Liz has a vision of pragmatic collaboration: people getting things done together in a real and humane way. Her goal is for people to do better and feel better at work so they and their organizations can accomplish more.
When your expectations get in the way, you may not notice what’s right in front of you.
There’s been enough research done about cognitive biases that by now we all know we have them, even if we don’t pay them much mind on a daily basis. In fact, the Cognitive Bias Codex — which is quite fascinating and worth taking a look at — details over 180 of these patterns.
Lost in Translation
I had my own funny experience of cognitive bias the other day. I was meeting with a colleague in her home office. She went to the kitchen to get something to drink, and came back with one of the reusable carbonating bottles from her sparkling water maker.
“You know how to read Hebrew, don’t you?” she asked, and handed me the bottle, which had mice type in a Hebrew font all around the bottom of the bottle. Apparently, these bottles are good for roughly three years from manufacture; the ones my colleague had bought must have been meant for the Israeli market. Hence, the Hebrew text at the bottom, and she wanted to check on the expiration date.
“I can decode it,” I said. “I can pronounce the words, but I probably can’t translate it.” I picked up the bottle a little nervously, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to identify which words referred to expiration. But as I slowly turned the bottle in my hands, scanning the Hebrew letters for words I recognized, I started laughing.
There at the end of the text were four distinct numerals, immediately recognizable as 2021 — in any language. “Oh! I see,” I told her. “The bottle is good till 2021.” Her eyes lit up at my ostensible skill — and then I pointed out the date, and she started laughing too.
What Obscures Our View
My colleague is as smart as a whip and as sharp as a tack, but as soon as she recognized the font as being in a language she didn’t know, she had given up trying to read it, even though she could have found the answer for herself. “Now that’s a blog!” she said.
We’re as likely to see what we expect to see as we are to see what’s actually there in front of us. That’s how we miss typos, for example. Or how we may not see the keys on the desk when we’re rushing around to leave. Or how we might not notice when a good performer messes up a little, although we notice every single mistake that gets made by a less successful employee.
There’s no fully foolproof solution — we have to wrestle with these biases all the time. All I can offer is the standard list of advice: be mindful and stay in the present moment; avoid multitasking; don’t just skim when you read; and get plenty of sleep to give all your senses the best shot at focus. And make sure you actually look at whatever it is you’re looking at! That’s a skill that’ll be reusable forever.
Clients often ask me how to deal with tricky interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Two of the most challenging situations occur when a leader hires a friend or even the friend of a friend, or when a leader and a subordinate start a social relationship and then experience a professional or personal falling-out.
Compensation and friendship are rarely a healthy combination. Financial and emotional commitments can get mixed up, and that doesn’t even take into account the effects of the leader-subordinate relationship on colleagues or other staff members. So if you’re considering hiring someone you know or if you realize that you’ve made a subordinate into a friend, keep these cautions in mind:
Friends are expected to have each other’s best interests at heart. But it’s extremely difficult for people who don’t have your power, influence, and access to see what your best interests might be. Even if they truly want to help you, it can never be an equal relationship.
We don’t want to hurt, inconvenience, or frustrate our friends. Or our subordinates, but sometimes our responsibilities require it, especially when critical feedback is necessary. This is particularly a problem if the subordinate is not a star performer. If meeting the business’s requirements conflicts with what’s comfortable or convenient for your friend, which one will get short shrift?
Friends talk about their friends to other people. This may not be helpful to you if you’re the boss. The rest of the staff could learn things that it might be better they didn’t know, like how you keep your home, the neurotic behavior of your relatives, the way you act when you’ve had a little too much to drink, or how you really feel about your boss and colleagues.
Friends are supposed to tell each other the truth. You can’t — and shouldn’t — share everything that’s going on at work with the people who work for you. So being friends with someone who works under you means always watching what you say and never separating fully from the burdens of your business.
Subordinates may base decisions and actions on whether you’re happy with them today. If they’re afraid of your reactions, they may not perform in ways their jobs actually require. If you’re feeling guilty or pressured about their dependent behavior, you may start thinking more about what they need than about what the business needs. Both responses are dangerous to the business.
