Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Three Emails That Will Save Your Sanity: Here's Email # 1

Note: This is a follow-up to an earlier post, Diagnosing the Various Strains of Business Flu.  To read that post first, click here.  

"My new job is nonstop craziness!"

Elaine's* an intelligent,  level-headed, and accomplished professional.  It's been years since we were employed at the same company, but we keep in touch and meet up occasionally to trade stories about our latest workplace experiences.  

This time, Elaine had a desperate look in her eyes.  She was struggling at the small firm where she now worked.   What had looked so promising at first was now sheer pressure.  The executive team had the habit of dropping new assignments in her lap unexpectedly, and her workload was constantly expanding.  When her boss signed her up to attend meetings, she was often unsure why she was there. Goals and priorities were always shifting.  Rapid-fire verbal exchanges left her breathless and intimidated.  She had no idea what success was supposed to look like, or how she was supposed to get there.

What's the main cause of workplace misery?  

If I had to boil it down to one thing only, it would be: uncertainty.  

Think about it.  When the rules are constantly in flux -- when you're not sure about where you stand, or what's expected of you  -- it's pretty hard to focus on the task at hand. Instead of forging ahead confidently, you spend a lot of energy figuring out what you should do, then second-guessing your every action.  That's a terrible place to be -- and that's where Elaine found herself now. 

Where is the misery spot in your work life?  You probably have a few. Name one.  It could be:

  •  a project that's out of control 
  •  a process that's broken 
  •  a peer relationship that's dysfunctional 
I'm betting that if you really analyzed the situation -- if you kept asking, "Where is the real problem here?" -- you'd probably discover that lack of communication was at the heart of it.  

Poor communication happens when somebody's not effectively saying something they need to say. And this blog, Remarkable Messaging, has a lot to say about saying.  

 The Uncertainty Solution

I sized up the situation as she spoke, then I shared with Elaine my suspicion that plain old poor communication practices were to blame.  The power players in her company were sending confusing signals. Whether they were doing it on purpose, or whether they were oblivious and didn't know any better, the impact was the same: it came across as disorienting, and even disheartening.  

The truth is, there is an emotional outcome to poor communication.  Uncertainty is not just uncomfortable and unproductive.  It makes us feel off-balance and insecure.  It raises our anxiety level, and triggers anger and fear. Uncertainty feels like abuse.  That's what makes it so crazy-making.  Before we even understand what's going on, we are casting ourselves in the victim role: either suffering in mute anguish, or simmering in silent fury.   

Then I told Elaine the good news.  She could change the dynamic.  She didn't have to stay passive and surrender her self-esteem.  She didn't have to be aggressive and go on the warpath, either. She could sail above the emotional turmoil, and win without firing a shot.  She just had to do three things: stay attentive, be assertive, and use what I lovingly call The Three Emails That Will Save Your Sanity.  

Oh, yeah, those.  They're why you're reading this post, right?  I'll get to Email # 1 in a minute.  But first, I want to underscore the importance of the first two parts of the Uncertainty Solution:

  1. Stay attentive. For the Three Emails to work, you can't be late to the party.  You have to show up first, pay attention, and be a dynamic listener.  That means your radar is on full blast to follow every word and every nuance.  Hear every comment, and read every message.  Take notes.  Look up references.  Make the most of whatever communication comes your way, no matter how incomplete it is.  If you are a diligent and receptive listener, you will eliminate a lot of needless confusion and ensure that your Three Emails are only used as weapons of last resort.
  2. Be assertive.  Hendrie Weisinger, in his breakthrough book Emotional Intelligence At Work, defines assertiveness as "the ability to stand up for your rights, opinions, ideas, beliefs, and desires while at the same time respecting those of others."  Maintaining an assertive posture, instead of a passive one or an aggressive one, is key.  To neutralize the emotional fallout of poor communication, you must bypass those feelings of victimization, remain respectful, and treat the situation objectively. Bear in mind: it's not about whose ego is bigger, who threatens who, who's smarter, or even who's right.  It's ONLY about what needs to happen to get the job done.  To figure that out, you have just as much right to an explanation as anyone else... and no one can fault you for taking assertive steps to obtain one. 

So are you staying attentive, and being assertive?  OK -- NOW you're ready to pull out   Email # 1. It is, simply put, a tool for resolving communications gaps.  Its structure will help you do it calmly, cleanly, and casually, so that you can get the information you need while remaining immune to emotional turmoil.  

Email # 1: Just To Confirm

"Just to confirm..." is the way you begin every Email # 1.  It's the email you send after every hurried phone call, hectic meeting or hotel lobby conversation -- basically, any time you have a significant verbal interchange.   

