The Office was one of my favorite shows for several years. It taught me a lot about how to succeed in the workplace: combine all the office desks into one “megadesk,” encase your desk mate’s stapler in Jell-O for a fun prank, and sleep work your coworker’s spouse if possible.
My parents, who work for themselves in food production, also taught me several lessons: wear comfortable tennis shoes every day, take many breaks to exercise in the middle of the day, and always wear a hair net.
Yep, that’s about all I knew about the professional world before I started my “big girl” job. I had no realistic examples in my life to help me understand what to do at a job that expects me to put on a blazer and a smiling face every single day. I’m guessing I’m not the only twenty-something who felt like the professional world was a foreign country with its own etiquette, customs, and expectations.
As soon as I (somewhat) mastered the art of a professional wardrobe and crafted my professional persona, my next hurdle was understanding how to approach difficult and sometimes uncomfortable situations in a professional way. A major part of being a leader is knowing when (and how) to speak your mind versus when to bite your tongue.
It’s only natural — in a place where you spend 40+ hours per week with the same people, sometimes communication will erode, people will fail to live up to their commitments, and feelings will get hurt. How do we maintain professionalism while dealing with these situations?
Enter “Crucial Accountability”. This book is one half of a two-part series aimed at bettering communication in high-stakes situations. To be completely honest, it’s kind of a snooze fest to read. Skip the book and learn the basic steps below:
1) Work on yourself first.
This is great advice in general, and it always reminds me of the presentation given before every flight: you have to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting someone with theirs. It makes sense — if you aren’t in great shape or functioning at your best ability, how are you supposed to help someone else better themselves?
Examine your own behavior. When you make a promise, do you follow through? If not, try to pinpoint why you are failing to fulfill expectations and work to correct that. Being honest with yourself can be painful, but it’s necessary before taking on the next step.
2) Choosing your “what” and “if.”
Choosing your “what” means that you need to identify that actual problem that’s occurring (for example, Lindsay showed up late to work), understand the pattern of the behavior (is Lindsay late every day or was it just a few times?), and how its impacting the team (is Linsday’s tardiness hurting her coworkers in any way? How?).
Once you know “what” the problem is, identify intent. Is Lindsay purposely arriving late or is she trying to make it on time? Do you want to confront her because you need her to come on time, or do you want to confront her because you’re upset and want to make her feel bad?
Your “if” is the question of whether you should actually confront Lindsay. You should definitely have a conversation with her if you’re “acting out”, or telling her you’re upset by being passive aggressive. But there are many situations when it may not be worth it, like if several other coworkers are also showing up late or if Lindsay’s lateness has no negative impact on the team. Confronting a person can create negative feelings; by confronting Lindsay, are you dissolving more negative feelings than you are creating?
3) Get your story straight.
Before you say anything, pause. The first few seconds of any interaction will set the tone for how the conversation goes, so you need to make sure you aren’t acting out of pure emotion. Lindsay has been late, but are you sure you have the whole story? Or are you simply telling yourself a story about how Lindsay is lazy and irresponsible. Remember, but you can only see the outcome — her lateness — and not the forces behind that outcome. Don’t assume the worst about her before you even open your mouth.
4) Mind the gap.
The “gap” is the difference between the expected and the actual outcomes. When someone fails to live up to an expectation and you decide a conversation is necessary, start by explaining that expectation and then what you observed. Don’t use an accusatory tone and don’t try to guilt trip them. Without any judgement, ask them what happened. Your goal is to hear the other person’s point of view without letting emotions get in the way.
5) Make them want to take action.
Motivate them to improve their behavior by showing them the consequences. Lindsay may not understand the importance of being on time unless someone tells her how distracting it is when she comes in late, or how hard it is to complete opening duties without her. Without guilting her, explain how much you would appreciate her timeliness.
A huge part of the conversation is asking for their opinions and feelings, such as “Lindsay, what do you think will help you get here on time?”
“Crucial Accountability” may not be the most fascinating book on the shelf, but it’s an invaluable resource for people who want to become effective leaders. It’s not only about bettering yourself, but about learning to uncover the potential in others without causing hurt feelings or being accusatory when things go wrong.
It doesn’t only apply to Lindsay’s tardiness, but it applies to anyone at your workplace or even in your family. If you approach a difficult conversation in the correct way, there is no limit to what can be accomplished.