Change-the Next Unknown

November 26th, 2012

As I sit in my office reflecting upon my 35 years of work for ISU Extension and Outreach and 5 years work in youth development before that, I wonder what my retirement will bring. I think about the change literature and I begin to identify with the seven dynamics of change that Ken Blanchard identified. I also think about the transition that this change will cause me to face and I am reminded of William Bridges’ work. I find that I am indeed faced with these aspects of change.

As I think about my last days before retirement, I realize that it is not what will happen next that I think about. Instead I think about what I am about to lose. I am reminded of what Bridges says about the difference in change and transition. It is not so much the change that is the concern, but the transition. As I come to a close in one element of my career, I have to face the fact that my world will no longer be the same. I can no longer get up in the morning and go through my routine with the expectation that I will have my job facing me. Oh, I still plan to work. That is not the part that concerns me. It is how I will do that work that is the concern. My world will be different because of the change.

I am faced with the first dynamic of change; people feel awkward, ill-at-ease, and self-conscious. I do feel awkward and self-conscious. How will I deal with this new world of unknowns? What will be my identity in this new world? I find I am already faced with describing myself as “former Extension person”.

And then I begin to realize the second dynamic; people will think first of what they have to give up. Every day for the last few weeks I have been thinking about these things. I know it sounds silly, but I will miss my parking permit for on campus parking. I will miss my office and even my e-mail. But, probably the most difficult for me will be the wonderful people and the great relationships I have developed over the years.

As I review Blanchard’s seven dynamics of change and bridges three stages of transition, I do experience the aloneness of this transition as I bring closure to the old and enter the unknown. Even though thousands of individuals experience retirement every day and my wife has also retired several months earlier, I still experience this sense of doing this by myself.

The fourth dynamic talks about being able to handling only so much change. I will continue to be conscious of this aspect so that I don’t overwhelm myself with more change than I can handle. The aspect of readiness is the fifth dynamic. And I can definitely say that I am ready for retirement. I have prepared for this for some time and when I finally made the decision it felt so right; just like when I got married.

The seventh dynamic speaks to the fact that people don’t feel they have enough resources to make the change. Well, I can clearly identify with this dynamic. I think about this every day. Even though I have gone over the finances many, many times, I still wonder. While I know that Blanchard was not only speaking to financial resource, this is clearly the aspect of resources that I have focused on lately.

Just writing about this change has me anticipating the neutral zone of the transition. Bridges describes the neutral zone as not knowing what to expect and needing to be able to experience the trial and error until I discover the new beginnings of my next adventure in life. While I intellectually know that this is part of what I will experience, it still causes some anxiety and even some identity conflict. Hopefully, I will enter this neutral zone with the openness and the support of many family and friends that I will find the new beginnings to be a wonder new adventure.

And then there is dynamic number seven; if all the pressure is removed for the change, then people will return to the old behaviors. I don’t know how many times I have said it would be so easy to just withdraw my retirement and continue with the status quo. But I know in my own mind and heart, this would not be the right thing to do. I need to make this change and enter my own transition to prepare me for my next wonderful adventure.

At this point I would normally say until next time, but not this time. This will be my last Blog with ISU Extension and Outreach. I have truly enjoyed writing these Blogs and hope others have found them helpful in some aspect of their life and career. And maybe in the near future there may be another next time.

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Explore Perception to Cause Change

November 12th, 2012

How do you make someone do what he or she should be doing? How do you get rid of a person who does not do the job? How do you motivate someone who doesn’t want to change? Why don’t employees do what they are supposed to do? These questions and several more like them were asked a lot during a workshop on what supervisors should know to be effective in their supervisory role. What do these questions tell us about the perception of a supervisor?

As I reflected on these questions, during the workshop and long after the workshop, I was struck by how focused people were on getting others to do what the supervisor thinks is the most important function of the employees’ jobs. I was very concerned about the focus being on “making others” conform to something; the tone being one of control and compliance. I caught myself wondering why these folks wanted to be supervisors in the first place. I wanted to “take charge” and “tell” these supervisors that they were focused on the wrong things. I wanted to tell them that what they should be focused on is not controlling others and forcing others to be compliant. Instead, they should be focused on creating an environment that encourages and empowers the employees to be the best employees they could be.