When your friends don’t feel comfortable with how you handled something at work, they may not feel it’s their place to tell you. Over time, they may even withdraw from you emotionally, and eventually their distress could show up in their work. If they’ve historically been good performers, this can be a real problem for you, them, and the business.
Because you like them, you assume your subordinates do well in their jobs. But what if they don’t? Other colleagues won’t take the risk of ratting out the boss’s pals, so you may not hear when something’s actually wrong. Problematic aspects of subordinates’ functional performance, including the accuracy of their work or how they interact with others and deal with customers, could be happening for a long time before you ever learn about it yourself.
If subordinates’ performance declines, both of you could suffer. This is true even if everyone pretends there’s no problem. Subordinates may expect you to make the problem magically disappear, while you may wish they would magically disappear. Employees in this position are often reluctant to move on — what could be a safer, better situation than being friends with the boss? Even if you do the right thing for the business in the long run, including terminating your friend’s employment, it can be wrenching for all concerned.
Friends trust each other, so you may not bother to learn about the other side — or even the three other sides — of the stories the subordinate tells you about what’s going on in the workplace. You could even end up isolating yourself from other crucial employees if you lose confidence in them based on your friend’s feedback.
Perhaps, worst of all, you could end up drinking your own Kool Aid. It’s easy, as the leader, to fall into thinking too many wonderful things about yourself, based on the way subordinate friends appear to need you, look up to you, and compliment you. They may treat you as if you’re great because they need you to be that way, but if you start believing it, you can lose perspective and humility, as well as fall into making bad assessments or decisions.
How to Keep Things in Balance
If you’re in the middle of a friendship that feels compromised by an imbalance in power and influence, or a work relationship that’s turned too personal, consider focusing more closely on the work and what best serves it. Ghosting isn’t a good idea — after all, you still have to work with these people — but a bit of withdrawal may be necessary.
There’s a difference between being friendly and being friends. It’s appropriate to show care and concern without getting too personal or trying to be more than a good employer. Pay close attention to your interactions, provide clear direction for how to get work done, and foster collegial collaboration, because keeping the needs of the business or institution foremost is the trick.
When I interviewed a group of highly experienced technical employees at a client company last week, one of the things I asked them was what consistently made them nuts on the job. They told me about daily frustrations that ranged from software problems to the challenges of trying to do deep, creative thinking in the distracting open-office setup — all of which were straightforward, reasonable concerns.
And then one observably upbeat and seemingly unflappable fellow shook his head a little, and said he hated it when internal customers would ask, “Can’t you just…” and everyone in the room agreed. Vociferously.
The Customer Doesn’t Always Understand
Lots of knowledge-based, technically-skilled creative work is meant to fill a need that hasn’t been fully expressed yet, because it hasn’t been clearly or completely conceived. Customers often don’t understand what it takes to modify a design, even by tiny increments. A change that seems small to the customer who wants to “just see if that’s better” can take hours of intense concentration and aggravation, whether it’s part of web design, TV production, or new technical instrumentation.
Customer comments ranging from “I’ll know when I see it” to “No, you didn’t get what I meant” can cause creatives to question themselves. And creatives’ doubt and stress can become even more severe when customers sound as if the reason for their dissatisfaction is due to incomplete or inaccurate execution on the provider’s part.
There are many fields in which outputs are necessarily the result of collaboration. But some customers are demanding and act entitled, as if the creative partner is merely a delivery mechanism and the need for additional iterations is a trivial thing. That can make it feel harder than necessary to do the required work — and if the dynamic persists, it can trigger unnecessary resistance from beleaguered providers.
When one side of the collaboration doesn’t have personal experience or solid awareness of the other side’s roles, responsibilities, and rigors, they may assume it’s perfectly easy and “really no big deal” to make a change. Ironically, because of the human cognitive bias of fundamental attribution error, the very same people who are making the demands would probably feel resentful and put upon if the situation were reversed.
