I was driving my daughter Katie when she was about six years old. Along the way — with a facial expression that communicated “I am very upset” — she exclaimed, “Why are you drinking that?”
It was true that in the afternoons, when I was feeling exhausted, I sometimes drank Coca-Cola. It would give me a much-needed boost to make it through the remainder of the day. It was hard juggling a career, three kids, and a busy household. I explained to Katie that although the sugared and caffeinated drink was not healthy, it was helpful so that I could drive safely. I felt guilty, but what else could I say?
I could tell that my answer didn’t win her over. Since Katie was my third child, and since I work with employees who are often unhappy, I admit that I was accustomed to giving unsatisfactory answers. I didn’t think much more about it.
A few days later, I brewed a cup of my favorite herbal tea, Bengal Spice, and savored the strong cinnamon aroma. I was looking forward to sipping it on the way to a client’s office. Before backing out of the driveway, I carefully placed my 16-ounce white thermal mug in the cup holder and put on my seat belt.
Katie, from the backseat, piped up, “Why did you bring that in the car?”
It was rather full indeed, and perhaps I had made a mistake in not taking time to find a lid. After all, it was likely that some of it would spill, but with 16 ounces I would still have plenty to drink. Plus the car was getting older, and it was nothing that a Clorox wipe couldn’t handle.
I told Katie that if it spilled, we had wipes and I would clean it up. In the meantime, I was enjoying the scent filling the car. Katie was not pleased with my response, and I was not pleased with her policing the condition of my car. She got out of the car and headed in to school with an attitude.
We didn’t even make it a few days more when I got in the car with an open can of seltzer. This time, Katie, on the verge of tears blurted, “Mom! Why do you keep drinking and driving?”
Finally, a light bulb went off. “Angel,” I said, “What have you been taught about drinking and driving?”
Katie shared with me that she had learned that drinking and driving causes accidents and lost lives. That was about all she knew as a six year old. I gave Katie a mini-lesson on alcohol and its effects. As you can imagine, we both felt great relief after our chat.
Clearly, Katie and I had been miscommunicating and upsetting one another for days. But it wasn’t just because Katie was a young child that the miscommunication occurred. Miscommunication happens in offices, in meetings, in cubicles, all day, every day.
Last week I was coaching a senior leader, Paul, in a government agency when he explained his version of a new department initiative. Paul saw it as a way to further develop his team, to challenge one of his star employees with a stretch assignment, and to uncover some personnel issues that were previously obscured. I left the meeting thinking it was a brilliant move for all concerned.
Within hours, I was working with the director, Sandy, whom the new initiative would impact most significantly. Sandy was furious! She was certain she was being “picked on” due to her lack of tenure with the agency and because she was an over-achiever. She felt that she was being given “the impossible team” to manage, and that her director did not want her to succeed because he hated women. She was headed straight to her EEO office to file a grievance, but luckily she ran into her friend Diane in the hall.
Diane truly was a good friend because after she validated Sandy’s feelings, she encouraged her to stop and think before she went to EEO. Diane encouraged Sandy to wait a few days and calm down and then go back and talk to Paul and share her feelings. Sandy did that and Paul was willing to put his own agenda aside and listen. After a couple of talks and brainstorming, the two decided that white papers coming from that office would have her name which would give her the recognition she deserved. It was a classic example of how communication, coupled with openness and brainstorming, can change perception.
Sometimes, employers and their employees have different intentions. Other times, it’s simple miscommunication. Usually, it’s a bit of both.
I can’t say that I am proud of the way I brushed off Katie and her concerns all those years ago. In our work groups and in our families, when we can see that someone is upset, it serves us and our organizations well to take the time to probe and hear, really hear, the other points of view.
Please take the time to share with me one of your examples of miscommunication, and with autumn upon us, treat yourself to a warm cup of aromatic tea.
My son Josh taught my daughter Katie about Luck Surface Area. It is a concept coined by Jason Roberts from techzinglive.com.
Katie gave this example of Luck Surface Area. Imagine that every person begins life with a dartboard and one dart. Some of the dartboards are the size of a pin head, while others are the size of a football field. The dart is their luck, the board is the luck surface area. The dart can only bring more good luck if hits the dartboard. They go through life making choices, and if those choices are appropriate for the situation, their dartboard enlarges and of course the chance of the dart hitting the dart board is greater. However the converse occurs when they make poor choices. When the person makes bad choices, the dartboard becomes so tiny that it seems like they are terribly unlucky and nothing good can ever happen for them.
I notice luck surface area with the employees I coach. Many of the employees I consult are continuously exhibiting behaviors that increase their luck surface area. They show up on time, they are generally positive, they share information, they seek and appreciate feedback. When these employees give critical feedback, they have solutions. They attack the problem, not the person. They meet their deadlines and when they can’t, which is rare, there really are extenuating circumstances. All of these positive behaviors increase their luck surface area at work.
What are you doing to increase your luck surface area?
When a man is outspoken and direct in the workplace he is often described as passionate or ambitious. Men in the workplace are not first judged in a personal way, first considering whether he is kind or friendly and second deciding if he is capable. Why then, are women so often judged this way?
Like it or not, gender bias remains a strong undertone. Men and women and are expected to act differently in the home, in the community and the place where it impacts the budget the most: in the workplace.
Too often – if a woman operates in a strong and decisive fashion, she is described as ‘emotional’, ‘aggressive’ or ‘irritable’ and is generally not well liked. On the flip side, if she is friendly to everyone, she is well-liked but studies also show that in this case she is typically viewed as less competent.
I am the first to say that working women shouldn’t have to make a choice between being viewed as either: ‘nice and incompetent’ or ‘competent and disliked’. And while it upsets me that women should be judged based on competence, not likeablity, I am not going to ignore the reality. While we are working toward change, we must understand, even if we do not embrace, today’s reality.
Think about this “likeability penalty” in your own workplace. Are the men and women judged and treated exactly the same? Are their skills measured without any consideration of their ‘likeability’?
Sheryl Sandburg’s, “Lean In” was the catalyst for this article.