The objective of the Just To Confirm email is a request to nail down what was decided, so that everyone can avoid errors and optimize the outcome.  It summarizes what was said and requests confirmation.

You may be saying at this point, "That's all?  That's the big miracle cure?"  Yes.  The cure for fuzzy communication is focused communication.  Moreover, using Just To Confirm emails will start you on the path to fixing the bigger problem that's usually been causing the insanity -- a company communications culture that allows, and possibly even encourages, information gaps.  

But back to the email itself.  Since it is battling fuzzy communication, its structure is important. Brevity is critical. You will want to organize your message well, then slash it down to the basics.  Above all, the tone is always professional, neutral and collaborative.

Want to try out the concept?  Here's a template to follow.  The bold-font bracketed words explain the intended purpose behind each element:  

Sample Just To Confirm Email

Hi Pat, [breezy salutation that sets an informal tone]

Just to confirm, in our conversation this morning regarding the pigpen, we determined the following: [header sentence that defines the topic and sets expectations]

  • The pigpen is broken.  Past pigpen repairs have proven to be partial only, perpetuating the problem. [define the issues]
  • The pigs are at risk of getting out again.  We're also at risk of violating the state's Pigpen Provision and paying a Pigpen Penalty. [define the risks]
  • Three loose pen panels need to be replaced. [define the need}
  • This needs to happen by the end of the day.  [define the deadline]
  • You'll call the panel people and schedule the replacement; I'll put the pigs in the penthouse this morning.  [action steps, with ownership -- now] 
  • You'll pass along the replacement price to Peter; Peter will prepare to pay the panel people. [action steps, with ownership -- future]
  • I'll ping you when the pigs are in the penthouse.  Also, I'm looping in Peter and Penny on this email so they know the plan; you'll report the progress to Pablo and Pasquale on the project call tomorrow. [communications plan]

Please let me know if you have any corrections or additions so I can note them before moving forward. [mutual accountability hook]

Thanks for your help as we plan for peak pig production. [closing paragraph that states a shared objective] 

-- Priscilla (from the Special Pigs Unit) [sender sign-off / role reinforcement as needed]

Your "Just To Confirm" emails may vary from the format above.  All of these elements aren't always needed. However, for complex issues, you very well may want to include every bullet point presented here.   

The Magic of Email # 1

A Just To Confirm email nails down decisions, prevents assumptions, and avoids misinterpretations.  Most importantly, it gives you an email trail to fall back on.  If your colleague goes rogue on everyone later on, and claims it was because you said to do x, not y, you can calmly pull out your Just To Confirm email to clear things up.   

Your Just To Confirm email makes it clear that everyone is being held accountable for the success of the project.  It's neutral, so it short-circuits turf wars and ego flare-ups.  It boils down the issue into small sound bites, so it's easy to understand. It's brief, so it's easy to respond to. 

Remember the misery spot you identified earlier?  Why not try out a Just To Confirm email this week to address its information gaps?  The next time you have a dialogue related to that particular topic, craft and send a Just To Confirm email. See if it helps you fill in the blanks and reduce the insanity.  If it does, leave a comment below to report your success!  

If you don't think your situation will be helped by this type of email, then watch for my next post which will showcase Email # 2 and Email # 3.  To be continued....

Till then, let me remind you once more: 

Don't be a passive victim of poor communication.  
Get the knowledge you need to succeed.

*I have changed Elaine's name in case her management team is reading this blog.  If you're a boss, ask yourself: might you have an Elaine or two in your organization?   If so, maybe you have to admit that your organization is communications-challenged. Good news: my favorite authority on organizational health, Pat Lencioni, has a book that is just for you.  It's called The Advantage.  Read it, and do it -- and the Elaines on your staff will never need to send you a Just To Confirm email! 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Diagnosing the Various Strains Of Business Flu

Watch out when a company talks about its "fast-paced business environment." That's often code for: "We're really toxic!" 

Corrosive corporate cultures have always existed, in big companies and small.  But they seem to have proliferated in the universal belt-tightening that started in 2008.  Add in the cynicism, hyper-competitiveness, and abandonment of traditional personal restraints that are hallmarks of today's society, and you've got the perfect Petri dish for producing sick companies. 

In response to this trend, another trend has surfaced: Corporate Values.  These are idealistic collections of terms such as Respect, Communication, and Initiative that are "adopted" by companies in their quest to stop the madness.  Yeah, how's that working for us?

Abstract concepts, however well presented,  do little to inoculate an organization against the rudeness, bullying and mayhem that occur all too naturally when companies plan poorly, train haphazardly, promote people who aren't ready, allow accountability gaps, and condone abusive management tactics.  

