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Archive for Problem Solving

Productivity And People Who Will Not Take No For An Answer

Not too long ago, our office hosted a two-hour productivity seminar at 9:30 in the morning; attendance was mandatory. The irony of dropping every pressing request and blocking time off during peak hours amused me to no end. The lure of refreshments and a chance to spend the morning away from my desk aside, I was curious to see what the presenters had in store if their website offered allegedly helpful advice such as how to scale back meetings and tips on home organization. Then there was this: take control of interruptions to your workday. I was sold!

We all deal with a constant stream of interruptions during the day, that’s not news. Studies indicate that it takes a full 20 minutes to refocus your attention on the task at hand when you get interrupted. I think the further in the zone you are, the worse it is. One thing I learned early in my professional life is that you cannot please everyone all of the time and while it is important to be helpful and nice to coworkers they can suck the life and will out of you before lunch.

My role is mostly an online one and I like to keep a tidy desk that does not have papers scattered in sloping piles right across. Lately, I have taken to fanning a few pages about just for the optics of it. Sitting quietly in front of my machine is not to be taken as an invitation to discuss what someone just read on Twitter, or recap last night’s episode of “Game of Thrones” (shut up, no spoilers, please … I’m a whole season behind!) Pre-seminar, I might have poked my head out looking like thunder and hissed at them to shut up. Post-seminar, I ask myself what can I do to change the things that are bothering me. I can stream the morning news and listen with earbuds; I can stuff noise-reducing earplugs in and focus on my breathing and my spreadsheet. Or …! I pick up the phone and loudly return a few calls. Only then, if I still have to, will I poke my head out looking like thunder and hiss at them to shut up.

My favourite takeaway from the productivity seminar was actually being told to turn off my email notifications in order to focus and remain productive. You could feel the tension ripple through the room: what a radical idea! Who invited these hacks? Are they going off-script?! The nerve of them, are they trying to get me fired? Is this a test? … okay, so I’m projecting just a teensy bit. Still, I loved the novelty of it. Nothing infuriates me more than to get one pop-up notification/ping/buzz after another and see a stream of unread mail in my inbox, only to then open them and read two little words: Thank you. Seriously? You have nothing else of value to add, no promise to deliver data, follow-up, regroup in a week, nothing?

I turned off my inbox notifications as soon as I got back from the seminar and never turned it back on. No FOMO, no regret, don’t miss the “you’ve got mail” dopamine rush. I can block a half hour or so a couple of times a day, file away the non-action items, add to-do flags to the ones that I need to follow-up on, use the “meeting” button on my toolbar to add the super-important stuff to my own calendar, cross off the completed tasks with a sense that something was actually achieved. No prizes for guessing what I do with the “thanks” messages.

People, though, get very anxious and miss the dopamine. That’s when the calls and drop-ins start: “Hi, did you read my email? You never responded to my email. Can we talk about my email now?” Um, no. Here’s what I learned to say, without guilt, insinuation or aggravation. I say it calmly, softly and with deep gravitas: “I am in the middle of something else right now, I will have to get back to you/come see you as soon as I am done with this. Let’s put it on the calendar”. Try it, it’s like a flu shot for your mental health.

Here’s how I see it: the big stuff doesn’t just happen in an instant. There is usually a long sequence of events, plenty of correspondence back and forth between client and vendor and all parties that matter, conference calls and GoTo meetings, planning, planning, and planning. Then one hapless unfortunate comes in, in the middle of the movie, fails to grasp the plot, asks the wrong questions (and thanks every last person for every last bit of it); still fails to understand the purpose or goal of what everyone else has been going on about. Then one day, say around 10:00 a.m., she decides to come sweeping down from one of the practice floors with her stack of invoices, mismatched payments and inch-thick, binder-clipped stack of emails, and asks, did you read my email?

Get Real – Get Out of Your Box!

I once worked with a woman who was brilliant and appeared to be the only one who didn’t recognize this. Or more accurately, perhaps she recognized it, but her sense of workplace hierarchies caused her to shush her brilliance more often than not. Others would come to her for guidance or assistance, and she would say, “Well, I’m just an Administrator and don’t have the authority.” Sometimes, she tortured others (and most likely herself) with a bit of well-thought advice and direction, then dismiss the information with lack of authority comment. A brilliant idea was conjured up, and then hidden away, like a bad magic trick.

