My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
Thank God it's Thursday because I am already burnt out from the first three days of this week. It has been an inordinately stressful week for multiple reasons, one of which I will talk about today.
It's not the lab. Lab work is like heaven for me. I love escaping to the bench, avoiding human contact, and focusing on how to get something puzzling to work.
It's not the next looming product launch, although it does have my stomach in knots and feels a little like a 800 lb gorilla on my back. I am still 75% sure we'll finish on time.
What’s really causing me mad stress this week is managing people. I can see why experience in managing people is so critical to employers. Because it is tough and every problem situation is unique so there is no way to train for this. You just have to learn through doing and then figure out what you could have done better after.
It all started with an email. Doesn't it always start with email? Email is so tricky, you know. Intentions and tone can be misinterpreted through email and this happens on both sides. When you send an email to someone, you have no idea what their day was like. They might be having the worst day ever and even the slightest comment may be perceived antagonistically. Even dealing with people you know and work with every day, you may joke around with someone a certain way and then on that one bad day, your comment gets take the wrong way, and all hell breaks loose.
The chain reaction this week started with person X being stressed out and sending a not too well written, slightly angry email to person Y. Person Y, being good-natured, didn't notice the anger in the message, and in fact, forwarded it to person Z thinking it would helpful. Here is where the shit hit the fan. Person Z of course didn’t like what they read and as one would expect, freaked out on person Y.
How does it affect me? I had to clean up this mess.
This is not the kind of day I want to have. This is not how I like to spend my time. What is my lesson in all of this?
1. First, think to yourself, “maybe this person is having a bad day.” Because maybe they just got the worst news of their life. Maybe their boss just ripped them apart. The point is that the anger might not be at you. It is at someone or something else but you were the unintended target.
2. OK, now that you’ve gotten over the idea that it was personal, write a response. But do not send it. Just write it. After you are finished, let it sit. It may be an hour or it may be 24 hrs. But let it sit for a while.
3. Go back and read what you wrote. Was it emotional? Was it defensive? Was it reactionary? Now re-write the message again but take out the emotion and the reaction. It’s not personal so don’t get emotional. Deal only with facts and the problem. Do not focus on the person’s attitude or personal remarks.
4. Good. Now let it sit some more. Were you still angry when you were editing it? Then let it incubate a while longer. Re-read it again. Make sure that it is professional, that the content represents you and the type of person you want to project to others. Make sure that nothing you wrote can get you into trouble.
5. Last, fill in the to: line. Make sure you’ve got the right name on there. If people were CCed on the offending email, I would CC them as well. Or, you may want to CC your boss if they were not on the original email, so they can see how professional you handling the situation.
6. Double check the names and make sure they are right. Now send the email.
I just want to reiterate again that if the person is actually in your building or lab, it is best to sit down with them face to face instead of using email. Just deal with it head on. It may feel nerve wracking in the moment to have to confront someone, but you will find that very quickly a person will apologize for the behavior. There is no need to point out that they were unprofessional (or whatever words you would normally use- immature, condescending, idiot, etc.), because that is focusing on the person and not the problem. When you approach a situation by dealing with facts and not with emotions, you can think clearly, you don’t get rattled by the person trying to derail a conversation with emotion, or deflect from the real problem, and you stay professional.
Every person you interact with handles stress and confrontation differently. The approach you take for guiding or correcting one person will not work for everyone else. But, when you deal with facts and focus on how to solve a problem and not how people acted, you take away the balancing act of trying to manage multiple personalities at once.
How about you? How do you handle difficult employees or co-workers (serious answers only please!- thanks GR:-).
If anyone has any other approaches to managing people for conflict resolution, I’d love to hear what works for you.
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A former boss at a hedge fund subscribed to the notion that if you don't want to say something to someone's face, then you shouldn't say it to other people, put it into letters, memos, emails or say it during a telephone conversation. He defused a lot of tense situations (they were all day traders) by sitting down with someone. His maxims were:
Never hold a meeting to discuss a situation with a desk, or even coffee/conference table between you, because that won't help put someone at ease. It also just makes you look overbearing.
Never sit on a couch with the individuals in question. Always use individual chairs. A couch can make someone feel you're crowding into their space and they'll go defensive.
Get to the point. And leave it on point. Don't attempt any small talk, someone who takes a more lighthearted approach to life will think you're not that serious and someone who's more serious will think you're not taking them seriously.
Meet with the parties as soon as possible face to face. If the situation happens between different offices, make every attempt at a face to face if reasonable (you don't have to get on a plane).
Do not try to resolve anything over the phone (unless the other party is on the other side of the country/continent/planet).
