Executive Coach to Increase Dialogue & Engagement

Getting people to speak their truth in workplaces isn’t easy. Most people have been conditioned to guard themselves carefully. They are cautious and often reluctant to bring tough issues to the table or to give a boss or co-workers candid feedback about problematic behaviors. Reasons range from an intimidating boss, hostile work environment, hidden or political agendas to our natural self-protection (and/or self interest) as humans.

We pay a high price in business when tough subjects are avoided. Fearful employees walking around on eggshells are typically disengaged, unmotivated, and dissatisfied. Games of masquerade and pretending all is well prevail. Because tough issues are avoided– collaboration, improved communication, relationships and team productivity go by the wayside. Frankly, in my career coaching experience, most talented or high performing individuals will soon seek greener pastures in this environment.

As a team coach and facilitator, I try to help foster “dialogue” to transform this unhealthy dynamic. Simply put, dialogue is a conversational style that can dissolve barriers and fosters collaboration, trust, accountability and partnership. Dialogue is possible when there is trust, mutual respect and a commitment to inquiry and understanding. Dialogue can be a critical tool in workplaces to promote team learning and finding “shared meaning” even in conflict and disagreement.

Bringing in a skilled “outside” third party objective coach and/or facilitator can help foster dialogue and bring safety and skills to your workplace. They can help:

  • To create safety for participants to surface the “elephants in the room”. Skilled facilitators can create conditions where people feel safe to speak truth. Whenever there are issues/topics that team’s avoid I find blocked creativity, collaboration and learning. Avoidance isn’t a strategy. In my experience avoidance only makes things worse. The issues don’t go away they just bubble up in unhealthy ways like water cooler backbiting, rumors, and pent up frustration that eventually “blows” and good people leaving.
  • Teach your team healthy interpersonal skills like active listening. Teams can get mired in conflict without listening. Real listening with an intention to understand one another vs. debate or out argue one another is rare. Listening doesn’t just happen magically. Most people need to be taught listening skills due to the human tendency of justifying and defending vs. truly trying to understand the other’s perspective. Listening is critical for a healthy workplace and to be able to get real with one another.
  • To promote inquiry through asking the right questions and promoting a climate of curiosity. Skilled coaches and facilitators know the right questions to ask (often the “unasked” questions) to promote balanced participation and reveal the thinking behind positions or ideas. Facilitators can help surface and make assumptions visible for all while challenging participants to suspend judgment while they explore the issue. Learning can then happen through inquiry, reflection and dialogue leaving a team stronger and better able to tackle future tough subjects.
  • Develop team norms to continue fostering learning, dialogue and shared meaning when tacking difficult issues and challenges. Few workplace teams spend enough time figuring out how to work together more creatively and collaboratively. They get sucked into the myth that workplace meetings should be “task” focused. High performing teams spend as much time on task as they do fostering effective communication and teamwork.

An outside expert facilitator can help your team develop better group process and meeting ground rules to foster accountability and healthy productive meetings. Another benefit—meetings with skilled facilitators are rarely boring as usually there is healthy debate and open exchange of ideas and feedback! It’s not uncommon for me to hear participants describe well-facilitated meetings as “the best we ever had”.  Call me at 360 682 5807  — I can help you make your next executive retreat the best yet!

Why Workers Resist Change

Resistance to ChangeA client and I were recently discussing the natural resistance that accompanies most organizational change efforts when he quipped, “the only people who like change are wet babies!”  Well said.

Change is a part of our every day lives.  The pace of change is rapidly accelerating in workplaces.  Companies simply must keep up with the constant marketplace demands of change if they are to survive, much less thrive in this economy.

The ability to manage change effectively is a complex requirement of most managers and leaders in today’s workplaces.  Understanding how human’s process change is an important part of learning how to manage workplace change. The most challenging part of this equation is the “people” component.

