Above and Beyond Undercover Boss

Recently Calgary Transit Director Doug Morgan appeared on an episode of Undercover Boss Canada with a goal of giving Calgarians a behind-the-scenes look at the work of employees who make his organization tick and, according to Ruth Myles of the Calgary Herald, a chance to hear an uncensored take on the workplace from employees.

Working Statues

All too often in the workplace there is disconnect between the corner office and frontline workers, reinforced by everyday barriers including assistants’ desks, dress codes, and separate floors and buildings. Doug Morgan had to take a pretty extreme measure to vault the barriers at Calgary Transit, donning an uncomfortable dark wig and in his own words “crazy shoes”, but he relished the opportunity to connect on a new level with his staff and is now looking for ways to continue and reinforce that “connection back into the organization.”

You don’t need to get on Undercover Boss Canada and don a crazy uncomfortable disguise to connect with your employees says Michelle Phaneuf, Alberta Co-Director of the Workplace Fairness Institute. Michelle says “owners may be aware that there are issues in the workplace, but employees are often missing that safe environment to provide direct feedback.”

Michelle and her fellow Workplace Fairness co-director, Marjorie Munroe, have developed a process to engage employees for that all important feedback. The Discovery Interview process is the first step in supporting organizations to instill fairness in the workplace. Using skills gained in their extensive mediation experience, Marjorie and Michelle establish a safe environment and gather anonymous and frank data around issues that impact employees. This data is compiled and presented in a report that highlights concerns, often revolving around trust, respect, leadership and transparency. Marjorie Munroe acknowledges that management often has a good idea of what is going on within the organization but adds “nonetheless Discovery Interviews serve two very important purposes: they provide a forum for employees to feel heard an acknowledged, and they send a firm and transparent message that management is concerned about learning the truth.”

Discovery Interviews are only the first step. The second step is often a group conversation facilitated by Michelle and Marjorie to ask: How can the employees work with management to find solutions to enhance their organizational culture? Together, staff and management work on a specific plan to address concerns. Through careful professional facilitation, staff are empowered to contribute to a solution which will meet needs in the workplace they have defined. Because both staff and management define the terms for success, success becomes achievable.

The Workplace Fairness Institute is a Canadian company focused on enhancing organizational culture through collaboration, communication and proactivity in managing conflict.

The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office is a new initiative of the Workplace Fairness Institute which offers ombuds services to small and mid-sized organizations. Trained as ombudsman through the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman and the Osgoode Hall Law School and with backgrounds as Chartered Mediators , Marjorie and Michelle bring abundant experience and ample expertise to the Ombudsman office. The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office will support individuals by working with them to understand and consider options regarding their concerns, answering questions, facilitating communication, and providing information and referral.

The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office will provide a service which emphasizes independence, impartiality, fairness and accountability. Additionally the service will help organizations recognize and address systemic issues early.

Listening Hygiene and Rituals

My job is to listen. When I am working it is probably the single most important part of my job.  People talk to me, and it is my job to hear them, and then to provide evidence that I hear them. This can be very freeing because people do not always want solutions or advice.  Active listening, often, is enough to help people gain clarity for good decisions.

Connected by Conversation

One day in June I was rushing to get out of the house to travel to Edmonton.  Tripping back and forth between car and office in a mad attempt to get organized, I was pulled up short when the phone rang. Ignore? Answer?  I chose to look more closely at the call display and noted positive sign of my offspring.  “Hello?” “Mom? I need to talk.”

First response (internal): Not now.  I have a long drive in front of me, and I am sure already that I will be late for that dinner, and I know I have forgotten something, but I haven’t quite figured out what it is…

The Second and more appropriate response required relying on my listening hygiene.

I have been testing a new theory recently. I have noticed a parallel between good sleep hygiene and what I will call listening hygiene.  For me sleep hygiene is about managing or executing on a daily basis a few key things at bed time:

  • external stimulation
  • internal stimulation
  • ritual

Listening hygiene is similar.  Listening Hygiene is developing and practicing routines and rituals which you can count on for self-managing internal and external stimulation, and for preparing yourself to listen.