The Telling Nature of Language and Tone
During our discussion, the group made clear that what really upset them wasn’t so much the multiple requests as it was the way in which the requests were made, which suggested a lack of both respect and collegiality.
The language “Can’t you just…” implies that the request was a minor thing, and suggests that the provider is intentionally withholding support and being difficult. The tone that accompanies “Can’t you just…” conveys a kind of exhausted, resentful begging, as if the phrase would end with “…do it for me this one time?” or “…get off your high horse and take care of this thing I so desperately need?”
From what the group told me, it sounded almost as if the customers assumed the providers were being purposefully unhelpful and throwing up arbitrary roadblocks — quite insulting to people who are trying to be helpful! The group suggested that customers try using more respectful language, like “Would you please…” and “Is it possible…”
Those shifts in language could certainly help the situation, even though, as I reminded the group, the first line of defense in relationship is not, in fact, the language. It’s to ensure that the collaborators actually understand and have confidence in each other. One of the best approaches to making that happen is to recognize in a deep way what the other side experiences and needs.
After all, it’s possible that the customers are exerting pressure because they think they’re hearing something like “What do you want that for?” or “You don’t really need it done again” — whether in either language or tone.
When a dear colleague emailed me last July to ask if I’d consider speaking at TEDxBaylorSchool, I was terrified. Not of speaking, per se, but of the combination of requirements that characterize a TEDx: the big-enough idea; the delivery of a memorized talk while standing inside a red dot; and, maybe the scariest thing of all, the permanent capture on video.
The Gifts of the Struggle
The gist of the story is that I said yes, and I survived the ordeal — and here’s the proof if you’d like to see it: Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It. As I told my colleague, I was extremely grateful to have had the experience; in fact, despite my doubts and worries, and notwithstanding the many things that actually went wrong, I would be happy to do it again.
But I had to work through the equivalent of a rigorous on-the-job training. Here are the most significant takeaways. These three big lessons will help me tremendously if there’s a next time, and I hope they’ll be useful to you, too, whether you find yourself presenting from within TEDx’s red dot or not.
Lesson 1: I had to unlearn my usual habits and routines in order to commit the talk to memory.
Typically, to prepare a talk, I write a bunch of notes about how I want to present the topic. Then I write new notes, followed by even more notes, trying to teach myself everything I might want to say on the subject. The goal is to be able to pull up content that’s fresh and relevant to each audience’s specific needs based on the scaffold of an outline or PowerPoint. Truth is, I’ve always prided myself on never giving the same talk twice.
The last time I had to memorize anything was as a college freshman learning the first 24 lines of the prologue from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. Heaven only knows why that was easier! With this presentation, even though it was my own content, it took a couple of weeks before I began to retain any of what I was supposed to say.
I wrote out the talk one section at a time in longhand, over and over. Two rehearsals in front of small groups of friends showed me just how much of the script I hadn’t learned yet. So I cut everything else I could out of my schedule, stood on our porch day and night, and driven by fear, I said the thing out loud — with expression — a thousand times.
Solid memorization occurred only gradually: first a few sentences, then a couple of paragraphs, then whole sections. Drill, drill, drill. I couldn’t bear to practice at all if I thought anyone could hear me, not even my sympathetic husband or my supportive assistant. I had to be alone with plenty of space.
But that full memorization turned out to be absolutely crucial, particularly when my belief about how the “script” would appear on the “courtesy monitor” turned out to be completely inaccurate, and I had no prompts to rely on at all! If I had not had the entire talk down cold, the whole thing could have been a complete failure.
Lesson 2: I had to be willing to ask for the favor of help — and a remarkable number of friends came through.
As I struggled with the memorization, I knew the stakes were too high to rely only on my own instincts about how the talk was coming across, and this TEDx did not provide a speech coach. I needed feedback to figure out what was working and what wasn’t.
It was dreadfully uncomfortable to ask people to disrupt their busy schedules to come hear something that quite honestly wasn’t very good yet — but I knew it was necessary if I was going to deliver a decent product to an audience that had every right to expect it.
