By Lorie Reichel-Howe
Founder, Conversations In The Workplace
If you work with people, it’s inevitable that you have felt the sting of cutting words, the stab of sarcasm and the sickening silence when a coworker is verbally attacked. When workplace word wars occur, people become casualties, relationships are strained, and morale plunges downward.
Unless people effectively and confidently respond to verbal outbursts, culture will erode, productivity will plummet, and attrition will skyrocket.
In my consulting work, I’ve observed that unaddressed behaviors become workplace norms. When hurtful behaviors are tolerated, people are dehumanized and verbal offenders multiply. On the flip side, organizations that prepare employees to effectively respond to workplace zingers, jabs and verbal bombs, establish a safe workplace culture.
Unfortunately, wanting to speak up when a verbal assault bomb is dropped doesn’t mean you know how to speak up, or even what to say so here are a few communication strategies you can implement. Instead of simply describing the strategies, I will demonstrate how to implement them in a workplace scenario where a frustrated employee, Jolene, blurts out a negative comment about the Help Desk department.
Upon submitting a request for support from Help Desk, Jolene was informed that, due to complications with the new system software installation, that there will be a two-day delay in receiving technical support. Angry at the delay, Jolene blurted out:“The Help Desk department should be renamed the Helpless Department.”
In a calm and firm manner, ask Jolene to share what she meant by “renaming the Help Desk Department to the Helpless Department.” In taking a curious approach, you invite reflection of the meaning of one’s words. Asking questions prevents you from accusing, lecturing or judging the actions of others.
Acknowledge the needs or concerns of the other person
Acknowledging someone’s concern is a great diffuser. People commonly breathe a sigh of relief when their concern is recognized. When we feel angry or hurt and believe someone has crossed a line, our human tendency is to become defensive. Acknowledging the other person’s challenge is not instinctive. Even so, learning to acknowledge instead of telling someone what you think of their outburst, can become a patterned response with repeated practice. While acknowledging is not a solution to the problem, it opens up a dialogue where a solution could be explored. Rest assured, acknowledging someone’s concerns doesn’t mean you approve of their behavior, it simply means you understand what motivated their behavior or outburst.
Communicate positive wants (for everyone involved)
When people hear that you desire a positive outcome or solution to their problem, they see you as an advocate, not an enemy. It’s assuring to know someone cares about you even when you’ve acted impulsively or spoken inappropriately. It only takes a few seconds to communicate to Jolene that you want her to obtain the technical support needed to complete her work. Share that you want Help Desk to successfully implement a new system upgrade that improves everyone’s working experience and that you want other departments to support Help Desk in their improvement efforts. Lastly, include your desire for a positive work environment for everyone where concerns and needs are respectfully communicated.
Bring awareness of the impact of words and actions
To help Jolene understand the impact of her words, tell her that when you hear her say that the Help Desk Department should be renamed the Helpless Department, it comes across as an attack on a team within the organization. Share that negative comments like these, instead of unifying the organization, separate and divide. It only takes one match to ignite a fire and once negativity spreads, it’s hard to stop.”
Ask questions to spark brainstorming a solution
Successful communicators empower others by asking them questions. They avoid directing or dictating what others can or should do. Ask Jolene if there are technical support resources other than Help Desk. This moves her from attacking a department to finding another resource for technical support.
Get a commitment
To ensure that negative comments are not made in the future, ask Jolene to commit to discussing her concerns in the future without attacking a team or individual. Documenting Jolene’s agreement is helpful in case of a repeated offense. It takes discernment to know if a reminder is adequate, if an apology is appropriate or if consequences should be imposed.
If the behavior continues
If the behavior is repeated, reference the earlier commitment and identify that you are now holding an accountability conversation to address a behavior pattern. Make it clear that this is not a first-time offense – this person has a history. Pattern behaviors erode trust because they cause you to question whether a person has the ability to uphold their commitments.
Create safe and positive workplaces
It’s not enough to inform people of workplace policies, people need to know what to do when policies are violated and when employees become causalities of a toxic culture. Organizations that develop a positive and safe workplace understand that telling or expecting people to address negative behavior is as helpful as a medical diagnosis without a recovery plan. These organizations invest in training all employees, managers and teams in effectively addressing harmful workplace zingers, jabs and verbal bombs.
Lorie Reichel Howe is founder of Conversations in the Workplace. She leverages over 20 years of expertise in communication and relationship management. She equips managers, teams and business professionals to have “safe conversations” – transformative dialogue that uncovers hidden workplace issues. Whether issues are challenging team dynamics, mismanaged expectations or good old-fashioned bad behavior, “safe conversations” foster greater innovation, inclusion and collaboration within organizations.