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.


18 Responses to “Eliminating He Said, She Said”

  1. Shannon Libbert Says:

    Quint, thank you for sending this. Our organization recently rolled out new Standards of Behavior and this was included. I shared your blog with the Standards Team in hopes that they will use it to remind the rest of our organziation. Your personal stories and examples are helpful. Thanks for all that you do!


  2. Renee Hastings Says:

    You talk about not going up the chain of command to resolve conflicts with peers, but don’t you think this goes both ways? If (for example) the CNO or CEO has an issue with a manager, don’t you think they should go directly to that person and not ask the Director (middle man) to address the issue? I think this adds to the “gap” between upper administration and middle management.

  3. shareideas Says:

    Hello Quint,

    Have just finished reading your “HE SAID, SHE SAID” article. May I first commend you for thinking the way I have always thought things should be done and secondly, for sharing this with those in the know.
    I have a serious dilemma relating directly to this topic which I would like to share with you and perhaps have you offer me your opinion on the matter.
    I have been an R.N. for 36 years. I have a Bachelors’ Degree in psychology, I am certified in the field of OR nursing, and have recently completed a Masters’ certification in Clinical Education for the purpose of teaching and mentoring a new generation of nurses. I have also recently been suspended from my job by a VP who was overheard to say that “the nurses are a bunch of prepubescent complainers who could all go to Hell” and “this is not a Democracy”. I in turn made an untoward remark about this VP to some newly hired consultants that this VP needed to “take his head out of his ass” when I discovered that these newly hired consultants, perhaps our 6th such group,knew little of what they came to consult about. They had never worked in a hospital,let alone an OR, nor did they know anything about the process of the CSP, the department which they were hired to oversee. When I made this comment to them about the VP, I was immediately suspended by my director. While away on vacation I received a certified letter informing me that I was to be reassigned from my department of 21 years to another, totally unrelated to anything familiar and my shift would also be changed from 3 -12 hour shifts to 5- 8hr. shifts. After a two month stint in the newly assigned area the director of that department came to me and verbally told me that I was to go home and that the HR dept. would contact me. When I asked the reason she would not give an explanation. When I pressed her she said “a patient made a complaint about me”. I said “and you just called HR without speaking to me first? Why would you do a thing like that?” This director was well aware of the circumstances as to why I was reassigned and I told her at one point ‘that I was being set up to fail’. Which I know for a fact was true. That was 8 weeks ago and there has been no resolve. The hospital has not yet formally terminated me and has made two offers which serve only their purposes. I am 11 months from a 20 year pension and medical package. I have been a loyal and dedicated employee for 21 years at this Level 1 academic teaching center and because I made a comment about a VP I am being removed. His comments are not being addressed by anyone. At this point, I would like to move to resolving this by offering the OLIVE BRANCH and doing exactly what your article suggests by going directly to the person to have a conversation. I have always been one to rise above the conflict and have dialogue and let bygones be bygones.I am a person who embraces change and seeks resolutions to any problems.Always a patient advocate.
    The staff has heard that the director of nursing is receiving incentive bonuses for upholding practices which cite any nurse for the slightest infraction in the hope of removing the highly paid senior nursing staff. Should I extend myself by offering to have a direct conversation or should I just proceed with legal action and move on? This is very stressful and detrimental to my future career. I may leave the nursing profession completely. I am not one who stands still for the status quo nor for leaders who think control is the answer to a more productive employee. I have never allowed titles to come between myself and my patient care. I am a seasoned veteran in my field, knowledgeable, and resourceful and for any VP to disregard my knowledge and experience as prepubescent complaining is abominable to me. I have stood the test of time in this field and think leaders of this kind need to “take their heads out of their asses”.
    Look forward to your response.
    A dedicated nurse

  4. Nat'e Guyton Says:

    Thank you Quint this is right on target. In my career, I have learned this type of behavior is prevalent in community hopsital settings where the 90% of the employees have been there for 34 years. The employees feel do not deal with conflict well and often resort to this typ of behavior. This has become an accepted dysfuntion and new employees are forced to conform and/or leave. This has truly affected patient satisfaction, employee stafisfaction as well as our bottom line. How would you go about sustaining a change of behavior or culture centered around “he said, she said”?

  5. Kathy Forson Says:

    Quint, I read with interest this article on he said/she said. A year and 1/2 ago one of my managers and myself got certified as mediators. we developed a conflict policy in our departments that mirrors what your article states. we’ve had pretty good success and it’s helping to turn the culture around. with that said, we have a way to go yet, but I was glad to read your article. In addition, Joint Commission has issued a sentinel event alert on “disruptive behavior” that includes addressing conflict resolution and developing a code of conduct, among other things. the chances of conflict leading to patient errors in hospital settings is great when left unresolved. I plan to share your article in our organization and with my VP. thank you

  6. Christina Says:

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. However, I do believe that handling things this way requires all individuals to maintain a high level of maturity. I have had problems with other employees before, as all of us have, but it gets very irritating when you approach someone in an adultlike manner, and they react in quite the contrary. I do not want to make a scene in the middle of ER becuase someone else can not be mature enough to talk things over.

    In any case, the direct approach is the quickest approach to get things resolved. I think one just needs to be prepared in case the plan backfires, and decide at that point if the issue is important enough to bring to your superiors. Is it worth resolving? Or are you just being vindictive?

