Crucial Accountability QA

Dealing with Personal Issues at Work

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

One of my employees is going through a very difficult divorce. I advised her to take time off to settle her affairs, but she said she enjoys her time at work because it takes her away from her home and gives her a break from family issues.

However, I have noticed that she receives an excessive amount of personal calls and spends a lot of time responding to her personal e-mail during work hours. I do not want to be insensitive to her situation. How can I show my sympathy as I talk to my employee about her excessive use of personal communication at work?

Sympathetic Manager

A  Dear Sympathetic Manager,

Your employee is lucky to have a boss who is concerned about her well-being and who is doing his or her best to balance individual needs with corporate demands. You’re correct in concluding that tough problems at home can indeed carry over to the workplace and they need to be carefully and respectfully managed.

Unfortunately, not everybody wants this to be true. For example, years ago I watched video clips from a training video library a friend loaned to me. In one of the performance management clips, an employee who showed up late to work pointed to a problem at home as part of the reason he hadn’t been on time. In response, the boss stated (and this was supposed to be a positive example) “At our company, we leave our personal problems at the door.”

I understand why a boss might want this to be true—you know, separate home and work to avoid any nasty conflicts—but I couldn’t help but chuckle as the video clip unfolded. Really? You think people can divorce themselves from their problems by simply willing themselves to do so? All they have to do is “leave their problems at the door”?

When this same video clip was shown during a training session I attended a few weeks later, the audience actually laughed at the line. People watching the video thought it was bizarre to even suggest that you could pause at the entrance to work, take a deep breath, and then completely separate yourself from whatever debacles, calamities, and misfortunes are taking place back at home (and they are taking place).

Make no mistake; when you hire someone, you hire the whole employee—including the life they live outside company walls.

And now for the other part of the problem you’ve identified. Those very same people who walk in the doors—complete with personal problems of all kinds and shapes—make promises to the company and that’s where the second half of the problem comes into play. Employees need to be anxiously engaged in serving the company’s needs—at reasonable speed and for a reasonable number of hours.

Here’s where it gets tricky. What, for example, is the appropriate amount of time to spend answering personal phone calls and e-mail? Zero? You’re suggesting that the employee in question is spending an “excessive” amount of time and I don’t doubt that. I also believe that you aren’t going to lay down a law that includes “never” in the guideline.

In fact, my bet is that you yourself take calls from home—I know I do. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see people in our company stay on task and put off interruptions in meetings such as phone calls from vendors and the like—but when it’s from home, they often take the call.

All of this, of course, leads us to the question of how many interruptions are too many? The answer lies in the nature of the job itself. Jobs on production lines, for example, afford little or no time for anything other than hooking on widgets as the parts flow by. Obviously, that doesn’t fit your circumstances. Free-effort jobs like yours and your employee’s do allow for the occasional side issue.

So, the question with your employee is, what are the consequences associated with her taking too many personal calls and messages? It bothers you and you think it’s excessive. Why is that? If your employee is simply spending too much time on personal business, then you might want to ask her to work an additional 15 minutes each day, as a way of making up for the loss. She can talk, she just needs to add back the time.

If the interruptions are disturbing meetings with coworkers, this is another problem with a different solution. If coworkers see her off task and complain about it, that’s still a different issue.

So, start by setting up a meeting with your employee. Think of the consequences that currently have you concerned and enter the conversation with these in mind. Start with Mutual Purpose. Explain that you want to be sensitive to her changing needs while also balancing the needs of the company.

In the spirit of being supportive, share what you’re currently doing to be helpful. For example, you advised her to take time off, you’ve agreed to build in flexible time to allow her to talk with lawyers, and so forth. Ask what else you can do to be of help during this stressful time.

Next, explain the challenges currently resulting from your employee’s frequent use of personal calls and e-mail. Don’t make this heavy-handed or punitive, simply state the facts. Once again, make it clear that your goal is to balance her needs with the job requirements. Openly discuss both the challenges and possible solutions.