As soon as I reached out, the offers of support were immediate. Two different spaces with AV equipment materialized for the rehearsals, and two dozen people turned out across the two locations. Their feedback was encouraging, incisive, and really helped me clarify and tighten the talk. Four loyal souls actually asked to hear it twice!
My friends’ commitment to my success and true interest in what I had to say helped improve both the content of the talk and my level of confidence.
Lesson 3: Everything that went really wrong happened because I didn’t check.
I was committed to expressing my confidence in the production team, didn’t want to act like an anxious control freak, and was really overly optimistic — in other words, I was naïve. Trust is great, but it’s absolutely crucial to verify with a full tech rehearsal on the actual equipment in the actual premises!
The short version of the slip-ups: The headset mic hurt and pushed my glasses off-kilter; my text didn’t appear on the courtesy monitor as promised; instead of the black screen I wanted for the beginning and end of the talk, my first and last slides come up way too soon and way too late; and someone on the tech team assumed I didn’t have any slides, so I wasn’t given a remote and actually had to ask for it from the stage!
Luckily, we were able to edit out my request for the remote and my wait for it to arrive; you probably won’t even notice the spot in the video where it happened. (Side note: If you like tracking down these kinds of tech errors, watch my talk below and write to me when you find the spots where slides shouldn’t have been but were, and I’ll send you a prize.) Each of these bobbles could have been rectified if I’d been more assertive about making sure that everything was set up to work for me.
Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It | Liz Kislik | TEDxBaylorSchool - YouTube
The Upshot and the Upside View
I still prefer dialogue and audience participation to the stand-and-deliver model. And I prefer not to memorize — it’s such hard work! — or to ask for favors or special consideration. But, oh, am I ever thrilled to have had the experience, including the significant time I spent outside my comfort zone, and to have delivered on my commitment! And I have immense appreciation for everyone who spurred me on and helped me keep it together.
Bottom line? If all it takes to accomplish something new is being willing to work very hard in a focused and concentrated way, call on trusted colleagues for help, and check everything carefully to make sure it’s good enough, then I feel ready to take on the next challenge. Even if there are more big lessons to learn!
One of the most frequent concerns I encounter when I’m interviewing business people — regardless of whether they work on the frontlines or are members of boards of directors — is that they rarely hear any good news. People complain that they don’t find out whether initiatives have turned out well, and they certainly don’t receive enough personal praise. What they do hear plenty of, though, is what’s not working and when people are unhappy with them.
And what do people take from all those negatives? That they’re unsatisfactory, that their work isn’t up to snuff, or — worst of all — that they’re unworthy. And as bad as all of that is, they often have no idea how to make the situation better — and the feedback they get doesn’t help. The result? Resentment, confusion, and no improvement. Not the desired outcome at all.
The Dangers of Hypercritical Behavior
Brain science and cognitive research show that we tend to perceive negatives more quickly and more deeply, and that we hold on to them longer. Humanity started out all geared up to perceive the slightest rustle in the grass as danger in the form of a tiger or a snake. Today, many of us are permanently on alert for any danger signal, so we notice a lot more of what’s wrong than we do of what’s wonderful.
Perhaps worse, critical people are often perceived as smarter than supportive people, simply because they point out more things that are wrong, and often with great confidence. But these smart, confident, analytical people often don’t have the skills — or the inclination — to offer crucial explanations or create alternative approaches that would help others shift to more productive behaviors.
When people are too negative, they can end up damaging co-workers. So no matter what their functional expertise, these naysayers need to be coached actively or they can’t be considered organizational assets. In the meantime, you can try pairing a negative person with a more supportive colleague, or create a safety net of other employees who will repair whatever damage the negative folks create within their networks.
6 Steps to Coach for Improvement
What if you could create guidelines for constructive, forward-looking feedback? You could build something along the following lines:
Determine whether the issue is worth addressing. What’s the meaningful change you hope to accomplish? If it’s not meaningful and significant, save your energies for something else instead.