The result: I'm having more and more conversations with colleagues from all spheres of business about the toxicity they encounter at their jobs.  These are people from academia, big corporations, small businesses, and non-profits.  They all have seen the following  viruses take their toxic toll among their colleagues.

Are any of these five strains of Business Flu running rampant in your company?
  • Flash Mob Decision Making.  In this general malaise, the most noticeable symptom is lack of clarity.  Agenda-less meetings, hard-to-follow conference calls, and random hallway conversations are the primary communications platforms for reaching wobbly consensus and assigning next steps.  Everyone walks away just a little lost and confused, but too scared to admit it.  Time and brainpower are wasted as people try to puzzle things out on their own, often making wrong assumptions that could have been avoided with clearer communication. 
  • A Culture of Blame.  Forget root cause analysis. When things go wrong in this sick culture, people don't ask "What happened?" Instead, they demand, "Who let that happen?"  Feverish energy seems to be directed more toward accusing a person, not identifying and addressing the problem.  Ownership gets tossed around like a hot potato.  Since no one wants to be the fall guy, everyone becomes self-defense-oriented, not solution-oriented.  As a result, no foundation exists for collaborative teamwork -- which is often the key ingredient to resolving a systemic issue.  
  • Getting It Done (as opposed to Doing It Right).  "Aggressive" project deadlines (read: unrealistic) are usually at the heart of this toxic strain.  A so-called Required Date Of Completion is assigned before the scope of work involved in a project is truly determined. To meet the demands of the time crunch, quality is sacrificed, shortcuts are taken, and superficial solutions are implemented.   Once it's implemented, the people who actually have to carry out the project need to invent emergency workarounds to make it look like the project has succeeded. Deeper problems are carried over to the next generation of the business model again and again, until they simply become part of the landscape.
  • Silos and Turf Wars.  In this chronic strain of business flu, the company continually breaks out in a rash of angry, suspicious infighting.   Employees are not perceived as being all on one team.  Rather, they see themselves as divided into many teams. Players take sides depending on who they report to. In the phantom rule book of turf warfare, it's understood that departments will withhold information from each other and compete for resources instead of working together. Though never acknowledged openly, the whole organization's mission -- its foundation for being --  is infected by this polarizing process until it's eaten away by endless intrigue. Eventually, no one actually sees the big picture any more. The path back to restoring functional unity becomes lost in a labyrinth of secret info stashes and disconnected tunnels of mistrust.
  • Big Kahuna Worship. Sickness in this type of toxic culture wears a mask of loyalty -- and loyalty is always being questioned.  A narcissistic leader calls the shots.  As a result, everyone who wants to stay on her good side must routinely throw themselves, or each other, under the bus.  The focus becomes getting into, and staying within, the leader's inner circle of safety. Running the business changes from a constructive pursuit to a cosmetic pursuit. Instead of "you're rewarded if you figure out good ways to make progress," the standard becomes "you're rewarded if you figure out how to make the Chief's flawed vision of progress look good."  If any innovations have a different goal than that, they are met with ridicule, and/or viewed as challenges to authority.  The leader's blind spots and dogmatic style are passed down through the layers of management, resulting in deep, debilitating detachment in the lower ranks.
Any of these sound familiar?  The truth is, all of these trends went viral long ago.  They have infected virtually every human project since the Pyramids. They bubble up whenever there's a clash of ego, resources, or territory.  

The history of mankind is, to put it simply, good ideas thwarted by bad management.  And your workplace is just as prone as any other place of business to catch the latest mutation of our age-old bug. 

Your Purell Against the Plague

If your workplace suffers from one or more of these strains of viral vindictiveness, you can either drink the corporate Kool-Aid and become a carrier, or develop intentional strategies to protect yourself from all the toxicity. Like the use of hand sanitizer in a hospital ward, it takes continuous vigilance and constant application to keep healthy in the midst of all the germs.  But it is possible.

Your defense, however you craft it for your particular needs,  must work on three fronts:  

  • Keeping the vision  -- Defining your own identity apart from the madness, and consciously setting your own standards and boundaries to avoid infection.
  • Processing the emotion -- Developing ways to deflect personal offenses, short circuit the feelings of victimization, and remain objective.
  • Employing a practical action plan --  Going on the warpath with strategies that enable you to deliver impeccable performance, while you build bonds of trust within your toxic workplace.   

Personally, I have an approach to conquering corporate toxicity that works great for me. It incorporates all three of the above components. I call it Compassion-Based Communication.  I plan to write more about it in my next blog post, The Three Emails That Can Save Your Sanity, so watch for it!  In the meantime, leave a comment if you have another name for your own workplace's strain of the Business Flu -- or if you have a strategy that has helped you avoid getting infected.