  7. shannon Says:

    This advise couldn’t have come at a better time for me. After reading this blog, I used the simple pharase “and what did she say when you shared you feelings with her?” with a coworker. The negative talk stopped spreading throughout the department and the two coworkers spoke privately without impacting the whole group. Thanks

  8. Beth Says:

    Re: He said, she said… Excellent commentary and helpful tips. When I managed a large department, we created a communication policy and procedure that outlined the principles of professional communication and the steps to conflict resolution. It was a tough sell iniitally, but a very effective tool in the end. Years later, staff members talked about how their increased communication skills at work translated into better communication at home.
    Here’s a current communication challenge: in a recent meeting (2 administrators, 2 physician leaders, 4 directors, 2 managers, and the regulatory coordinator) one of the physician leaders began challenging the regulatory standards. He got worked up and began loudly berating the coordinator. The coordinator attempted to reply, to deflect, and then to stop the barrage. The verbal attack continued. No one else challenged or stopped the physician. I was not at the meeting, but was consulted by the coordinator. The coordinator went back to the people involved to question the lack of response. Their comments ranged from “It wouldn’t do any good” to ” Yes, he was out of control, but he’s one of our best physicians” to “I’ll talk to him privately after he’s cooled off”. The physician would not talk with the coordinator about the issue. This is bigger than the “He said, She said”. It speaks to Liz J’s “what starts in public, stops in public”… and more. I am open to suggestions about how to help the coordinator – and how to stop this destructive behavior.
    Thank you.

  9. Janice B Campbell Says:

    I just want to say thank you. I have said this for so long. To know some one else actually practice this also is great. Several weeks ago, I informed my staff of this very practice. It really does work. Some say this fuel the fire, but I disagree.
    I have employees that this actually made them see themselves in a different light. Again thanks.

  10. Dear Quint:

    This is a great message. The concept goes back at least 2000 years when Christians were admonished that if they had a problem with their brother, they should go to him in private. If the brother won’t listen, then take one or to others to meet with him. Only if all that fails, is one allowed to make the situation know to the church (organization in this case.)

    The thoughts on culture are so important. In design, especially design for safety, it is essential to understand the culture and to work with it, not against it, to make changes. Architects try to force people to work the way they designed the building rather than finding out how the people work, then designing a building which supports and enhances their efforts. This isn’t to say that a poor culture should be “honored” in design, but if there is a poor culture, the problem is greater than design and requires the talents, knowledge and wisdom of a much greater range of folks to make improvements.



  11. Kim Says:

    A friend forwarded this blog to me today. It came at the perfect time. I see myself in different scenarios here. I have printed this blog to help remind me to speak directly to “that” person when I am upset. Some days I wake up with the confidence to do this -but most of the time- I don’t.

  12. marcelle applewhaite Says:

    I believe in this idea. As a mature baby boomer, it just makes the most sense. For my gen Y staff ( about 80% of my current nursing unit)they would rather speak behind the persons back. When I have presented this approach, they say that it is the leaders responsibility and they do not see why thay should confront it. They just do not possess the skills necessary to have these crucial conversations. At a retreat on employee opinion, they admitteed, they do not know how.
    Also as a leader, how should I handle knowledge of behviors that is unacceptable, and the person involved, asked that I not follow up. She thought she handled it. This was a conversation with a low performer, who manipulates staff and puts up barriers. I feel that I need her to know that I know what she is doing, but also want to build trust with a brand new employee.

  13. Denise Says:

    All that you stated is good. This only works in relation to peronality types of problems. However, when a supervisor refuses to address performance issues relying instead on staff to handle it through this kind of system, I have believe it is being irresponsible. Performance issues have to be handled by someone with authority.

  14. David Lowry Says:

    Thank you for a very timely blog. Interestingly, I have just moved within my department into a new position. At the same time they employeed an additional RN. The sitiuation reflect much of what is in your blog. The new employee and I get along very well, and are considered ” Aggressive” in search of excellence in clinical documentation of our Doctors.

    However, our peer, finds this uncomfortable, indeed in many ways it appears they are trying to undermine, what has now become a very successful program with our CMI increasing by a significant amoumt. My peer clearly has issues with communication, does indeed go up the ” Food Chain”, does not converse their feeling, appears to have some sort of self gratification for demining, and or is simply very insecure, and simply does not have the skills to communcate effectively.

    I suspect that many individuals who have been with an organization for 20 years plus may fall into this trap. As former teacher, and psychiatric nurse, I love the work of Howard Gardner and the concept of multiple intelligence, I love to actively engage the Dotor on the floor and seek what it is they are ultimately thinking of in terms of a final diagnosis, to pose them questions regarding their tests and notes.

    It is this active engagement which enable us to proceed forward. However, their are many who still fel they are “Hand Maidens”, those days HAVE gone. I really enjoy talking with the post graduate medical students. This is the way forward. Sorry for detracting from the original point, just so much to say

  15. brenda neese Says:

    working together as a team saids it all.

  16. Tom Says:

    I have an employee that is constantly comming to me and pointing out other employee’s that are not doing thier Job. This Employee goes above and beyond and is a High proformer.I Think she just wants the other employees to work at her standard.
    Question : is this a situation where I would have the employee confront her peer ?
    also if this is , would letting this employee read this Article help them ?

  17. joleen sitko Says:

    I have a question after reading your “he said, she said” blog. How do you suggest handling a conflict with a co-worker who has a difficult personality and you work with everyday? For example, if you confronted this person it would be very hard for them to see your point of view and/or hard for them to address the problem and then let it go. It could make working with this person very uncomfortable. What if any suggestions do you have for this problem?

  18. To Whom It May Concern:

    I have read your article on the above titled and found this to be very interesting. I think if all employees follow this pattern and go directly to the individual it helps a lot.

    Thanks for sharing this on Synapse for us.
    Veronica Arnold

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