Do not summon them to your office with a third party or phone call. Find them. Ask to talk to them in their office, if applicable, or in the nearest conference room. Your office will just intimidate the crap out of people.
He was also really good at taking an interest in what the people who worked for him were into. Whether it was sincere or not, I have no clue. But, being able to talk to Person A about NASCAR and Person B about Post-Modernism Art meant that we all trusted him. Made it easier to head off a particular situation before it came up. I still swear he kept dossiers on us. Probably still has one since I left (worked in restaurants again, then med school. Still likes punching people in the face if choking them is out of the question).
Re: Cc'ing your boss. I use Bcc for this. I feel that if I Cc our boss in the email exchange (and they were not in their previously) the email recipient will think I'm trying to get them in trouble and/or rat them out. While that's not my intention, I can see how it may be perceived in that way, so I blind carbon copy them in. Of course, I'll then call my boss up and let them know that they were BLIND Cc'd in, so they don't go and "Reply All" and that while it'll probably never amount to anything, I'm merely giving them a "heads up" to keep them in the loop.
Thanks Jay- these tips are all really helpful. I especially do not like small talk when I need to talk to someone about something serious. There is already tension in the air so just get to the point.
Also- the second to last- talking to them in their office, is a good one. With this particular person, I did that this time and I think it definitely made a difference to put them at ease.
TJ- yes- you could blind CC. It depends on who is the aggressor, I think. I am thinking, let's say you are a grad student or a technician and someone above you is taking out some anger on you unfairly. I think if the person feels they need to have the support of their boss- like they are getting pushed around, I would be upfront and CC the boss. Because you can't talk to other people's employees any way you want.
I personally would rather know who was receiving an email vs. blind CC. Because then you don't know who else saw it so you cannot explain the situation rationally to all the people involved. When you reply, that person won't be on it. Sometimes full transparency of who is receiving communication is better.
And sometimes the blind CC is just fine, such as when you have everything under control, but want to keep people aware who need to know. Like if it is a customer who is over-reacting and I am taking care of it, but I want my boss to see my reply, I would blind CC.
I only use B'CC for when I'm not sure the person I'm CC'ing wants their email address shared. To be honest, it sounds like a total dick move to B'CC a boss that way.
There are many times when BCC is ok, and I bet people use it a lot more than you realize.
It's one thing to BCC someone else's boss, but your own boss isn't a dick move. Like when I want the boss person to know everything is handled without having to make the other person more agitated than they are.
*yawn* Of course you would becca. I suppose I could further clarify such situations, but why waste my breath. You'll simply find something to be contrary over anyways. I can think of a whole slew of situations where I need to be the one to handle a situation (since I am the supervisor after all, and it's my god damn lab) but might want to give HR or the Director a heads up in case things eventually need to get pushed up the chain of command. I suppose I could not be a "dick" and simply walk into their offices and inform them of the situation, but damn, seems easier to BCC them in on my handling of the email exchange.
Actually, I'm with becca regarding BCC. There are very, very few instances in which BCC would be acceptable. To be honest, I'm having trouble thinking of any... I don't like BCC.
never, ever, send an email when you are angry
This. And as a corollary - never, ever, put something in an email that you don't want recorded for all eternity. Yes, folks, email is forever. It doesn't matter that you've deleted it, it's stored somewhere.
Great post Jade.
Saying you "don't like BCC" and saying that there are no instances where BCC is acceptable are two different things. There are a number of instances and/or reasons to use BCC which fall under proper email ethics and etiquette (whether you can think of them or not).
BCC definitely has its place. I use it all of the time for mailing lists. I don't want everyone knowing who I'm sending spam e-mails to.
BCC is acceptable and not douchebaggy if used in the right situations. TJ and Jade have already mentioned a few instances of proper use.
Thanks Odyssey, good addition too about email being forever. It is easy to forget.
We had a guy where I worked at before do an email blast (marketing term) to over 3,000 email addresses to notify them of some changes in stuff and accidentally entered the addresses into the CC field instead of BCC. It caused a fucking nightmare. Private email addresses were revealed, assholes hit reply all, and then asshole hit reply all to tell other assholes to stop hitting reply all. It was a clusterfuck.
GR- it seems like you have to deal with a lot of difficult labmates and new students. What's your advice when you need to correct them?
I dunno. If I were emailing you, and I wanted to let your boss know about the situation, I would just CC them and possibly address the email to both of you.
If I didn't want to 'get you in trouble' or 'rat you out'- I'd state that. Maybe I'd note that I was sure you could handle it, but it was just an FYI for the boss, or I'd give the reason I was including your boss (e.g. there was knowledge your boss would have that would help get the situation resolved).
