When your boss asks you to do something that you feel is unethical, what do you do? If you spot two co-workers having an intimate lunch, what do you do? How do you handle telling a long-time employee that his job has been eliminated?
One of the biggest headaches any manager faces is dealing with "people" problems. As a trainer and a coach, I hear people say over and over, "If I didn't have to deal with the people, I'd love my job." Whether it is telling someone they must improve performance, or they cannot continue to meet privately with clients, sticky situations arise no matter where your work.
So many of us spend sleepless nights wondering what to say and how to say it-wondering if we should say it now or wait until another time, or wondering what will happen if we don't say it. The Say It Just Right model of communication gives you the tools you need to handle people problems professionally. In this article I will share five tips to manage sticky situations at work. These tips will start you on the path to say it just right.
• Don't take matters personally. When people problems arise, most of us think we did or said something that made them happen. We believe we are responsible for whatever is going on. It helps to remember that sticky situations occur all the time and have nothing to do with you or your leadership. What has to do with you is the way you respond to those situations. Recognize that people need someone to blame when they misbehave. Didn't we all do that as kids? Remember when your parents caught you doing something you shouldn't do? Didn't you point your finger at your brother or sister or best friend? It was never your fault. This is a natural defensive reaction. Do not take it personally. Listen and move forward.
• Treat people as adults (even if they act like kids). Sometimes as managers, we forget that we are dealing with adults. Adults make adult-like decisions. By that I mean they do not act without thinking. If someone decided to steal money from the till, they didn't just suddenly do it. They thought it out and acted knowing they may have to face consequences. That's what adults do. We do understand right from wrong.
If we treat the person like a child, we belittle them and take away their dignity. Instead, we must give them the benefit of the doubt and show a willingness to listen to their side of the story, no matter what they did. I had a client who was a psychiatrist. He had a trusted office manager. After he retired, he learned that this trusted office manager had stolen money from him. She skimmed off the uncollectable funds that could not be traced. My client was shocked. He felt betrayed. His office manager gave him many reasons for her behavior, including that she had a child who needed care she couldn't afford. This person didn't suddenly decide to steal money, she thought about it. She justified her behavior. My client listened to her side of the story and showed empathy. By doing that, he worked out a mutually acceptable solution. She paid him back every cent, and he agreed not to report her behavior to the authorities.
• Different people respond differently. In the book I talk a lot about the different personality styles we all run into. We cannot expect everyone to react to situations the same way. That's part of what makes management and leadership so challenging. If you apply my version of the Golden Rule: Do Unto Others as They Want Done Unto Them, and not the actual Golden Rule, which suggests people want done unto them what you want, you will have more success. Ask yourself what kind of person am I dealing with? What are their needs and wants?
• Genuinely listen. The most valuable gift you can give anyone is hearing what they have to say. That means even when you feel they have nothing to contribute, you must erase your judgment and listen. When you listen to the other person, you learn things you may have never known. People situations escalate when we make judgments without listening and understanding. Part of the way we communicate is to make assumptions. We are bombarded with so many stimuli, that we cannot process everything. Some people say, never assume anything. That's not possible. Your goal is to know when you've made assumptions. Listen with your full attention and see what happens.
• Recognize you might be a contributing factor. Taking responsibility for your actions leads to resolving problems. As a trained mediator, I challenged each party in a dispute to talk about what they would do to resolve the problem. What would they do to change their behavior? Even if you feel blameless, there's always something you can contribute to the resolution. Once you take responsibility for your role, the other person shows a greater willingness to recognize theirs.
• Don't corner people. Many sticky situations are embarrassing. People know they've done something they shouldn't, and they don't want to be caught. Even though you must confront people with their behavior, don't make them feel cornered. If they see no way out, no resolution, they fight back and the interaction escalates. When you show understanding and a willingness to listen, you demonstrate that you believe there is a way out. Even in the worst case scenarios, don't corner or challenge people to fight you.
The Say It Just Right model gives you many more tips and specific examples to manage sticky situations whether at work or at home. To become a powerful leader-one people respect-you must learn how to handle people problems. You can begin by not taking matters personally, treating people as adults, dealing with people on their terms, genuinely listening, recognizing that you might be a contributing factor, and never putting people in a corner.
Joan Curtis, EdD is founder of Total Communications Coaching where she specializes in helping smart, capable professionals move ahead in their careers by becoming skilled communicators. She has taught numerous workshops on presentation skills. She also provides personal coaching to empower people to be dynamic public speakers. She is the author of the newly released book, Managing Sticky Situations at Work: Communication Secrets for Success in the Workplace, learn more at http://www.managingstickysituationsatwork.com To learn more about all kinds of sticky situations, join the sticky situation website and you will receive a free introductory chapter to the book as well as a bonus white paper: Three Communication Secrets for Success in the Workplace.