Reduce the possibility of inadvertent blaming by assessing the effects of current process, available resources or lack thereof, and clarity of structure or goal. Do these impacts explain what went wrong, or why someone did what they did? You shouldn’t take people off the hook for their responsibilities, but it’s crucial to identify what they can actually do to improve the situation from where they are right now, rather than creating false expectations based on optimal but nonexistent conditions. Acknowledge any of these external limitations in any coaching conversations you have.
Be on the lookout for any way you might have contributed to the problem yourself — and own up to it. None of us is perfect, and even if we’re not making mistakes right this minute, we’ve surely made them before. Recognizing your own responsibility will help you maintain humility while you’re pointing out someone else’s fault.
Keep the individual’s future success in mind so you can identify what will help them the most. When you focus on what’s best for someone else, it’s less likely that you’ll treat that person as mere collateral damage in your pursuit of a better outcome.
Scan the environment constantly for what is working well, and praise everyone who made a contribution.
Begin framing any specific coaching conversation by stating the necessary negative content clearly and briefly, and then move on to the positive. This way no one is waiting for additional shoes to drop. Be both concrete and reassuring so that recipients leave the conversation feeling that they know what to do and that you have confidence in their ability to do it.
Employees who are expert at spotting mistakes and problems and frequently take others to task for them often feel even more superior when it turns out they’re right. But truly making things better often requires experimentation, the investment of personal time and energy, and persistence. Following these guidelines will help you create an environment in which correction actually leads to improvement.
This holiday season I gave a small gift to a local supplier as a token thank you. It was clear from her immediate reaction that she’s not used to receiving client gifts.
She started out by protesting, “Oh you shouldn’t have done that!” Then she turned excessively grateful: “It was so wonderful of you to do this!” But suddenly she shifted into a negative mode about everything that was wrong with people and the way holidays are celebrated today: “No one appreciates anything anymore.” Ironically, that was exactly what I was expressing in both word and deed. “No one knows how to behave anymore. It’s not like it used to be.”
I couldn’t wait to get away. I had wanted to show my appreciation, be a good community member, maybe lift her spirits a bit. But the force of her response felt out of proportion, as if the floodgates had suddenly opened, and every negative thought she’d stored up over time came pouring out. It was as if she never got enough chance to share her concerns, and the slightest opening encouraged her to drop the whole load.
It’s easy to get caught in an awkward dance when it comes to giving and receiving appreciation — and it can become uncomfortable for both sides. Have you been the receiver or the giver in this type of interaction?
Relationship Can Be a Thankless Task
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of trying to recognize team members with praise, small gifts, bonuses, even raises and promotions, but been met with responses that look like crankiness, disappointment, or — even worse — disdain.
Maybe they just didn’t get what you’re trying to do for them, or how much effort you’d made. Whether you’re thinking of a home team or a work team, doesn’t it sometimes seem as if people want even more attention, support, or recognition than we can ever provide?
Or perhaps we’ve been the ingrates. Maybe when others were trying to smooth our path, show support, or help us do better, we’ve criticized them for their lack of skillfulness, rejected their gifts because we were occupied with something else, or taken the opportunity to vent about the last thing that bothered us — all without ever bothering to appreciate what they were trying to do.
If you don’t want to push people away inadvertently, try experiencing things from their point of view. Why would they be acknowledging your input except to show appreciation? Why would they be giving you a gift except to show that they care for you? Why would they be investing their time unless you and what you do matters to them?
And on the other side of the interaction, if people respond to your gifts or offers with less than enthusiasm, see if you can put yourself in their place: Whether at holiday time or not, are they suffering in some way that you don’t know? Did your good intention remind them of another time in their life that turned out badly? Have they been wishing so much to be understood that you unwittingly set off an avalanche of feelings that wasn’t really meant for you?
