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Business Communication Archive

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.


Giving Feedback – Less is More

People leave feedback training armed with new skills and they unfortunately sometimes use those skills as a weapon. It goes something like this, “I need to have a candid conversation with you.” And then the person proceeds to dump, dump, dump. This couldn’t be more wrong, wrong, wrong.

When you give someone negative feedback you are essentially telling him that he did something wrong. And who likes to be wrong? The ego gets bruised and people often start to question themselves. This normal reaction doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give feedback, you just need to do it judiciously.

Ask yourself these four questions when deciding whether or not to give someone feedback:

  • Do I have the relationship to provide feedback? Does the recipient trust me and my motives?
  • Do I have permission to give feedback? If the recipient doesn’t work for you, you need permission to give feedback.
  • Is this something the person can do something about? If it’s not a change the recipient can make, keep your thoughts to yourself.
  • Is the feedback helpful? Ultimately the purpose of all feedback is to be helpful.

Let’s say you’re on the receiving end of too much feedback. What should you do?  It’s ok to say “no thank you” to feedback. Here’s what you could say:

“Thank you for taking the time to bring this to my attention. I really appreciate it. You’ve given me a lot of feedback today. I’d like something to focus on that I can impact right now. What’s the most important thing I should do?” You’ve validated the other person and demonstrated openness and interest. You’ve also set some boundaries and expectations of what you will and won’t do.

“Thank you for taking the time to share your requests about… We won’t be making any changes to that and here’s why.” It’s ok not to act on all feedback, simply tell people why you won’t.

“I appreciate your concern. I’m not looking for feedback on that right now.” Can you say that to someone? Yes. Should you? Sometimes. To your boss – no. To someone who offers unsolicited advice that’s outside of their lane, yes. They’ll get the message.

People can only act on and digest small amounts of feedback at a time. Be judicious and assess your motives. The purpose of feedback is to be helpful, when the feedback is requested and when you have the relationship to give it.

If you receive too much feedback or unsolicited feedback, it’s ok to decline. You’re not the 7-11, aka you’re not always open.


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.


Managing Remote Employees

Many managers are asking the question, “How do I manage employees remotely?” Managing employees remotely isn’t too different than managing in person. Whether someone is sitting with you or in their home office, the steps involved in managing people are the same.

There are a few things effective managers do repeatedly. Do these handful of things and managing people will go well, provided you have the right person in the job. Managing someone who is a good fit for their current job is challenging but doable. Managing a person who is not a good fit for their job is extraordinarily hard. No management practices or skills supersedes hiring the right person. Hiring the right people is the single most important thing managers do. Managing and coaching employees are the next most important things managers do.

Here are the three things effective managers do:

  1. Set clear expectations:

Conversation with new/inexperienced employees: “This is what I want you to do and by when.”

Conversation with experienced employees: “What do you think needs to be done and when is a manageable deadline?”

2. Delegate:

New/inexperienced employees: “Here is my vision of how this should look.”

Experienced employees: “What’s your vision of how this should look?”

3. Review work, coach, and give feedback:

Review small pieces of work so employees can course correct as they go, reducing wasted time and frustration. Agree on a schedule to review work in process, so employees feel supported and not micromanaged.

New/inexperienced employees: “Here is what I would do differently and why.”

Experienced employees: “Here are my areas of concern. What changes do you think need to be made?”

  • Repeat

That’s all you need to do. It’s so simple. And so hard. Managing employees is very challenging.

Here are five ways to make it easier to manage well:

  1. Spend time at the beginning of working relationships and projects getting to know employees work styles and preferences and sharing your own.
  2. Check in with employees regularly, asking questions that elicit what employees need to be successful.
  3. Have frequent, short conversations. A weekly 15-minute touch base is more effective than a monthly 60-minute meeting.
  4. Do a plus/delta every time you meet, giving positive and upgrade feedback as events happen. Waiting to give feedback negatively impacts results and damages trust.
  5. Have courage and know that employees want to work for a manager who sets clear expectations and gives clear feedback. Working in the dark is frustrating and difficult.

If you’re hesitant to do any of the actions above or are worried about how those actions will be perceived by employees, tell employees that. Be authentic and candid. You could say something like, “I want to review your work more frequently than I have in the past, but I’m concerned how you’ll perceive that.” “I want to give you regular, timely feedback to be helpful to you, and know feedback can be hard to hear.”

Lastly – remote meetings can be held via video conferencing but don’t need to be. Sometimes it’s nice to talk via phone and not have to get dressed up or manage your facial expressions. If you’re not sure if you should meet with employees via video or phone, ask them. Setting clear expectations is the first step in managing all business relationships effectively.


