Archive for November, 2008

Eliminating He Said, She Said

November 6, 2008

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably interested in creating or sustaining a culture in your organization that gets results. If so, then here’s a simple question to ask yourself to see if you’re on track, “If an employee at my organization is upset with another employee, who do they tell?”

If the answer is HR, or their boss, or that person’s boss – actually, if it’s anything other than the employee they’re upset with – then your culture is at risk of being derailed.

I have learned that a key building block of a strong culture is for employees to address each other directly, especially when they are upset, frustrated, disappointed, etc. Of course, it’s equally important to have direct conversations that are positive, but those usually aren’t the problem. When the message is tough, all too often we ask someone else to carry it for us.

At my first meeting with the leaders of Baptist Hospital, I had a shredder at the front of the room. To make a point about the importance of talking to each other directly I fed the org chart into the shredder. Sometimes the org chart gets in the way of this basic human expectation that we talk directly with people when appropriate.

Instead of going directly to a person they’re upset with too often employees go to their boss. Then that boss talks to the other person’s boss, who then talks to the person the original person was upset with, who then is supposed to go to that original person to talk to them about the issue. That’s confusing even writing it now; imagine how much time that sucks out of an organization every day.

Of course I am not saying there’s anything wrong with organizational charts. They serve many useful purposes, particularly in ensuring that all employees are rounded on, for development of internal teams, for knowing which leaders to be managed up and who to send thank you notes to. But, they’re not guides for how communication should flow within an organization.

As another example, years ago I received a call from an IT manager of a Chicago hospital. She called to tell me that some of her peers, who were also managers, were upset. They were worried about the organization and themselves. I asked her, “Why do they come to you?” It turns out they came to her because they knew she would carry the message on their behalf – to me, and to their CEO if need be.

So why did she do this? Because she cared about these individuals. Her intentions were great. But this is called enabling behavior and actually does more harm than good. People can fall into this trap of helping others solve problems that they can and should solve themselves. The messenger feels better because they are doing something they believe helps, but in the long run no one benefits.

I suggested to this IT manager that she let them know she will not carry their message, but that she was willing to coach them on how to talk to the CEO. She took the advice and called me back a few days later to close the loop. She said the people were stunned, but she felt so much better. She said a weight had been lifted off of her.

One final story. When I was SVP at a Chicago-area hospital I was frustrated with another senior leader. I went to my boss, the CEO, to share my frustration with my peer (and his direct report). I stated my case and expected to hear some appreciation for sharing the story and then a commitment from my boss that he would talk to this other leader. Instead, he said, “What did she say when you shared your feelings with her?”

I was thinking inside, “She reports to you; you should talk with her! That’s hard!” Instead, I did something else that is also hard for me: I kept my mouth shut. He then told me to talk with her directly, and if there were still issues after this all three of us would meet.

That day I learned one of the best life lessons ever. I learned to talk directly, not hide behind an organizational chart. I also realized how healthy this is in an organization since it can profoundly reduce the type of passive-aggressive behavior that sucks the energy out of us.

We take this very seriously at Studer Group and work hard to practice what we coach. To guard against the behaviors mentioned above we ask all employees to sign a set of standards of behavior even before they interview with us that includes a section about directly resolving conflicts with peers.

Here are some recommendations:

  1. When there is an issue that should be addressed directly with someone, go directly to that person rather than “up the chain of command.”
  2. Exceptions for this are illegal or certain unethical behaviors, which should be handled according to organizational policy.
  3. Use “I” statements with the individual to indicate how you feel, why, and the impact on others. You can learn more about this method of conflict resolution by clicking here.
  4. If someone comes to you about issues they should take up directly with someone else, ask them, “Have you talked directly with this person?” If the answer is no, then encourage them to do so. Do not carry their message for them. Of course the same exceptions listed above still apply.
  5. If a person goes to others rather than addressing something directly with you, then you might not be as approachable as you should be. Ask that person what you need to do so that they feel more comfortable coming directly to you in the future.
  6. If you’re a leader, be sure to hold up the mirror before assuming you do this better than your reports. In fact, we find that leaders aren’t great with this either. It’s a foundational skill for leaders, and it can be honed.

Can this be uncomfortable? Yes, just like most behavior change is. But if you want to create a great organization you can’t allow this passive-aggressive behavior to continue. By not going to someone directly, one does not develop their own skills, time is sucked up that could be better spent elsewhere, and the culture you are trying to create or sustain is eroded.

The old way of communicating, where the org chart is used as a guide for who should talk with whom, only support the silo thinking that we need to work so hard to breakdown, since we know these communication challenges even affect the safety of the patients for whom we care. Going directly to people breaks down silos. People start acting like adults, carrying their own message and resolving their own conflicts. Conflicts are resolved quicker, relationships are strengthened and leaders spend less time arbitrating “he said, she said” conflicts.