And if I did want to get you in trouble or rat you out- I'd state that. I'd say I didn't know if you were going to handle it the way I wanted you to and I thought your boss should be aware of it because I thought it was a problem.
Are there uses for B'CC? Oh god yes. Those clusterfuck email SNAFUs... *shudder*. But are there uses for B'CCing someone else's boss that are not better served by CC? Maybe. I'm just not seeing them.
Okay Jade, I know I promised to respond when I was sober, but I'm a derelict blogg buddy but here we go anyways. Honestly when I deal with folks that I have issues with I usually ask to speak to them on their turf but usually the conversation happens elsewhere but its always a neutral site. I won't bring you back to my bench to rip you a new one, its usually in the cold room or I ask to speak to you in a side room where we store extra equipment.
I'm pretty direct and don't beat around the bush, I usually start off with what I perceive to be going on or my perspective of why I'm not pleased with you. Then I'll ask if my perception of the situation is wrong so the person can explain themselves. I think you should always give folks a chance to explain their situation or give themselves enough rope to hang them for you, so you don't have to do it. Constant eye contact is a must, I want them to know that I respect them enough to pay attention to you. But also I have a little bit of an intense gaze so I can see through all of your bullshit, so be honest. This is the way ass-chewing sessions typically go down.
If I am concerned about a person or trying to figure out what the hell is going on or why they are in a funk, I let the initial conversation take place on their patch of grass. They usually feel more comfortable this way and will open up to me, but usually we go somewhere else to talk. Once we get the ball rolling, i'll ask the person to maybe take a walk with me so we can chat. Getting out of your miserable hellhole of a lab building is sometimes refreshing and gets people to see the forest for the trees.
Another thing I do whether I show you concern, praise, or a boot in the ass is to convey a sense of security that you can come and talk to me. I'm not going to bullshit you or blow you off. If you come to me with a sincere conversation waiting to happen, I'm going to drop everything and listen, or I'm going to make you pitch in and help out while you chat. I've had folks bemoan their work or love life to me, while they help me do an inordinate amount of minipreps or plate cells for colony formations assays.
Somehow this seems to work for me as I have technicians, grad students, postdocs, and even an occasional PI that will seek me out for counsel.
Listen, that's all I got. If you excuse this Johnny Walker Blue ain't gonna drink itself. Love Peace & Filthy Grease Yo!
TJ isn't talking about BCCing someone else's boss. He is talking about BCCing his own bosses, directors, or HR when something may potentially be passed on to them to keep them in the loop.
Also, when a company is keeping a record of misdeeds on an employee- essentially building a case for dismissal, HR will ask you to BCC them and the person's boss, so there is a time stamped record for their file of when you spoke to the person and what the complaint was. Unfortunately, this is quite common. I've been asked to provide this type of record on more than one occasion. This happens after several warnings and the person is not showing improvement.
Just another reason to never be unprofessional or insubordinate in an email.
I've managed a lot of folks over the years and the things that have stuck with me is that:
1. People want to feel like they are being validated. You can totally disagree with them, but as long as you make the effort to *TRY* to see their point of view and then explain yours, they will listen to you with an open mind. Shooting somone down right off the bat will get you nowhere, even if you know you will end up shooting them down in the long run.
2. If i am someone's superior, then down the line, it is my ass on the line if they screw up. If I see the headlights of an oncoming train, and I know something bad is going to happen I want my superiors in on it ASAP. If I can't get things back on track, I want the higher ups to know I'm aware the situation is a SNAFU and it wasn't my lack of supervision or oversight that got it there. This could sorta be looked at as 'tattling' but I look at it more as a CYA situation. I'm not taking the heat for another person's screw up.
3. You gotta be honest. Not telling someone how you really feel about their performance etc is not doing anyone good. They aren't trying to get better, and you are just getting irritated and it is building up. This is hard since it is so much easier to pretend things are okay, nobody wants to be the bad guy, but in the long term everyone is happier when they really know where they stand. You don't have to be a bitch about it, but you have got to tell the truth, even if you have to sweeten it up a little to make it palatable. Consider it 'tough love'. You are only doing it for their own good.
Thanks so much Lab Mom. This is great advice. I agree with everything you've said. I think your third point is especially good, because you may save someone from getting laid off or fired by telling them how to improve. So really it is doing them a favor by being honest, as difficult as it is.
How do I manage conflict situations with my coworkers? First I think they might have a bad day, problems at home, etc. I don't react simultaneously. I need to come down first and only then think on the way to talk to the person. To find a right words an moment to talk, without witnesses.