Then it hit me. I was responding with the same perception they were experiencing. I wanted to control the way these supervisors perceived the work environment and tell them to change their perceptions to a more positive approach. And who am I to tell someone the way they perceive the world is the right or wrong way?

As I thought more about the situation I realized how important the culture and the environment are in helping shape perception. If we want to change the perception of another, then we must start with our own perception of the situation. How do I view the process of change? Can I, through my power and authority, force others to change their behavior? Even if I am successful at getting the change I want, will it lead to a willingness on the part of the other person to change? Or will the forced change actually result in sabotage, resentment, and mistrust?

To bring about change in others requires an engagement of the other person in a process that challenges without commanding. As a leader, I need to ask the kinds of questions that help the other person reflect upon his or her own perception of the situation. Asking a person how she or he arrived at their perspective of the situation will be far more helpful than my telling that person his or her perception is wrong. I may even learn something about her or his perspective that I want to adopt as well. So being inquisitive at the same time I am sharing my own perspective may bring about a change that is needed; even if that change is not exactly as I think it should be.

So the next time you think an employee needs to change his or her behavior, perhaps you might start by trying to understand the employee’s perception of the situation. Ask some questions about why she or he behaves that way. Doing this may help you better understand his or her motivation. Then try to adjust the environment to meet the needs of the employee while helping the employee explore the desired change. To get behavior change we must first understand perception.

Until next time, explore your own perception of how to bring about behavior change and see if you can adjust the environment by engaging others in the change process.

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What Do People Expect of Leaders?

October 22nd, 2012

In a recent communications workshop I was facilitating, I heard two statements over and over again. They weren’t always stated exactly the same, but the intent was always the same. The first statement was about communications. Whenever I asked the workshop participants to identify the issue or issues involved in the situation we would be discussing, I heard many times that the problem was the inability to effectively communicate. And closely related to this sentiment was the second statement about the problem being a lack of leadership. It was very apparent that the participants had opinions and concerns about their supervisors’ leadership and communications abilities.

While I am of the opinion that the two issues, the inability to effectively communicate and the lack of leadership, are closely related, I was intrigued by the lack of leadership ability. I began to wonder how the group participants would identify “good” or effective leadership. From the discussion, I was able to conclude that the participants expect leaders to be able to communicate a clear direction for where the organization is headed and how their individual responsibilities or positions fit into that direction. There was also an expectation that leaders were present when needed, but not overwhelming (controlling) or micro-managing. With a clear understanding of where the organization is headed and how they could help the organization get there with their skills, they wanted the leadership to get out of the way and let them use their strengths to achieve success; or even to fail.

As I reflected on this workshop and the two comments, especially the leadership comment, I realized how often I hear these kinds of statements when working with individuals. It seems to me that the failure to communicate effectively and the failure to lead effectively are major issues within organizations today. Perhaps the success of the organization being relevant to its customer or client base is dependent upon these two issues?

If the literature is any indication of the relevance of these statements to organizational success, I am not the only one thinking about these issues. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books and articles written about the communication and leadership skills of people wanting to be effective organizational leaders today.

One such resource that I find very useful in my work is The Leadership Challenge by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. These authors have studied leadership extensively and been able to articulate well what it takes to be an effective leader and communicate effectively to those being lead. Their five practices of effective leadership (model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart) appear to be very close to the leadership expectations I heard from the workshop participants.

The Leadership Challenge also identifies ten commitments of effective leaders. These commitments, listed below, really identify behaviors that when practiced demonstrate the leaders’ true understanding of what it takes to be an effective leader. Those commitments include;

  1. 1. Clarifying values by finding your voice and affirming shared ideals
  2. 2. Setting examples by aligning actions with shared values
  3. 3. Envisioning the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities
  4. 4. Enlisting others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations
  5. 5. Searching for opportunities by seizing the initiative and looking outward
  6. 6. Experimenting and taking risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from experience
  7. 7. Fostering collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships
  8. 8. Strengthening others by increasing self-determination and developing competence
  9. 9. Recognizing contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence

10. Celebrating the values and victories by creating a spirit of community

As I study these practices and commitments I realize the significance of the relationship that leadership requires and with relationships come expectations. So, if I want to be an effective leader I better understand the expectations of those I will be leading and demonstrate actions that indicate that understanding. Until the next time, work at improving your leadership skills by practicing the commitments and becoming a better communicator.