Upon hearing my daughter’s voice, I slowly sat down in a chair and placed a free palm on my desk, carefully regulating my breathing as I did so. “What’s up?” As I focussed on my palm channeling thoughts into my desk, my voice became calm and moderated, and I began to set aside my proverbial shopping list. It is akin to counting to 10 when you are angry, exercising your brain’s cerebral cortex and allowing yourself to channel rational thoughts rather than emotional ones.

Effective listening hygiene, like sleep hygiene, requires self-awareness and practice. When you are listening effectively, it is all you are doing; it requires suspension of your agenda and total trust that the speaker is doing the best they can with what they know.

You need a routine and a ritual you can rely on even in times of stress.  As I heard my daughter say that she does not plan to return to school in September, it was only practice and awareness that saved me from jumping to judgement and unwarranted conclusions.  Good listening hygiene will work for you when you most need it, and your relationships will benefit.

 

Deliberate Skills: Assertive Communication

I have been teaching a model for assertive communication for a few years from a book by Marshall Rosenberg entitled Nonviolent Communication, a Language of Life. I like this book because it is accessible and practical.

Rosenberg offers us nonviolent communication in four easy steps:

I notice (provide specific, objective, verifiable data)

I need (identify the underlying motivation, that positive reframe which fulfills your expectations, beliefs or concerns about a situation)

I feel (identify your emotion, knowing that you own your emotions, and they are valid, in fact another piece of data)

I request (a specific, doable feasible request for action which is offered without blame or potential repercussions)

Rosenberg’s model is powerful. It does take some thinking or planning, however. I coach my students to spend quiet time considering the answer to each of these phrases, and anticipating or hunching what might be important to the other party. What are their needs? What are they feeling? What might they request of you?

This works if you have time to plan it, think about it, and if you have the all important safe space for a collaborative dialogue. But what if you don’t? What if the situation is urgent? What is the best way to be heard without raising defenses in the midst of the action?

Let’s take an example of a nurse’s aide and a nurse. The nurse has the medical knowledge, authority, and the responsibility of administering certain medical procedures, but is new on shift and new to the patient. The aide has the benefit of working a 12 hour shift with a particular patient, and knowledge of individual patient needs. In the heat of the moment the aide demands “Turn the patient onto their right side!” The nurse, knowing the procedure is more effective on the left, lashes back and refuses. The aide is frustrated, because her patient knowledge is not recognized, and the nurse is frustrated because her authority and medical knowledge are questioned.

We will rewind the tape. “He has staples in his left hip and is in pain.” The aide focuses on the verifiable data and empowers the nurse to make the best decision for the patient. The opportunity arises for the aide to be recognized for her knowledge.

Very small changes in the way we communicate have a tremendous impact and improve outcomes. Be deliberate with your speaking and listening skills, and improved working relationships will result.

Keep Calm and Carry On

One of the leading questions from my class this week was: how do you stay calm? And how do you not get emotionally involved in conflict? I usually respond that this is a journey for many of us. It certainly has been for me. I know that when I perceive a threat I run, or freeze in the moment and am never quite sure what to say. I find it very difficult to engage when emotions are running high. The key is full body listening, and a desire to change, or to at least engage in conversation.

I will never forget my first conflict resolution class. It was quite a revelation to discover that conflict could be good. I still remember that sense of disbelief and awe that anyone could feel that way.

My initial light-bulb moment led to a journey in confidence and skill-building. It has been valuable to me to intellectualize it. I was relieved to learn about the hard-wired physiology of fight and flight. Once I could describe my reactions biologically and normalize them, I was free to get practical.

I offer my students the analogy of a stake in the sand. I remember planting that stake as a child and measuring the creeping or receding tide. Our path to better communication in conflict is like that. We have to take small manageable steps and measure them against a marker. It is a skill-building journey that, like that of the tide, creeps further up the beach as we practice, and then gently recedes again when emotions are running or we are not deliberately working at it.

The practical skills that are most important to me now prepare me to listen without being defensive. I have moved that stake in the sand a long way up the beach. And preparing myself to listen means that I also have the skills to keep calm and carry on.

I set a time for important conversations, and do not let myself get dragged in on the spot.

