guess – Ask More Questions at Work

There was way too much guessing at work before most people began working from home. Without visual cues, figuring out how to work with people is even harder. You may find yourself thinking, “I’m going to miss this deadline. I wonder what the consequences will be?” Or perhaps, “She said she wanted input on this project. I wonder if she really meant that, and how much feedback is ok to provide?” Or maybe, “He asked for a proposal. Is he expecting something elaborate, or will a one-pager do?”

We often don’t know what others are expecting from us, so we guess. The problem with guessing is that we may do more work than we actually need to, and not in the way the other person wants it. Even worse, when we don’t work according to others’ expectations, they aren’t likely to tell us. Instead, they tell others and make decisions about us that aren’t positive.

I’m a fan of asking lots and lots of questions, preferably at the beginning of anything new. Anticipate all that can happen, get in front of breakdowns, and set clear expectations by asking questions. The people who participate in virtual and in-person training with me get an entire box of questions to ask. And the homework is to go ask more questions of the people they work most closely with.  Asking questions will always be easier than recovering from violated and often unstated expectations.

If you want fewer breakdowns and frustrations at work, ask the following questions of the people you work with:

What do you want to do, on this project, and what do you want me to do?

What does a good job look like?

What will be different in the organization when this project is finished?

How would I frustrate you and not even know it?

How often do you want to receive updates from me?

Do you want to receive all the details or just big picture information?

Do you want to receive the information in bullet form or paragraphs?

It’s never too late to ask questions like these. It’s ideal to ask the question at the beginning of a piece of work. But asking in the middle or even towards the end is fine too. People will appreciate that you asked, whenever you ask.

Ask more. Assume less.


Change Your Expectations for Better Working Relationships

The days I’ve struggled to be with my young son during this stay-at-home period are the days his behavior is other than I expect. Jumping, running, and racing around at bedtime when I expect it to be a calm, quiet time. Eating ice cream sandwiches before breakfast when I had already said no. Continuing to play during clean-up time when we had agreed to clean up toys together.

Working with our coworkers, managers, employees, and customers is not different. “I tell people if I’m going to be late or not attend a meeting. Why can’t other people do that?” “I touch base with my employees weekly to see what they need. Why can’t my boss do that?” “I tell vendors if I don’t want to do business with them. Why can’t potential customers just tell me if they don’t want to work with us?”

All of these frustrations stem from violated expectations. I expected you to do x. You did y. That’s – irritating, infuriating, flabbergasting.

To be less frustrated and enjoy working with others more, change your expectations.

I know bedtime is going to be wild, so I need to budget more time to allow for running and jumping before we settle into our bedtime routine. Or better yet, I need to accept that running and jumping are part of our bedtime routine. If someone has a history of not responding to emails or phone calls, I give them more lead time knowing I won’t hear back for a week. I work with the person instead of against them.

It’s easy to think that changing expectations is the same as lowering expectations. It really isn’t. It’s altering the way we work with people to reduce struggle. It’s working with versus working against. Altering expectations is challenging. It takes a lot of patience and preparation.

Below are four ways to change your expectations with people who don’t do things as you think they should:

Remind yourself how this person engages, based on your past experiences with the person. Not to be cynical, but your coworker will likely do something today the same way she did it last week. Remembering how people typically work will help you set your expectations accordingly and you’re likely to be less frustrated when she takes a week to reply to an email.

Set clear expectations when you begin working with people. “I need to get back to my client with this information by Wednesday. I know that’s a quick turn-around. If I don’t hear back from you tomorrow, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?”

I need to tell my son that if he eats sweets when he isn’t supposed to, I won’t buy any more. When it’s clean-up time, any toy my son doesn’t help put away goes into storage for a while.

Follow through on the expectations you’ve set. If you told your coworker you’re going to call and text when you haven’t heard back from them, you need to do that. If the agreement is to escalate when something isn’t done or that you do it yourself and that person isn’t able to provide input, you need to do that.

Following through on expectations is tricky. No one wants to be the ‘’bad or mean” person who holds others to account. And sometimes holding people to established expectations results in anger and backlash.

I’ll never forget the first time I taught at the graduate level at a local university. I set the expectation that I would deduct 10% from assignments that were turned in late. When I followed through on that expectation my students were irate and complained to the Dean, telling her I was unfair.

It was hard to reduce students’ grades. But if I didn’t follow through when expectations were violated, there was no point in setting expectations. It only undermines me and makes me seem like a person who doesn’t mean what she says.

Lastly, be real with people, not harsh or stringent, but real. If you’re struggling to work with someone or struggling to follow through on expectations, tell people that.

“I really need to get this information by Friday, and I don’t know what to do. I’m feeling stuck.”

“I want us to have a good working relationship, but I see that we’re struggling. Can we talk about it?” “I’m realizing I need more contact with you. How can we find 15-minutes a week to connect live?”

No communication techniques supersede being authentic and courageous. When you don’t know what to do or say, just be real. “I’m realizing this isn’t working but I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to go around you. What do you think we should do?” Working with other people and being a powerful communicator takes courage.

People aren’t us. They won’t do things our way. To be less frustrated, alter your expectations. Be ready for others to do things their way and plan for that. And when you can, set clear expectations with everyone involved in how projects and work will be managed. And it’s ok to get upset and express frustration. Be real, be yourself, and plan ahead.