Give the Gift of Persevering
Try to focus on being gracious, generous, and open. You can always express gratitude: “Thank you for telling me that/offering that/your kind gesture/this sweet gift/trying to help.” And if you muffed your chance in the moment, you can always go back and convey appreciation, if not in person, then in a note sent via whatever mode is characteristic of your relationship.
You can always assume good intent — and look for what it might be. And you can always hold an optimistic frame of mind.
If you can stave off your own reactivity, and spend just another moment or two in a relaxed frame of mind, your ability to stay open and gracious may help the other person relax too. Over time, you might even create the opportunity to look for a deeper or more lasting relationship — even if it includes hearing some hard or negative things from time to time. In the moment, though, if you’re lucky, perhaps you can create even the slightest feeling of warmth and the briefest twinkle of connection — and then both of you can feel good. And that’s a real gift.
Do you know anyone who can’t wait for this year to end? I certainly do, and who can blame them? So many people have had enough of 2017 and its disruptions, from family and work troubles to political turmoil and natural disasters. Some of them are looking forward by making New Year’s resolutions or following the growing trend of designating a single “word for the year” as a way to express a desire or set an intention.
Resolutions can be self-defeating, though. The threat of not keeping them hangs over us at every moment — a single misstep could mean the battle is lost by February! And characterizing the entire year with a single word feels both too broad and too limiting to me. So let me suggest a different way to focus forward: Declare a theme.
A theme functions as an informing spirit for the year. It offers significant direction while providing enough flexibility to permit adjustments as necessary. A theme can infuse your life with consistency, focus, and purpose in the same way tea leaves infuse hot water.
It’s okay to choose more than one theme because you operate in more than one way in the world. Perhaps you’d benefit from a theme relating to self-care, or learning a new skill, or finally getting your house in order. You might also consider declaring a theme for your organization, your team, or a long-desired career accomplishment.
How to Pick and Work on Your Theme
You can work by yourself, with a dear friend, or with your entire work team, to choose a theme for 2018. These questions may help:
Will 2018 be a year of continuation for you, or a break from the past? In either case, what would you like to leave behind?
Is there a characteristic or truth that you’d like to manifest around your values or purpose?
Would you like your theme to be a verb describing your actions or a noun announcing your goal? For example, which feels better, a year of “Development for All” or a year of “Learning and Teaching”?
Be sure to frame the theme in positive language, rather than in terms of stopping something or giving something up. So instead of “No more struggles with X,” communicate accomplishing or adding something, like “Create amazing success with Y.” Then make a list of the activities that support the actualizing of your theme, and plan for experiments in these areas.
Keep the End in Mind
In one of my favorite books, The Art of Possibility, author Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and an amazing speaker (check out his very popular TED talk), details how he asks students to “give themselves an A” at the beginning of his class and assigns them a brief write-up in which they describe what made them worthy of their A. Not surprisingly, most students follow through and do wonderfully in the course.
Why not follow in Zander’s mode? Assume that 2018 will be the most wonderful year, and that you’ll rise to every occasion and take advantage of every shot the Universe gives you. To make that real, how would you need to behave starting January 1? What plans would you need to make right now?
Remember that you have the whole year to fulfill your theme. Don’t pressure yourself to accomplish everything all at once. You can take small steps, asking yourself: What’s next? What can I do each day? What shift could generate even more progress?
Periodically, create informal check-ins with yourself, a partner, or your team to assess what you’ve done in the last few days and what you’re aiming to do in the next few. Work reiteratively: “Here’s what I/we did in pursuit of or informed by our theme, and here’s what I’d/we’d like to work on next.” Keep looking back and thinking forward.
Practicing What I Preach
I’m also weighing themes for myself. I’m thinking about “Do What Makes a Difference” to ensure that I stay on track and only invest energy and resources where they’ll have impact. I’m also considering “Take care of yourself so you can take care of others” because life is complicated, and it’s hard to be both strong and flexible enough to be of service if you’re not managing yourself first.
Let me know if you’d like to share your theme — helping to get your 2018 in gear feels to me like something that has impact!