Here is where you’ll need to focus on the specific consequences you want to mitigate. Are you dealing with number of minutes, unfinished tasks, interruptions, unhappy coworkers, etc.? Identify the issues that are relevant. Ask the employee for steps she can take to either make up for or resolve the negative consequences you’ve outlined. Jointly come up with a solution that meets everyone’s needs. Set clear standards for future behavior and thank her for her willingness to sit down and work through the challenge.

And bless you for wanting to do what’s right for everyone concerned.


Crucial Accountability QA

Responding to Confidential Feedback

Dear Crucial Skills,

An employee of mine had an exit interview with HR. In it, she told HR that I “lacked the people skills necessary to be a director.” She also asked that her opinion not be shared with me. Somehow my supervisor found out about it and told me—while reassuring me that she disagreed and believes I “don’t need to change a thing.”

I now find myself struggling in an emotional “no man’s land.” I want to crawl away in embarrassment to lick my wounds and I’m afraid of the repercussions of this negative opinion hanging out there.

I have talked to others and discovered there are those who agree with this criticism of me. I want to improve but don’t know what specifically her concerns were. I feel insecure because no one seems to be telling me their concerns directly.

How should I respond to negative feedback that was intended to be confidential?

Shot in the Dark

Dear Shot in the Dark,

Yuck. I hate being trapped. It’s so frustrating to be really motivated to take action but then to have your hands (or mouth) tied by someone else’s confidentiality commitment.

I had someone try to duct-tape my mouth recently, too. A friend said, “So-and-so’s daughter was just admitted to a rehab program (I’m changing some details here to avoid inappropriate disclosure). I just wanted you to know because I know you’re his friend, but you cannot let him know that you know as they would be very ashamed.”

So here I sit—caring about my friend, wanting to offer support, but with another friend trying to bind me into a confidentiality commitment I don’t want to keep.

I made a rule for myself years ago that I would never make an unconditional confidentiality commitment without knowing the consequences. Before people share sensitive information with me, I tell them clearly, “Please do not tell me anything you don’t want me to act on. If you put information in my head, I will do what I feel ethically bound to do afterward. Now, what would you like me to know?”

This little script helps the other person step up to greater ethical ownership themselves, rather than allowing them to engage me in a silent collusion that does nothing but generate gossip.

When my friend shared this sensitive information before I could get my script out, I immediately followed with, “I’m sorry, I’m not willing to make that commitment. You shouldn’t have shared that with me if you didn’t want me to act on it. Now, given that I intend to act on it, I’m fine giving you some time to decide what you want to do first. How much time would you like?”

I think this was a bit jarring for my friend, but I’m confident it will help him approach me more responsibly in the future.

So, how does this apply to your case? First, I’d suggest that in the future you have a similar boundary with your boss and others. Don’t let yourself get trapped into having information—including criticisms of you—that your hands are tied in addressing. Your boss shouldn’t have provided this feedback to you or she should have given you the freedom to follow up in a healthy way.

Frankly, I’m not sure how your boss got the information from what I assume was a confidential exit interview with HR. Someone needs to have a crucial confrontation with them about this unacceptable violation of process. Now that this information is in your brain, here are a couple of thoughts on how to deal with it:

Don’t outsource your self-worth. Your note sounds as though even days or weeks after getting the criticism you still feel emotionally wrapped up in it. I don’t blame you. I hate it when others think less of me than I’d like, but I’ve also learned that the first solution is not to resolve their concern but to address my own. When others’ comments about me make me want to “crawl away and lick my wounds,” I know I’m responding from insecurity rather than a healthy desire to improve. This comes from a false belief that if I make mistakes, then I am a mistake.

Your true worth—in my view—is not a function of how you do, but of who you are. Your value can’t be calculated as the mean on some 360° survey. When I am truly in touch with my worth, I find I am less controlled by other’s disappointment in me. When they doubt my competence, I don’t automatically begin doubting my worth. The truth about all of us is that we have infinite worth but finite competence. I encourage you first and foremost to do whatever works in your life to reconnect you with this fundamental awareness.