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Building Trust the Authentic Way

October 8th, 2012

What does it take to be an effective leader?  This question was recently asked in a conversation with a small group of co-workers. The discussion that followed was very energetic and quite passionate at times. As the group wrapped-up their dialogue, the consensus was that trust was a critical element in effective leadership.

As I pondered that conclusion for several days, I thought to myself; well that seems to be a no brainer. Of course no one is going to follow someone they don’t trust, unless they just want to live constantly on guard. So I began to ask myself, and others in random conversations, just what trust is and how does one build trust as a leader.

I heard people talk about doing what you say you will do; being congruent. People said to build trust you had to be trustworthy. Others said you must be vulnerable and transparent in your actions. Some said you must be authentic and real in your interactions with others. It was this statement that caught my attention; being real or authentic. How do you know when someone is real or authentic? What does that look like in behavior?

All of this talk of trust caused me to return to an old favorite resource; Trust: A New Vision of Human Relationships for Business, Education, Family, and Personal Living by Jack Gibb. Jack Gibb was a pioneering psychologist and the originator of Trust-Level theory. He stated that “trust is the process of discovering”. In describing what he meant by this he mentions many of the same things I heard others mention about what it takes to build trust.

Being real or authentic is at the core of the process of discovery. Knowing and being who I am by tuning into my own uniqueness and being aware of my own essence is essential to trust-level theory. This means I need to be centered and accepting. So to build trust I must know myself and be trusting.

The second aspect of the process of discovering trust is to be open and be revealing of myself to others. Doing so is being vulnerable and transparent. Being vulnerable and letting others see me for who I am goes a long way toward building trust with others. When others see me being real and genuine, they tend to let down their barriers and become more open and revealing as well. So to build trust I need to be open and revealing of my true self, not worrying about whether my position will be correct or acceptable.

The third aspect of discovering trust involves becoming more of my authentic self. When I realize I can openly share who I am without fear of being accepted, there is little or no need to defend myself. As I create that internal level of trust, I am capable of sharing and being my real self. So to build trust I need to be exploring and accepting of myself and others for who they are; being authentic.

And the fourth aspect of discovering trust is the process of understanding that we are in it together. We know that we must interact with others in order to function in an interdependent community. This aspect requires the constant desire to learn and understand how to live and work together. I understand that I participate in life with others and by cooperating I can achieve my own desires while helping other achieve theirs as well. The key in this interdependent relationship is learning how to be myself while allowing others to be free to be who they are. So to build trust I need to transcend being alone and, therefore, be connected to others.

Again as I reflect upon the conversations about trust, it becomes very apparent that trust is not something to be taken lightly or that is easily created. However, it is something that is critical to relationships and easily destroyed. Is it any wonder that individuals find it difficult to trust others, to be real and authentic in all they attempt to do in life? Until next time, ask yourself what you can do to start working towards being authentic and building trusting relationships.

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Not Another Meeting!

October 1st, 2012

Have you ever been in a meeting where you wondered why the people had come together? Perhaps you attended with the assumption that the meeting was for the purpose of making a decision or decisions about a specific situation. Perhaps you believed that you would be able to provide information that would help the group make those decisions. However, after a few minutes into the meeting you not only wondered about the purpose of the meeting, you didn’t have a clue why you were asked to attend.

With over four decades of attending thousands of meetings, I’m convinced there are a few individuals who know how to conduct a meeting and then there are the rest of us. I am even further amazed at the number of meetings and the hours spent in those meetings that are not that productive. It would appear to me that if we wanted to improve productivity and better use of our time, both at work and outside of work, we would provide educational opportunities for people to gain the skills of conducting productive meetings.

I recall a time in my professional life when I was a part of a team of about 15-20 staff assigned to a specific project. This staff group (I hesitate to call them a team because they no way behaved like or resembled a team.) met every week for a three hour staff meeting. However, that staff meeting rarely started on time, had no stated purpose or agenda, had many side conversations, and usually ran over the designated time to end. It was the perfect example of how not to conduct a meeting.

