Believe it or not, I can work in stealth mode. For as outgoing and gregarious as I can be, the skill of quiet observer is, also, one I possess. Sometimes, those of us who are the most extroverted are not noticed when we stand off to the side. It’s not expected for us to be there, so others may not look. This past week, I have been even more deliberate to stand still and observe in various environments. And I guess what I noticed? Complainers.
Picked yourself up off the floor? I doubt you were even fazed by that news. But what I did notice more acutely was how many complainers were managers. More specifically, I heard managers of teams share their negative thoughts with staff. I heard managers of HR share critical thoughts about other managers and executives that would be difficult for someone to forget they’ve heard. I have heard C-Suite leaders passive-aggressively deal with managers and staff in a demeaning manor. Rough week!
The challenge is around how we share critique without being critical of others. It’s around how we give people details without giving people judgment. It’s about how to remain clear on the story without instilling anecdotal information to distract. Many of us slide very easily into the unhealthy approach to information-sharing. We provide too much attitude and too many opinions.
And while some of this is a behavioral adjustment (breaking a habit), it is, also, a matter of setting tone and objectives. When my folks told me to not smoke cigarettes, it was because they cared for my health and well-being. When they told me while they both were smokers, it was a weird message to receive. If it’s so bad, why are you doing it? (I am happy to say that both have since quit). Think about your workplaces. If I ask you to speak professionally and provide excellent customer service, but I don’t demonstrate those qualities amongst the team, isn’t it just as weird? It’s incongruous. What I do betrays what I say. The tone of the expectation is understood differently. It’s more of a “don’t get caught breaking this rule, but if you can do it and not get caught, it’s cool” attitude.
When managers, human resources professionals, supervisors and executives speak in back-stabbing innuendos, trust is damaged. It bears saying that the trust is broken even if the words aren’t about the person to whom it’s being directed. When I know you are willing to be so critical about someone to me, I am left to fill in the blanks of your shared words to others about me. I cannot trust your actions when I am not around. The inconsistency is not lost on the hearers. Your actions matter.
What might be most disheartening in this reality is the role that human resources plays in keeping this type of culture active in organizations. Many of us participate too readily in the tearing down of others. And while you may already be judging me for saying it (now just stop that!), think about the eye rolls, the head shaking, the negative words and the unhinged rants that you have offered since the year began. Have you unwittingly set a tone that you try to fight against? Tearing people down is easy; it’s the opportunity to build up that takes more effort.
Listen, it’s fine to have those safe people to whom you can share how you’re feeling or what you’re observing. That’s a good thing in whatever role we have. But if your safe people circle is about 15 deep, it’s too many. And if some of those people you work with daily, there will be difficulty in flipping back and forth in the relationship. Choose wisely the few you can lean on. And outside of those few, maintain the tone and objectives you need to. The consistency in expected communication has to come from you first. Model the right behavior.
One of the conversations I overheard this week was a restaurant manager sharing with her team, right after she hung up the phone, that the customer was calling to see where her delivery order was. It had not yet arrived. The manager couldn’t believe that this customer was so annoying. “I mean, I told her we’re on own way. We’re only like 10 minutes late so far.” And what did she now tell her team? That it’s reasonable to be late. That it’s not our fault if we don’t meet our promised services. That it’s okay to treat customers poorly once you’re no longer speaking to them. That others in the venue, who could overhear this, should know that service offered is based upon how reasonable the restaurant thinks you are.
So, what’s a first step? Wait before you share. Don’t involve others until you know what you want you want to say and how you want to deliver it. And is the information going to be in keeping with the desired tone and intended objectives? There’s often not a rush to deliver information, even though we think there is. Consider, then deliver.