Help others tell more than they know. Once you are able to respond to the criticism from a place of confidence, I think you’ll still want to know if there is something you can improve. The barrier now is that people often know how they feel but don’t know why. They might “know” for example, that they feel uncomfortable around you, but they can’t identify concrete behaviors that make them feel this way. They say vague things like, “I just don’t trust her” or “She’s got a big ego.” They drew that conclusion through concrete experiences with you, but only remember the abstract conclusion they drew as a result. So how can you get to the facts behind their stories?

Once you help someone feel safe enough to offer you concrete feedback, you’ll need to help that person move from abstract story to concrete experience. That’s how you can help them tell more than they know. Here’s how it might work:

You: “So sometimes you see me as intimidating.”

Friend: “Yes, I mean that sounds harsh, but yes, a little.”

You: “Great. Next time we’re in a meeting together, would you please pay attention to when you’re feeling that way? And when that happens, take notes about what I’m doing. Would you do that for me? Pay attention to my phrasing, pace, volume, body language, etc. Just as you would need to if you were directing an actor to play me in a movie.”

Friend: (after the meeting). “Okay, so here’s what I noticed. Your voice rises just a little. Not loud. It’s not like you’re yelling. But the fact that you talked louder and a little faster made me feel like you thought my idea was dumb or that you weren’t interested in my opinion.”

This is hard work, but it’s the only way you can get concrete coaching about your own behavior.

Now, one last thought. As your friend gives you detailed behavioral feedback, realize that the real solution might not just be changing your behavior, but changing your motives and stories. It might be that when you are speaking a little louder and a little faster, you are in fact feeling impatient, judgmental, or condescending. And if that’s the case, be sure to work on the inside as well as the outside.

Good luck in your efforts to improve. And above all, remember that your sense of security has to come not from outside approval but from inner integrity.

Best wishes,

Change Anything QA

Crucial Applications: Tax Refund Tips to Jump-start Financial Savings Habits

Change Anything

According to a recent poll we conducted with money expert Loral Langemeier, over the past five years, three out of five people have failed to meet their financial goals; despite this, only 24 percent are actively working to adjust their spending and saving habits.

As a result of failing to adjust spending and saving habits to new realities, two-thirds are in financial trouble and only 6 percent are on track to save enough for retirement. However, those who created a plan which includes four or more unique behavior-change tactics were 53 percent more successful in reaching their financial goals.

Here are some tips for using your tax refund to jump-start financial savings habits:

1. Change your paradigm from prize money to possibility: Change the way you think about your tax refund. Realize it isn’t a prize, but rather money you’ve earned in the last year through hard work. Consider the possibility of adding to your savings or investing for future security.
2. Overcome ignorance: If you struggle to save, you could be lacking skills rather than motivation. If you’re unsure on what to do with your refund, read a book or see an advisor who has knowledge you lack and can help you make a safe investment.
3. Turn accomplices into friends: Don’t underestimate the power of your peers. Stay away from friends who encourage you to spend your refund and hold your spouse or partner accountable to deposit your refund based upon your mutual goals.
4. Get a coach or mentor: Coaches—such as a financial advisor or friendly cheerleader—are crucial to behavior change success. Research shows people with a half dozen active friends who play the role of coach or mentor in encouraging saving are almost 40 percent more likely to succeed than those with less than a half dozen friends.
5. Reap a reward: Deposit 90 percent of your tax refund in your savings account and reward yourself by spending the remaining 10 percent on a low-budget treat or family outing.
6. Take advantage of technology: Cut out the temptation to cash a tax refund by opting for a direct deposit option that goes directly to your savings account.

For more tips on closing the financial gap and changing your spending or saving behavior, join Joseph and Loral in a paid web seminar on Tuesday, May 15.