I walk to clear my mind, and enter a room in advance so I can sit at the blank table and lay my hands palm down in a meditative posture, allowing my busy thoughts to run away through my hands into the table.

I know and remind myself constantly that listening is a job. It is a job you can only do well when you do not have anything else to do.

I write a list of things that are important to me, or that I have to learn, decide on, or do, before the conversation begins. Setting them aside gives me the freedom to listen to another side and ideas while knowing my own thoughts are safe.

I convince myself to be open new stories. Once I have written my thoughts down, I have to remind myself that I may change my mind or alter my thinking. I have a judging hat which I can remove only with difficulty. When I feel judgmental, I deliberately tell myself to be curious. What motivates this person to act or behave this way? Why am I reacting so strongly to it?

Listening acutely and with full body attention is an act of suspension for me, because the act of allowing myself to fully take in what I am hearing and empathize with the speaker, forces my own thoughts into suspension. I think it helps to visualize full detachment from your thinking. Maybe thoughts are tidied into a tethered hot air balloon which is allowed to float up into the sky. You can retrieve them easily, but they are out of reach.

Hot-air-balloon

Image via Wikipedia

Full body listening is hard work. It can be exhausting. But once someone feels heard, understood and acknowledged, they will be ready to hear your side, and you can bring that tethered hot air balloon of thoughts back to earth, and sort through the pieces that are most relevant and appropriate to share. You have won yourself a hearing.

Duty to Accommodate and Gentle, Honest, Open, Specific Talk

An engaged employee is held capable and trusts that you will consistently treat them with integrity, impartiality, and respect. Gentle, honest, open, specific, talk with your staff will set the ground work for a relationship that will pay dividends when the tide turns and it comes time to ask the difficult questions.

As a supervisor you have a duty to accommodate, and you have a right to know. We may feel backed into situations where we hesitate to ask the difficult questions, or we confuse a person’s right to privacy with our own right, and indeed duty, to foster an open, constructive and productive working environment.

Let’s take the example of a suspected addiction. You notice increasingly erratic behaviour with a particular employee, and their sick days are on the rise. How do you balance your need to know with their right to privacy? How do you identify when your duty to accommodate kicks in? Under Alberta Human Rights legislation addiction is considered a disability and the duty to accommodate may apply. If this is the case, you need a doctor’s note, even as you cannot inquire about a staff member’s complete medical history. How do you verify your hunch? What if, based on past experience with the employee, you are wondering if the poor behaviour is simply workplace foolishness? How can you be sure? It is also not unusual for biases to get in the way of sound decision-making. Our own view of, or experience with, addictions may be getting in the way of our approach.

In this procedural and legal minefield it is imperative to discuss your proposed actions with your HR department and/or a senior manager. Once that has been done, and you have decided on a procedural plan, the relationship you have built with your staff member will stand you in good stead. If you have consistently conducted your conversations with a gentle, honest, open, specific protocol, and if you consistently hold your staff member capable and trust that they are doing the best they can with what they know, then you have the foundation in place to conduct a conversation to learn what you need to know to move forward. You will be able to discuss a medical condition frankly, and in a safe space, and determine if it is indeed a condition which limits the staff’s ability to perform their duties.

The gentle, honest, open specific, talk (or GHOST) protocol is a protocol for speaking and listening:

  • Gentle: to say what needs to be said in a manner that does not raise defenses in the other party;
  • Honest: to be true to what is on your mind, and your emotional reaction to the situation;
  • Open: to be open to new information, and to allow it to influence your thinking;
  • Specific: to illustrate what you have to say with clarifying examples and to avoid generalizations;
  • Talk: to take the opportunity of a confidential, safe space to say what you are thinking when it is important. Thinking not Talking is TNT – dangerous!

Modeling GHOST, describing GHOST, and inviting others to use it will set the foundation for improved communication and better information. With each conversation you will build your foundation for establishing and maintaining employee engagement and a productive working environment.

The GHOST protocol is a foundation of the PULSE Conversation. To learn more about PULSE Conversations for Change, discovered and developed by Dr. Nancy Love, please visit www.pulseinstitute.com.