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.


Make It Easier to Talk About Fear at Work

In all of my years of working in and with organizations, I have never heard anyone say the words, “I’m scared” at work. I’ve heard: “I’m concerned” and “I’m uncomfortable,” but never the words, “I’m scared.”

These are scary times. It’s scary to go to the grocery store, to know who it’s ‘safe’ to stand next to, and to travel.

Make it safe for employees to talk about their fears.

One of the first things I teach when I talk about change management is letting people express how they feel – their worries, hopes, and concerns. The people you work with are likely scared. They may be wondering if their job is secure, what happens if they get sick, and are they doing enough work from home with their kids present.

It’s hard to talk about fear because we think doing so makes us appear weak. Leaders and managers need to normalize the conversation. Make it ok to talk about how people feel at work.

Here are four steps to make it easier to talk about fear at work:

  1. Leaders and managers – admit what you’re afraid of. People will take your lead. Admitting how you feel demonstrates strength not weakness.
  2. Tell people it’s ok to be afraid and it’s ok to talk about fear at work. Sanction the conversation.
  3. Give more information about contingency planning, budgets and work from home and time off policies than you think you need to.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Then do it again.
  4. Create a forum for people to talk about how they feel about recent events and changes. Managers are not therapists or dumping grounds, but you are coaches. You can help people work through their work-related fears when you know what those fears are.

I’ve always believed that demonstrating our humanity at work is a strength. Being authentic makes people want to work for and with you. Admitting concerns makes you approachable and real.

Your employees and coworkers don’t need to know the details of your whole life, but they do need to see your humanity and be able to relate to you. Talk about how you feel and open the door for others to do the same.


How to Talk About Social Distancing and the Coronavirus at Work

I have a nanny who works in my home. She isn’t afraid of getting sick with the Coronavirus. She was going to the gym, before gyms were closed. I couldn’t tell her not to, however badly I wanted to. I could tell her not to come to work, but that doesn’t help me. How does a nanny work from home?

You are likely in a similar situation. You canceled your spring break trip, your direct report didn’t. You are practicing social distancing, your coworker who sits in the desk next to you isn’t. You’re keeping your kids at home; your next-door neighbors are not. Your kids want to play together.

You can’t legally tell an employee or coworker what to do when they’re not working, but you can tell your coworkers, friends, and family members that you’re uncomfortable. You can make requests and express concern.

My son is on the cusp of the cutoff to go to kindergarten in September. He just makes the deadline. I’ve been asking his preschool teacher how I decide if I should send him to kindergarten in September. His teacher’s criteria for determining if children are ready for kindergarten is self-advocacy. Can children ask for what they need and get their needs met. This is an interesting criterion that I see adults struggle with all the time.

Do we (the adults) regularly ask for what we need and want? Are we willing to be uncomfortable on our own behalf, on our employees’ behalf?

The coronavirus is testing all of us. It’s testing our patience, resilience, and self-discipline. It’s also testing our personal courage in the area of speaking up.

Here are a few ways to talk about the coronavirus at work:

Share your concerns. Tell the people you work with, “We work closely together. I’ve heard you talking about attending parties and other events with groups of people outside of work. I am very nervous about contracting the coronavirus virus. This is making me uncomfortable. I can’t tell you what to do outside of work. Can we talk about what types of social distancing we’re both willing to practice so we’re both comfortable?”

This will take courage. If you can’t advocate for yourself, who will?

Make requests. Tell your boss, “I’m really committed to the project I’m working on with _______. I’m working very hard to stay healthy and practice social distancing. I’ve heard _________ talking about going to parties and gatherings with other people outside of work. We’re working closely together and it’s making me uncomfortable. I want to be a good coworker and employee and protect myself. Can you help me?”

Self-advocacy takes courage.

Caveat – Vet any conversation you plan to have with your HR person or in-house counsel. Make sure what you ask for is legal in your home state.

Share your positive intentions:  “I want to be a good coworker.” “I want to do good work on this project.” “I want to be easy to work with.”

Share your concerns:  “I’m concerned about getting sick. I’m trying to limit my exposure to the coronavirus.”

Share your observation: “I’ve heard you talk about spending time with groups of people outside of work.” “I’ve noticed you spending time with groups of people.”

Share how you feel: “This is making me uncomfortable.” 

Make a request: “Can we talk about how we can keep each other safe?”

Creating a safe workspace and working environment requires the courage to speak up. Plan, practice, and prepare your conversations. Don’t speak off the cuff. Vet what you plan to say with your HR person or in-house counsel. Speak from your positive intention. Be courageous. Be safe.


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