As a participant in the group, I remember asking the group members if we could use a process to help with the chaotic interactions going on in the room. With several conversations going on at the same time, there was no way anyone could know what was being said, let alone listen to another person. I suggested we use a talking stick in the group. Most individuals did not know what that was or, if they had heard of it, how to use one. I gave them the instructions on how the person who held the talking stick was the only one who could be speaking at that time. The rest of us had to give our full attention to the individual with the talking stick. After some general comments about how silly this would be and that not one would follow the instructions, they gave it a try.

For the next two hours of the meeting, and for several meetings following, we used the talking stick to bring some order to our meetings. The group was amazed at how well it worked and how this small intervention impacted the interactions in the group. They commented on how they were beginning to understand what others in the group were doing on the project and how their own work could be enhanced by this knowledge. They were intrigued that meetings could actually result in some productive outcome other than taking time away from their individual work.

Unfortunately, introducing the talking stick did not resolve the multitude of other problems the group experienced and I was eventually assigned to another task and left the staff group. I took away from that experience how important it is to put some time and effort into planning and preparing for meetings. And I am convinced that providing people with some skills and opportunities to learn these skills would be fairly simple, as well as enhance the group’s productivity.

As I think about the basics of conducting effective meeting, I developed this list to be used as a guide.

  1. Prepare the room- The setting and how the room is arranged can make a significant impact. (In the staff group I just shared about, we always met in a small room that should have held 6-9 people and there was always 12-20 of us present.)
  2. Make introductions- At the first couple of meetings make certain everyone knows everyone else.
  3. Share the meeting purpose- Make certain people know the objectives and expectations for why there is a meeting.  Send an agenda ahead of time.
  4. Stay on time- Start when you say the meeting is going to start and end when you say you are going to end.
  5. Establish ground rules- Especially for on-going groups; develop some guidelines for how the group will do its work. This will especially help with side conversations and other problems that keep the group from focusing on the agenda.
  6. Summarize the decisions made- At the end of the meeting review the decisions make or assignments given to group members, and determine the next meeting date and agenda.

If you are frustrated with your meetings, try incorporating these ideas, at least a couple of them, in your next meeting and see the difference they will make in the quality of the meeting. Until next time, may your next meeting be more productive and interesting for you.

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Self-Awareness, Leadership, and Supervision

September 25th, 2012

This fall I started facilitating a course for individuals who are in leadership and /or supervisory roles. As a part of the course I intend to use some case studies for some practical application. So I asked the participants to provide me with some examples of issues or concerns that they have working with employees or co-workers. As I reviewed those examples, I am again reminded of how important people skills are to a leader and just how uncomfortable some leaders are with these skills.

As I read through the examples and the background the participants provided, I am reminded of the work of Daniel Goleman as he focused on emotional intelligence. I also thought about the work of James Kouzes and Barry Posner on leadership. The case study examples clearly indicate that the issues that cause significant concern for leaders and supervisors are the people relationship issues and not the subject matter or the content of the work itself. It is the human interactions in the process of building a productive work unit that is the focus of these participants.

As Goleman points out, at the heart of being an effective leader and supervisor is the concept of knowing oneself, of being self-aware. This concept comes into play when I interact with individuals who don’t seem to understand their own emotional and/or cognitive states. Some people seem to react to the emotions, unaware of how they feel and thus respond with whatever thought is running through their mind at the moment. Others seem to be aware of their emotions and how those emotions impact their thoughts. These individuals are conscious of how they are feeling and use these emotions to appropriately respond to the situation at hand.

This difference was clearly demonstrated to me when I was called by an individual and abruptly chastised for a misunderstanding. The individual was very angry at me for what was interpreted as a huge mistake having potential ramifications for the individual. The anger and potential embarrassment was clearly directing the comments at me. Unable to connect the emotions to the verbal comments, the individual left our conversation believing I am less than a competent professional and that I was properly put in my place.

About the same time I recall having a conversation with a very skilled leader who was also not totally happy with something going on in the organization. Unlike the first conversation, in this case we were able to openly discuss the situation by owning and sharing our emotions. By utilizing those emotions in the process we were able to recognize how two individuals can see things so differently and still work to a common understanding and solution to the situation.