When should an organization realize that it’s not enough to keep stepping around a problem — and that it’s time to work through it and stop the excessive cost, disruption, and generally bad customer experience?
Wrong Way, Go Back
Here’s a personal example of bad customer service from last week: I arrived at Tucson International Airport, ready to return home after spending a satisfying, productive week with a wonderful client. I’m not a micro-packer so I had to check a bag, and for once, I decided to do it curbside. The fellow who helped me was so cheerful and lovely that after tipping him well I proceeded with my printed boarding pass to the TSA PreCheck line, feeling remarkably cheerful and lovely myself. (You can also read about my adventure signing up for TSA PreCheck.)
The Pre-Check line was long, but moving quickly. As I advanced, I noticed a young, confused-looking man squeezing his way back through the line from the TSA agent to the entry point. “Must not have TSA privileges,” I noted, a bit smugly. “Must have gotten on the wrong line.”
Or so I thought until I reached the TSA agent myself. When she tried to scan the bar code on my boarding pass, it wouldn’t register. She explained that the boarding passes printed curbside often don’t work, so I could either go get on the regular screening line or go print a new boarding pass at a kiosk located right outside the security area and then return to the PreCheck line.
She kindly tried the scan again, but still no luck. So, just like the young man before me, I had to make my way back through the PreCheck line, wondering if the people I was squeezing past might also be smugly assuming that I had gotten on the wrong line.
As I reprinted my boarding pass at one of three helpfully placed kiosks I realized that I couldn’t recall seeing kiosks located so far from ticketing and right outside security at any other airport. Their location suggested that the TSA agent — who had been so matter-of-fact about the problem and so clear about the remedy — wasn’t the only person aware of the problem.
Perhaps this was only a temporary solution, because it certainly didn’t appear that the airline, the baggage-handling service, and the TSA itself had taken the necessary steps to resolve the problem completely. Instead, they were relying on the equivalent of a customer rework.
Must the Customer Bear the Cost of a Customer Service Problem?
As I stood on the PreCheck line for the second time, several other people were sent back to reprint their boarding passes. For most passengers, this was a one-time event, including only minor inconvenience and some embarrassment, but it could also mean a crucial loss of time and possibly a missed flight.
So I started calculating: How many people get sent back, and how many passengers actually end up missing their flight because of it? And who, besides the passengers, absorbs the cost? The airline has installed three extra terminals for reprinting even though, ultimately, it might only be one curbside baggage station causing the problem. And the TSA may see some slight difference in their staffing needs, based on the number of customers who need to receive special instructions and to make a repeat visit through the line.
Do you have problems in your business that you’ve tried to fix by offloading the costs to your customers, rather than doing the investigation and coordination necessary to fix the problem?
Are you doing thoughtful exit interviews with all levels of departing employees? The exit interview is one of few concrete opportunities to learn what makes someone comfortable to work in your organization — or not — and to glean information you can use to improve management, leadership, process, and structure.
In many ways, an exit interview is the last service an employee can choose to do for an organization — it’s a gift of both time and candor. Businesses can get real value when departing employees are willing to share their truths — so long as the interviewers have the skill to learn more about both the departing employees and the conditions they worked under.
Conducting an Effective Exit Interview
Don’t ask the departing employee what would change their mind about leaving — unless you’re deeply committed to keeping them in the job, and you have the authority to deliver on whatever they request. And don’t just ask standard questions like why they’re leaving, why they took a new job, and what they liked and disliked about their job with your company; you may not uncover many insights that way.
Instead of “Why are you leaving?” try asking: “What made you decide to seek an opportunity with another organization?” This helps the employee not to become negative or defensive and lets them explain what they care about — not just what didn’t work for them. If they tell you they’re leaving for concrete reasons like “more money” or a “better title,” listen carefully beyond the answers. In particular, pay attention if they say they were seeking more growth, but didn’t find it. Why weren’t they able to grow? Were they not recognized sufficiently or not given enough learning experiences? Did their ideas go unheard? How much of the roadblock was their immediate boss, and how much was the organizational climate?