Some of us are more receptive to change than others.  I’ve witnessed a worker revolt because of the need to move their desk by a foot! Others embrace almost any change as an exciting new opportunity or a deterrent to boredom.  Picture a typical bell curve when it comes to change.  About 20% of workers will be on the far end of the continuum of “Like change, bring it on!” while another 20% is on the other far end, “Not only no but —- no!”  The other 60% is in the middle and on the fence about the change; these are the folks you want to target your change management efforts towards.

Understanding the nature of change is important if you are going to succeed in your attempts at managing change in the workplace.  Humans seek control.  We tend to fear, dislike and avoid ambiguity.  We “react” negatively when our expectations for the way things should be aren’t met.  One rule of thumb–the more surprised we are by the change, the greater resistance you can expect.

It takes time for us to process and accept change.  Most initially respond to a change we didn’t create with disbelief and denial, “I can’t believe this is happening!”  This is usually the first stop on the change journey followed by resistance– picture arms crossed in defiance!  The next step is exploration, “OK, I guess we can try it anyway, do you have more information?” Exploration however is dependent on whether or not change is consistently well sponsored and communicated from leaders.  Once we have dipped our big toe into the change water and find it wasn’t as bad as we anticipated, most of us will finally move to commitment (“I can support the change in this way”).

A few coaching tips to increase the likelihood of your change effort sticking:

  • Most humans are tuned into their own personal radio station-WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?)  Leaders trying to manage change should broadcast on this station to answers their typical questions like:  What will get better as a result of the change?  Worse? How much control do we have over what happens?  Can we assimilate this change at a reasonable pace?  Do we understand the micro/macro implications of the change?
  • People are more likely to support and commit to change they have helped create or design.  Involve your people (particularly the front line or “end users” of the change) early in the creation of the change.  Consult with them about their opinions.  What obstacles do they foresee?  How would they like to see the change rolled out?  What will work (or not) for them regarding the change?
  • Communicate often and consistently about the change.  Yes this will mean you have to repeat yourself—in my experience, most leaders greatly under communicate about change.  Use all available forums of communication available—intranet, email, phone, meetings and of course face-to-face conversations reinforcing the need and requirements for the change.  Wise sponsors of change know that what will dictate whether or not the change is adopted is their commitment and time spent shepherding it through the organization.
  • Allow people an opportunity to talk about and “vent” their frustrations about the change.  Yes, this may turn into a gripe session but better to get it out in the open and aired than for resistance to go underground.  Truly listening to understand what how your people feel about the change is important.    Once we feel “heard” we are more likely to move on.  Your people want to know that you care about them and how they will be impacted by the change. If you don’t respect them enough to at least hear them out about it—expect ongoing and potentially damaging resistance.

Workplace Gossip

Workplace GossipThe root of many workplace problems can be traced to a lack of communication or misperceptions that result from ineffective communication. In my coaching practice, workers often tell me they are reluctant to speak up candidly with one another about their concerns or what’s up for them. They fear office politics, losing a job, angering someone or retribution. Many also simply lack the skills to address difficult conversations directly. Unfortunately what many do instead is gossip and “triangle” in a third person (thereby avoiding talking to the offending person directly).

It’s easy to get sucked unconsciously into negative workplace energy. A colleague vents about someone else and pretty soon you find yourself nodding your head in agreement about how “so and so” is lousy at something. Bad feelings get shared, absorbed and co-workers develop negative perceptions about those they need to count on.

To a degree, it is human nature to complain. Yet, gossiping about others when they aren’t present damages trust, respect, morale and relationships. We pay a high price for the gossip or “triangle” approach. Most importantly, the issues don’t get resolved, particularly if the offending party is left in the dark. Additionally, gossip is toxic to workplace morale, camaraderie and team. It often spirals out of control leaving a wake of negativity, suspicion, resentment and broken communication. Team collaboration, creativity and productivity suffer because a lack of trust impedes healthy debate and open dialogue.