Be Happier and More Calm – Stay in the Moment

My four-year-old son and I have been at home alone together for seven weeks. No friends, no family, no childcare, no help in our house – just us. Some days are amazing, others are exasperating. The good days are when I’m focused on Grayson and am not swimming in a sea of what-if distractions.  The bad days are when I’m filled with fear and worry.

Some days I’m consumed with concern about the future. When will we be able to fly? When will I be able to do what I’m most passionate about – working with groups of people at conferences and training sessions? When should I have my staff ramp up? How can we cut costs? Will summer camps be canceled? What will we do this summer when it’s 100 degrees and pools are closed? When will it be safe to have our childcare provider return to our home? Will my son have school in the fall?

Intellectually I know that the only way to be happy, regardless of the circumstances, is to be present. There is nothing to compare to the present. When we live in the present there is no past and no future – there is only now. Nothing can be wrong with now because there is nothing to compare the current time and experience to.

I’m way out of my lane here. As you likely know, I don’t typically stray from my expertise – helping people communicate and work better together at work. Zen philosophy is not my area of expertise. But I have a feeling you’re like me – losing sleep, (possibly) gaining weight, and suffering about what the future might look like.

I want to enjoy this precious time with my little boy. We’ll never have time like this again – just us. Next year he’ll be older and not so interested in playing trains and trucks with me. He’ll want to go to his friends’ house versus playing in our backyard together. Precious, fleeting time.

I can’t do anything about when it will be safe to travel, be in a hotel ballroom, or send my son to school. I can look into my child’s precious eyes and remember that my job is to be here for him, today. To be great for him, regardless of the circumstances. I can keep in touch with you and find out how you and your coworkers and customers are doing. I can offer webinars that, while not in-person, are an effective way to connect with people and help build necessary skills.

I can focus on the actions I can take now.

Here are seven strategies I’m using to stay in the here and now:

Do what you need to function at a decent level each day: I need six hours of sleep and a tidy house.

Structure your workday for success: Work in small chunks. Tell your boss, coworkers, and customers when you’ll be available. Be realistic and forthright.

Put your cell phone away and silence alerts when you’re with family or doing things for yourself.

When you find yourself thinking about the future, direct your thoughts to something you can impact.

Call a friend or coworker you haven’t talked to in a long time.

Smile at whomever you’re with, just because. You’ll both feel better.

Do one thing every day that makes you happy – a long shower, time outside, activities with your family, read a book. Something that takes you away from the what-if’s playing ping pong in your head.

Silence your concerns about the future, for now. Be present with whomever you’re with. See if things look and feel better.


Let’s Get Real – Realistic Work-from-Home Schedules

You’ve been on video calls for the past two hours. Your kids are bored, you aren’t accustomed to working alone at home and miss working in an office with other people, you don’t have a quiet, interruption-free environment in which to work, or your parents have called eight times.

Everyone you work with is dealing with different circumstances. Some are perfectly content working a full day at home, others are finding the experience isolating and lonely. Some have no distractions at home and others have many. But we won’t know what others are dealing with and how those circumstances impact work schedules and deliverables if we don’t ask.

Managers, employees, and coworkers need to talk to each other about the constraints they’re dealing with and what a realistic work schedule looks like right now, and those conversations may be personal. They’re likely more personal than the conversations you’ve had in the past and that may be uncomfortable.

Managers, before setting goals, assigning projects, or scheduling meetings, talk to employees about what a realistic workday looks like right now.

Here’s how the conversation could go: “I know working from home all the time is different from you’re used to. I want to get a sense of what a realistic schedule is for you and what kind of challenges you’re dealing with. We can create deadlines and deliverables from there.”

Managers share about your own situation and set expectations with your employees, coworkers and with your own boss. It could sound something like this: “I have two young kids at home and I’m bringing my parents food each day. I check and return emails before 7:00 am, while my kids are still asleep. I log back on and am available for calls from 9:00 am – 10:30 am. I’m out of commission until 3:00 pm. I work from 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm and then I’m available at night from 8:00 pm – 9:30 pm. I know it’s not ideal, but it is my reality. Let’s figure out how to ensure you get what you need from me given the schedule.”

These are the conversations we need to be having and no one wants to have them. Who wants to admit to their boss, employees, and coworkers that they’re not able to work and focus for much of the day? No one. But pretending like we can participate in six hours of video calls each day or that our availability and productivity isn’t impacted is stressful and unrealistic. We are humans working with other humans and we need to be real with one another.

Managers ask your employees what a realistic work schedule looks like and find out what they’re able to do on a given day. Employees, broach the conversation with managers and coworkers. Be honest and ask for flexibility. It’s better to set expectations upfront than to surprise and disappoint.


Pick Up the Phone – Email and Texting Doesn’t Cut It

The most frequent question I’m getting these days is how to manage business relationships (specifically employees) remotely. A future tip and blog are dedicated to this, but I’ll give you the short answer now – 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 we all began working from home.  Email has been overused for years. We email the people we sit next to at work. We exchange 20 emails on one topic rather than picking up the phone. We ask permission to call our friends to catch up. Texting to ask, “Is it ok if I call tomorrow morning?” is the norm. We’ll 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.


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