As I prepare for the leadership course, I hope to be able to demonstrate the importance of knowing and understanding ourselves as humans and how both our emotional and cognitive selves are critical to being an effective and powerful leader and supervisor. In The Leadership Challenge, the authors clearly spell this out when they say exemplary leaders “model the way”. These leaders know that their behavior is more important than their position or title, or even their personality. Exemplary leaders know that what they say and do will have significant impact on the people with whom they work. Therefore, they are always aware of their emotions and share those emotions in a cognitive manner that leads to trust and respect. Respect for others and respect by others.

The next time you find yourself in a difficult situation pay attention to your emotions. Own those emotions and don’t let them own you. Connect with the others by sharing your emotions in a constructive and thoughtful manner. Be an emotionally intelligent leader and supervisor and see how difficult situations become more manageable.

Until next time, practice being aware, name your emotions, and observe how this awareness impacts your thoughts, comments, and behavior.

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Making the Core Values Come Alive

September 10th, 2012

In my last Blog I wrote about the four core values of facilitation and how they can assist a group in making more effective decisions. Following that Blog listing, I had a conversation with a colleague about how to keep the group on track while utilizing the values. The colleague’s experience has been that even when you start with good intentions and try to utilize the core values, at times some groups get side-tracked and never seem to get re-focused.

What’s a facilitator to do to get the group back on track? What are some actions a facilitator can take?

For me, this is where two more tools that Roger Schwarz shares in The Skilled Facilitator come in handy. The tools are “Group Ground Rules” and the “Diagnosis/Intervention Cycle”. The first tool, the Ground Rules includes the following:

  1. Test assumptions and inferences
  2. Share all relevant information
  3. Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean
  4. Explain your reasoning and intent
  5. Focus on interests, not positions
  6. Combine advocacy and inquiry
  7. Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements
  8. Discuss undiscussable issues
  9. Use a decision-making rule that generates the degree of commitment needed

These ground rules can help the facilitator refocus the group by providing options to explore. Perhaps the facilitator, having gotten agreement from the group members to use the ground rules, can reference one or more of the rules to draw attention to the fact that the group members are not on target with their interactions. For example, if a group member makes a comment about a situation that takes the group in a new and unrelated direction, the facilitator can ask questions about how the group member arrived at that assumption or made that inference. If the comment appears to be a personal bias, the facilitator may ask on what the group member based the comment.

In another example, the group may be avoiding a specific topic or issue by constantly making jokes or telling stories about similar or unrelated issues. The facilitator might ask the group what they are avoiding. Or the facilitator might share with the group the inference the facilitator is making about their avoidance of the undiscussable issue and check with the group for agreement or disagree with the inference.

The second tool, the Diagnosis/Intervention Cycle, may also be useful in redirecting an unfocused group. Using the tool starts with the facilitator observing the group behavior. Using the ground rules, the first tool, as guidance, the facilitator then infers meaning of that behavior. If the facilitator believes that behavior is significant to the group refocusing, then the facilitator decides when and how to intervene. The facilitator intervenes by first describing the behavior and checking with the group for different perspectives. The facilitator then shares his or her inference about the behavior with the group and again checks for different perspectives. The final step using this tool is to then help the group members decide how to change the behaviors that misdirects the group.

While I don’t claim using these tools is easy, I do believe they are productive with struggling groups. However, the facilitator must become very knowledgeable of the tools and practice using them over and over, whenever possible.

So the next time you experience a group going away from their intended purpose and not being productive, remember the tools of “Group Ground Rules” and the “Diagnosis/Intervention Cycle”. A more detailed review of the tools can be found in The Skilled Facilitator.

Until next time, continue to explore ways to help groups become more effective in their interactions and decision-making.

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Group Decisions and Core Values

August 27th, 2012

Listening to a recent discussion about a critical decision facing a group caused me to reflect upon the core values of facilitation that Roger Schwarz describes in his book, The Skilled Facilitator. As I heard comments from the individuals in the group discussion, I became aware of how much we as humans make decisions with lack of information or because we are coerced into siding with another person we like a lot or don’t want to go up against. I observed an individual who was wavering in the decision until another group member made it clear that those who saw things differently were not “playing with a full deck”. My observation left me believing that the final decision of the group was less than acceptable by everyone, even though everyone voiced an agreement.

Have you ever been a part of such a discussion? I know I have and I have not felt good about the discussions or my participation in them. I often leave those discussions wondering what I could have done, or should have done, to help the group make a better decision. This is where the core values of facilitation have been of great help to me. The core values have provided me with a foundation from which to make decisions about my actions.