My mission is to get people talking to each other and not about each other. Here are my coach’s tips:

  • Notice your energy the next time you are engaged in a negative complaining or gossip conversation about someone else. Odds are you will notice a drop in your energy and enthusiasm. You may even note a weight on your shoulders that now burdens your body, emotions and mind. How is this serving you?
  • Are you unconsciously or automatically looking at situations and people with a “critical” eye? Challenge yourself to use an “appreciative” eye and look for what’s right about others vs. looking for what’s wrong on auto pilot.
  • If you are feeling angry, identify and own your “judgments” and then identify what you are needing/wanting that you aren’t getting. Do you have a need for more information, inclusion, equality or respect? Express your feelings and unmet needs to the other.
  • Be authentic. Say what is true for you while being conscious of respectful delivery of the information. Ask for what you need to be successful with a workplace task or role.
  • Hold interpersonal judgments lightly and consider that you may have the information wrong. Test your perceptions.
  • Discourage coworkers from gossiping. Either change the subject or refuse to take part in a conversation about someone when they aren’t present.
  • Take stock of the facts before you automatically become the judge and jury of a coworker. We humans are remarkably adept at making up stories and meaning to situations we don’t fully understand. We frequently leap to conclusions often with little or no data. Check and verify your perceptions before taking action that might result in harmful consequences.
  • Be intentional about how you speak about others when they aren’t present. Ask yourself how what you will say may serve either you or others?
  • If something is bothering you or there has been a missed expectation, take it up with the person directly. This takes courage and as long as the delivery of the message is handled with care and intention, most often the relationship will be improved.
  • Prepare for difficult workplace conversations. Begin with the end in mind—where do you want to end up as a result of this conversation? How can you deliver the message in a way that the other person can hear?

Employee Stress

Have you noticed Seattle workers seem more highly stressed than ever? It seems to me there is a perceptible increase in grouchiness, negative emotional reactivity and stress levels. This spring’s lousy weather coupled with the ongoing recession reality, global distress with the nightly barrage of horrific oil spill pictures seems to have combined for a perfect storm leaving everyone on edge.

Job stress specifically is on the rise. Recent surveys (Northwestern National Life) indicate that 25% of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. 75% of employees surveyed believe workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago (according to Princeton Survey Research Associates).

Workers are being asked to do more with less and cover task responsibilities for laid off co-workers and diminishing resources. Technically is advancing at warp speed, keeping most of us on a vertical learning curve just trying to keep up. 5 generations in the workplace keep us all challenged trying to communicate effectively with each other. Many workplaces operate at an unending fast pace where urgency has become the norm vs. the exception. The constant urgency keeps many in “fight or flight” mode day after day. Migraines and tension headaches are on the rise along with fatigue and illness. All this constant stress takes a tremendous toil on our physical and mental well-being. It’s no wonder many Americans dread going to work.

These are tough times for workers and leaders. No one is immune. So how can leaders keep up morale in these high stress times? I don’t have a magic bullet but I can offer some suggestions for leaders:

  • Manage by walking around. Don’t hide away in your office. Keep a pulse on what’s happening with your people. If you disappear or go silent, rumors will take over adding to the stress levels. When you do communicate, do so authentically and candidly. Treat your people like the adults they are and don’t withhold information.
  • Model work life balance. If you never leave the office, likely your staff will feel pressured to do the same. Avoid sending out emails to staff late at night! This is an unconscious message that they too should be tethered to their Blackberries and PDAs 24/7 which is unhealthy. Leaders and staff working at a rapid fire pace need to take time to rejuvenate. Taking care of the foundation is important. Exercise (it releases endorphins and burns off excess adrenaline and cortisol) and find ways to truly disconnect from the workplace.
  • Be careful about the emotional wake you leave with staff—your emotions are contagious. Your staff looks to you to see how you are reacting/responding to stress—if you get wigged out, expect them to follow you. Be conscious about how you show up emotionally to your people. As best you can, try to demonstrate a calm confident demeanor. If you find yourself highly anxious, develop methods to self soothe (I like belly breathing because your breath is always with you as a highly reliable strategy, besides it is proven to lower heart and respiratory rates).
  • Find a coach or trusted outside partner that you can let it all hang out with—someone you can safely vent to and be a sounding board. An objective perspective can often be invaluable during tough times. It’s lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Isolating yourself isn’t healthy.
  • Notice the emotional field of your team and workplace. Give people time to talk about their stress and emotions during team meetings. People find comfort in hearing from other team members. Your job during these venting times is to listen well and offer them sincere appreciation and understanding for what they are going through.
  • Engage hearts and minds. Involve and consult with your team before making decisions. Ask them their opinions. Allow them opportunities to get involved with creative problem solving.
  • During highly stressful times its more important than ever to reward and recognize. From verbal thank you’s to special public recognition, make a concentrated effort to demonstrate true appreciation. Bring in special treats for the team (consider a massage therapist or yoga instructor) to reward a job well done.