What was this all about? Well, since you’re asking, I think she was paralyzed by role definition. I’d like to think that today’s workplace has evolved beyond strict pecking orders around the corporate org chart and titles. Either she’d not figured this out yet or had become so ingrained with the concept of staying within one’s box, based on position, that she was stifling herself and frustrating others.

She was probably frustrating herself as well, as I know she observed that some folks with fairly significant titles were coming to her with fairly simple questions. Stupid questions, really, but given the expression, “there are no stupid questions”, we’ll call them simple. Because we’re nice that way. She could have been helpful. People and situations could have benefited, but she kept herself in her box and everyone else constantly knocked their heads against the wall in aggravation. Well, maybe not constantly because I don’t think there were any Workers’ Comp claims for head-knocking. Not that I knew of.

Workplace roles have their purposes, like letting you know who does what, who’s ultimately accountable when something bad happens, and who gets rewarded when great things transpire. When adhered to too rigidly, they tend to box us in. Like lack-of-authority-because-I’m-stuck-in-my-box lady. Sadly, in addition to not sharing her ideas, or probably because of her inability to do so given her ideas about her role’s limitations, she missed out on juicy, interesting assignments and ultimately, on upward-mobility opportunities and thus stagnated in her self-imposed box. I can only imagine how painful it was for her because believe me, it was painful to watch. What killed me the most was that she could have been having fun at work and she chose not to.

So where am I going with all this? Throw away org charts? Eliminate titles? Establish democratic (or even socialistic) organizations where everyone’s say is equal? No, not at all. But I do suggest we colour outside the lines a little bit and get outside our boxes.

Take our box-lady friend. How could she have done things differently? Best-selling author Eckhart Tolle suggests “you become most powerful in whatever you do if the action is performed for its own sake, rather than as a means to protect, enhance, or conform to your role identity.” He goes on to say, “When you don’t play roles…your actions have far greater power. You are totally focused on the situation…You are most powerful, most effective, when you are completely yourself.” (pp. 107-108, A New Earth)

Whoa. That’s powerful. So had she thought, “Hmm. I’m being asked something here, and maybe they wouldn’t be asking if they didn’t think me capable. Okay, I’ll give it my best. Here goes,” and then shared her ideas and suggestions, everyone would have been better off.

Another glimmer on our quest to find and strengthen authenticity in the workplace. Here are some clues I’ll be taking with me:

Be yourself. Give your opinion. Be open, honest, and give your best in any situation, regardless of the role you’ve been assigned. When you’re true to yourself and speak your words, everyone benefits. Others get good information from you and the organization can move forward successfully. You honour yourself through sharing your experience and knowledge, and you can move forward successfully, however you define success, whether it be in increments of happiness or career progressions. Or big piles of cash. Whatever you do, just remember to get out of your box and keep it real.

Tips for Problem Solving

As an HR professional I have dealt with employees who have no boundaries with their issues or emotions and try to get me to solve their problems.  I have learned not to fall into this trap because it creates dependent and disempowered people.  Instead, HR professionals need to use a coaching approach by ‘throwing the monkey back’ and keeping the accountability where it belongs.  This requires learning to guide a client to a solution by asking the right questions, giving constructive feedback and getting their commitment to take action.

If you find yourself in a conversation with an overly-emotional employee, help them work through their emotions without getting triggered yourself. You do this by giving the person the space to clear his or her emotions.

Here’s how it works:

First, give the other person full permission to vent for a limited time. For example, “You’ve got 5 minutes to tell me what you’re pissed off about…and then we can talk about what to do about it.” As he or she vents, provide encouragement to put it all on the table with responses like “yes,” “say more,” “what else,” etc. At the end of 5 minutes, signal that time is up and get permission to move onto the next agenda item.

Second, emotions are bound to show in our fast-paced, intense business environment. People are pressing each other’s hot buttons all the time. But to be ‘professional’ we need to self-manage our own triggers and not displace them on someone else. Yes, HR professionals can have emotions too and need to learn to manage them as much as anyone else.  If you find something triggering your emotions, try to take a time-out from the conversation and avoid resuming it until you figure out why you’re emotional, how you’re going to deal with it, and a strategy to keep your emotions in check in that situation. If you don’t deal with your own emotions, the conversation can get ugly.