The first core value is “valid Information”. The general sense of this value is that all participants have some information that is needed for the decision and all of that information relevant to the decision needs to be shared with the members of the group. As I listened to the discussion I heard individuals ask others questions that were answered with statements like; “I don’t care to share that information right now” or “I think you have all the information you need right now”. If people do not have all of the information they need to be able to independently determine the validity of that information, then this value is being violated. Having this value in our tool kit could enable us to ask the questions of others that would help them feel more comfortable in sharing the needed information.

The second core value is “free and informed choice”. Obviously if people do not have all the valid information needed for the decision, it is difficult to make an informed decision. Likewise, if people feel they need to make a certain decision in order to keep someone happy or to be accepted as one of the team, then the decision is not free. Hearing a member of the group make the innuendo that there was only one right decision to make was in clear violation of the value. Therefore, keeping the value of free and informed choice freely in mind can help the group know what information is valid and needed to make the decision.

The third core value is “internal commitment”. In order for the group members to be committed to the decision, it becomes crucial the first two core values are honored. If the decision is not made with valid information and/or there is no free choice, then it is very unlikely that the group members will have ownership and commitment to the decision. As I observed and heard from the members of the group I was observing, there was very little, if any, ownership to the final decision. While the group leader heard each member agree to the decision, the comments made by several of the group members as they left the meeting indicated no ownership, and therefore, no compliance or commitment to the decision. I left this observation wondering how long before the decision was either revisited by the group or sabotaged by the group members.

The fourth and final core value is “compassion”. To experience compassion in a group, members must be able to hear different perspectives and understand those perspectives before there is judgment about those perspectives. Each group member must care and have genuine concern for self and the other group members. The group members do not have to agree with the different perspectives. However, they do need to honor and work to understand those different perspectives.

Having these four core values as part of my understanding and my tool kit, has caused me to look at group conversations and decision making significantly different than in the past. I now have a foundation that helps me see where, when, and how a facilitator might decide to intervene in the group process. I often wonder how utilizing these core values might affect the human interactions in the world.

Until next time, think about how you could begin utilizing these four core values to make your group interactions more effective and productive in decision making.

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Relationships Cause (and Assist) with Distress in the Workplace

August 16th, 2012

Just watch or listen to the news and you definitely get a sense there is distress in the workplace. In my last posting, I listed one possible reason for why employees may be experiencing some job distress; role ambiguity. Today I want to share another possibility for some of the distress; role conflict. William L. White defines role conflict in his book The Incestuous Workplace as the experience of incongruous demands from two or more simultaneously held roles.

At first glance this seems pretty straightforward. If I report to two or more supervisors, there is always plenty of opportunity for role conflict. If my multiple supervisors don’t agree on what they are asking of me then it will obviously lead to me being conflicted about how to satisfy the multiple demands. Over the years I have personally experienced this type of role conflict a few times. As with the source of this conflict, the solution may appear simple. I just need to get the two or more supervisors to talk with each and agree on what they expect from me. However, appearance may not always be related to reality.

Situations that can really muddy the water might include any of the following;

  • perhaps the two supervisors don’t like each other, or
  • the employee thinks he or she is filling two half-time positions, but each supervisor expects far more than half-time for his or her portion of the position, or
  • the nature of the work for each supervisor is in direct opposition to the other, or
  • the political power between the two supervisors is such that the employee is caught in the middle, or
  • any host of other factors that leads to a conflict for the employee.

Dealing with any one of these can become very difficult for the employee, thus leading to distress in the workplace.

However, in addition to conflict caused by multiple supervisors, there is also the role conflict caused by multiple expectations even when there are not multiple supervisors. Working for the public definitely places an employee in the public eye with the employee being conscious of the public’s expectations all the time. Perhaps the public’s expectations of what needs to be accomplished do not align with the employee’s supervisor’s expectations. While the employee knows for certain what must be accomplished to maintain his or her job, the employee must also face the public every day in work settings and in non-work settings. The employee can experience the conflict simply by going to the grocery store and run into a member of the public who doesn’t like what is being done.

These two situations don’t even include the issue of job demands versus family demands. Anyone who works in a public job and has a family knows all too well the built in conflicts with these two roles. If there is existing distress in the family then there will be additional distress at work and vice versa.