Difficult Workplace Conversation Tips

Difficult conversations are an integral part of many challenging, fast-paced and demanding workplaces. The complexity and discomfort associated with difficult conversations run the gamut — firing someone you like, delivering tough performance reviews, confronting disrespectful or unprofessional behavior, and confronting a colleague about their offensive body odor. The bottom line is there are many subjects that we find difficult to talk about in workplaces. How we handle them can make the difference between a great outcome or having a miserable (and unresolved) problem.

While handling difficult conversations can be challenging, there are strategies that can improve the outcome:

  • Be prepared. Preparing for a difficult conversation is always a good idea. Can you imagine a lawyer going into trial unprepared or a politician who hasn’t prepared talking points for a press conference? Take the time to prepare a written “cheat sheet” — talking points that will help you keep focused. This is particularly helpful if you anticipate a highly emotional response.
  • Identify your understanding of the problem. Clarify the issue for yourself and be prepared to address this in the conversation. Your idea of what the issue is and the person’s reality may be very different.

An objective of a first discussion, particularly about a complex or systemic problem, may be simply to come to an understanding of what the problem or issue really is. Using the “what the video camera would have captured” approach — versus emotional reactivity or hearsay comments — can be helpful.

  • Establish your intention. Define where you want to end up as a result of this conversation. What is at stake? What do you want for yourself, the person, your relationship and others the situation is affecting?
  • Anticipate discomfort. Have a plan for self-soothing as well as a de-escalation strategy if things get emotional.
  • For very difficult situations, get help. Find a colleague, mentor or outside resource to review, discuss and help you prepare for the discussion. An impartial third-party perspective may provide valuable insight and help you clarify and prepare. Role-play the anticipated conversation and get feedback — including about how your tone and body language are coming across.

Anticipating how the person may respond in this practice session (ask your partner to mimic how the person might act) may give you new approaches and coping ideas.

While in the difficult conversation:

  • Describe how the situation has affected you on an emotional level. Genuinely inquire about how the other person is feeling.
  • Demonstrate your concern for what you imagine it’s like to be in his or her shoes. Try to acknowledge and understand his or her position. This isn’t necessarily agreement; it’s understanding perceptions.
  • Use curiosity to help manage your anxiety and foster an open dialogue. Asking open-ended questions can help here: “What has this been like for you?” Authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen (Harvard Negotiation Project) write about the importance of shifting from a telling conversation to a learning conversation in their book “Difficult Conversations.” In other words, use inquiry versus blame.
  • Identify how you have contributed to the situation.
  • Get clarity and agreement about what changes must take place. While lessons of the past are important, what does the future solution look like?

Indicate what you can or are willing to change. Make clear what you want and need. Clarify agreements or commitments and define consequences for future behavior — both good and bad. These are key steps often missed by many managers.

  • Finally, document! It is important to provide a written record of issues and agreements, particularly for highly sensitive, personal or ongoing issues.

Managing in today’s dynamic workplace requires a broad base of leadership, communication and people skills. The ability to manage difficult conversations effectively is one of the many challenges required for successful leadership.

Done well, with planning and preparation, the end result can be very positive — on people, relationships and performance.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com