You can probe even more deeply with the following questions:
What makes the new opportunity/job/company better for you?Before you decided to look for a new job, did you actively investigate opportunities here, or the possibility of other changes that could have made it comfortable to stay? Listen for expectations of more engagement, excitement, advancement, and impact. What will they be able to do in the new job that they couldn’t have done with you?
Did you feel that you were getting support for your desired career trajectory? The answer to this question may help you learn about their experience of leadership styles and cultural norms, and whether their management is more geared toward the status quo than growth and change.
What did you like about the working environment in your department? What about when you were working cross-functionally with other groups? Listen for intra- and interdepartmental tensions, the strains or conflicts that can get in the way of someone doing their work or lead to the perception that they’re not able to have impact. If the only positive they give you is “I love the people,” it means that your firm’s structure or culture didn’t help them thrive or feel appreciated.
Did you get the feedback and direction you need to improve functional and technical skills? At higher levels, these skills should include such things as decision-making, collaboration, planning, strategizing, and execution. Listen for concerns or complaints about others’ competence, ability to collaborate, and loyalty.
Were you meeting your goals? Was goal-setting and accomplishment taken seriously by the departing employee, their leadership, the culture? Did they have a sense of autonomy? Was there clarity about their goals, and did their goals match back to the organization’s norms and purpose? Was there negativity about goals in their environment?
Was there a clear sense of direction? When there was conflict, was it about big things or small things?
There’s Always More
Be sure to leave enough time to ask: “What else do you want me to know?” — and listen carefully to the answer. Of course the import and impact of departing employees’ data will vary with their roles. Their individual views may or may not be consistent with what you hear from others. But the information they provide about both self and group perceptions can help you refocus as you work to improve your organization’s culture and strategy.
Most people like Thanksgiving for its relative lack of commercialism and its inclusivity. It’s all about food, friends, and family — an opportunity to be together in some semblance of comfort and caring. In many homes, the people gathered around the table talk about what they’re grateful for.
Now that the leftovers are almost gone, and you’re back to work, you can extend the holiday’s good feelings into your work week. Maybe not the food. But if you haven’t ever considered the things you might be grateful for at work, let me get you started:
Being able to provide valuable products or services to customers who appreciate them
Having a place to go where they actually count on you
Having something to do where you actually know what you’re doing
And maybe most of all, having good colleagues.
It’s All About Us
When I’m working with new client groups, I often ask them why they stay in their jobs, and what’s good about their workplace. Almost without fail, the answer is “the people.”
Even when you’re unhappy with your boss, or feel you’re not paid enough, or just not getting the corporate support you need to progress and be your best, you’ve got work friends and trusted colleagues around you. That includes everyone from the woman at the cash register in the cafeteria, the guy who delivers the mail, and the peers you commiserate with, to the exec who holds you to the highest standard.
Of course you feel connected to the people who give you new ideas, rally when the project is in the eleventh hour, or tell you when you’re doing something ineffective so you can fix it. They’re glad to see you every Monday and wish you a great weekend every Friday. They encourage you when you’re down and tell you how great you did when you did. They’re the ones who care whether you participate with them, too, the ones you have confidence in, who, as Gallup suggests, will stick by you “during times of stress and challenge.”
Thank Them for Being a Friend
Here’s the question: Have you told these important coworkers what they mean to you? Are they aware that they make a difference to your ability to get the job done, and to your sense of wellbeing? I’m sure they’d like to know.
So take them out for coffee, write a note, or just mention it as you’re gathering up your folders and laptops after a meeting. “I really appreciate the way I can count on you during these tough presentations.” “I’m so grateful we can work on these complicated problems together.” “Thank you for being there when I get concerned about how to proceed — it really makes a difference and gives me a little peace of mind.”
Not only can you bring a greater feeling of fulfillment into your work life by actually recognizing what’s good for you about the experience, but you can also bring some more fulfillment into the work life of others by telling them what they’ve contributed to your work and wellbeing. A virtuous cycle all around!
Onward and upward,
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