With all this role conflict opportunity, is it any wonder employees are feeling distressed on the job? So how do we begin to alleviate some of this distress?

Well, one really healthy way to handle this job distress is with our relationships. That’s right the very thing that may be creating some of this distress can be a means for coping and alleviating it as well. Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence, indicates that the quality of our relationships makes a significant impact in our ability to handle distress. Are our relationship warm and connecting at an emotional level or are they superficial and emotional distance? Are they supportive and caring or filled with negativity? It may not be the number of acquaintances, but the level of the connection of those relationships we do have that matters most. In addition, the quality of our relationships is connected to our health; as would be expected if they can help alleviate the distress.

Until next time, take a look at your stress level and your relationships and ask yourself if you need to create a few more supportive connections in order to handle those conflicting expectations from those multiple supervisors or clientele.

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Job Distress and Mutual Learning

August 9th, 2012

I hear people expressing that they are feeling distressed in the workplace today. The reasons may be varied. However, there does seem to be a common thread with many of my discussions lately. I hear comments like the following; “I could handle my job and the stress better if I just knew the rules of the game” or “I thought I knew my job, but I keep getting subtle messages that I’m not doing it correctly” or “The only way I know what I’m supposed to be doing is when I do it wrong and someone lets me know”.

Comments like these cause me to think about a common job distress indicator; role ambiguity, which is defined by William L. White in The Incestuous Workplace as a worker’s inadequate knowledge of (1) role expectations, (2) task priorities, (3) preferred methods of task completion, (4) whom he or she is directly accountable to, and (5) rewards and punishments related to superior or inadequate performance. When there is a lot of role ambiguity within an organization, you can count on there being a lot of distress in the workforce. Role ambiguity within the organization can also be a signal that the organization is struggling with its sense of mission and its strategic goals, leading employees to uncertainty of their role in the organization.

So what does the “Mutual Learning Model” have to do with role ambiguity? Well first let me remind you of the “Mutual Learning Model” as described by Roger Schwarz in The Skilled Facilitator. This model is based on the core values of;

1. Valid information,

2. Free and informed choice,

3. Internal commitment and

4. Compassion.

The “Mutual Learning Model” uses these core values to develop strategies for dealing with conversations that may actually be a leading factor in role ambiguity. The strategies are;

  1. Test assumptions and inferences,
  2. Share all relevant information,
  3. Use specific examples, and agree on what important words mean,
  4. Explain your reasoning and intent,
  5. Focus on interests, not positions,
  6. Combine advocacy with inquiry,
  7. Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements,
  8. Discuss undiscussable issues, and
  9. Use a decision-making rule that generates the level of commitment needed.

If individuals are experiencing role ambiguity, perhaps operating out of the “Mutual Learning Model” could be a way of addressing this ambiguity. The employee and the supervisor could start by sharing all the relevant information known in order for the decisions to be informed and freely chosen. By sharing this information and freely making decisions with the information the employee is more likely to be committed to the organization and the job because they will have a better understanding of the role and the duties expected.

In the course of having this conversation, the supervisor and employee could utilize the strategies to avoid any ambiguity about what is expected or decided. If the employee is uncertain about what the supervisor is requesting, the employee is likely to make assumptions and infer the desired outcome. If these assumptions and inferences are not tested for accuracy, the end result may be that the employee fails to meet the supervisor’s expectations, thus adding to the confusion about the employee’s role.

A key factor in this conversation must be the supervisor’s willingness to be open and transparent about the desired outcome and provide any and all information that is relevant to the role. Without all of the relevant information, the employee cannot make a free and informed choice, leaving the employee to guess at what the supervisor is wanting.

During this conversation between the employee and the supervisor the other strategies can play a powerful role in helping alleviate the ambiguity experienced by the employee. Using specific examples always helps with clarity. Being open and transparent of your reasoning and intent and focusing on interests could go a long way to helping the employee and supervisor address the undiscussables.

Implementing these values and strategies to create a common understanding of the individual’s role and expectations could be a powerful force for eliminating role ambiguity and, therefore, job distress. Until next time, if you are experiencing job stress due to role ambiguity, consider what the “Mutual Learning Model” has to offer you as a tool for more job satisfaction.

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