Webinar presenter Dr. Ed Sherman answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Achieving Effective Outcomes through Staff Communication. Here are just a few of his responses.
Audience Question: In this time, as we are all working more remotely, how do you propose a supervisor that you should do check ins with your staff? How do you accomplish that?
Ed Sherman: That’s a terrific question, and it is such a topical issue, because, yes, I’m sure that remote work is going to continue to be pretty important in the workplace for a lot of people. And, so, I think you can still bring to bear many of those same tools, but it does require a little bit more effort to do it, meaning you won’t necessarily casually pass them in the hallway, as it were, because they may be working from home. But I think that you can still create those check-ins. And I encourage leaders to do that both in a group setting and in an individual setting. So, you may have meetings with your staff where you discuss agenda items and talk about things that are going on. But I think it’s so powerful. And I think it’s even more important in some ways when people are doing remote work because they feel disconnected in some senses, they lose that human element. Many of us were in that situation for the last couple of years, where we just didn’t get to spend that direct time as much with people as we had been accustomed to doing. So, what I think you can do is, whether it’s by telephone, whether it’s by online video conferencing, whatever platform or service that you use is to take that time to check with your people and say, “How’re you doing? What’s going on?” Because again, I think the natural human instinct is people are not necessarily going to come forward and reveal that there’s a problem or concern that’s going on. But how powerful it is, how encouraging and supportive it is for a leader to say to their people, “How are you doing? What do you need? Is there anything I can do for you?” That’s a question, most employees don’t hear from their supervisor. Is there anything I can do for you? Wow. That’s really powerful. So, I think you can make the time to reach out to the people that work for you, and even if it’s a few minutes time, I think it’s tremendously important to make that connection.
Audience Question: How do you communicate with someone that has a short attention span?
Ed Sherman: Hey, there’s a great question. Yeah, that is difficult. So, we’ll talk for a moment about there are people who are neurodivergent, and they either may have a physiological situation that is creating some communication barriers or impediments. And I don’t mean to characterize this in a negative way, but to just simply say that people bring to interactions, different skill sets, and different abilities. And so, one way, I think that’s always positive, one way that’s always powerful, is ask them what they need. And what I mean by that is, if we’re ever like stumped, and it’s like you’re trying to talk to this person, they’re turning away, they’re looking at their phone. They’re looking at their wristwatch, whatever the case may be. It’s important, I think, at some level, to assess is that really disinterest, meaning they just don’t want to be there. Or is it that there is some limitation that they may have cognitive or physiological limitations that may be some sort of a barrier to effectively communicating? Once you assess that, maybe you can meet that person’s needs with a different style. If it is a person who has a need to go to either take more time, ask more questions, have perhaps repetition of information, it’s important and valuable for us to offer that to those people. On the other hand, if it is a person who simply is disinterested and they don’t care, then, again, it’s powerful to ask them. What is this about? What do you need? What would make this work better? Sometimes nobody’s ever asked them that. I mean, it’s as hard as that may seem to be, because they may have some off-putting characteristics where when we’re dealing with that person, and it’s a little uncomfortable, or it’s a little unpleasant. And our sort of reaction is to get away from that person or not deal with them, lean into it. Again, I would say, if you’re able to draw that person in and say what would help? What do you need? Is there something about this workplace, this situation, your role, or your assignment that’s troubling to you? I can’t help you with that unless I understand it, so please help me understand.
Host: Oh, I love that answer. I’ve got to share a comment that someone just submitted. Thank you for gently, gently addressing neuro-divergence in this context. I’m a neuro-divergent supervisor, and I supervise several neuro-divergent folks with varied communication styles and needs, so you definitely hit a critical point. Thank you.
Ed Sherman: And thank you for doing that. That I realized that that may bring some additional challenges. But I’m sure you can be completely effective and really still help your people fully.
Audience Question: Are there any resources or suggestions you can share about having difficult conversations?
Ed Sherman: Yes, there is a book by Harvard called Difficult Conversations, and it goes into quite a bit of detail about how to tackle, so to speak, difficult conversations. And that book is, really I will say, the standard. It’s one of the ones that has been around for a little while and is well respected and acknowledged because it’s a group of authors that wrote this at Harvard and put these ideas together. So, they talk about both the techniques for doing these things, but they also give some illustrations, examples, and some stories, about different kinds of scenarios. So, I think it’s a really helpful book as probably one of the best references on that particular topic.
Audience Question: When someone shares an idea that just isn’t workable, what is the best way to let them down gently, or do I?
Ed Sherman: My view on this is, it’s always important, to be honest, because here’s the thing, sometimes we have an interaction with somebody, and we offer a suggestion or an idea, and they say, “Wow, that sounds terrific. That’s really great! Let me get back to you on that.” And then either they don’t get back to us, or they don’t clearly communicate. I feel like we feel that, as a recipient of that, there’s some breach of trust that occurs there. So, I greatly encourage everyone, to be honest, and transparent, but as you correctly say, in a gentle way, in a careful way, in a way that you acknowledge the concern. And again, I don’t think most reasonable people, most healthy people, are going to think that they can go to their boss and say, “We should do this, that, and the other thing,” and the boss is going to kind of jump up from their chair and go, “Okay, I’ll get on that right away.” I mean, mature people are going to realize that that’s not going to happen, I think, what mature healthy people want is to be heard, and is to have honest communication. So, I think if you really listen. And I think if you really consider what the person says and determine is it possible or isn’t it. I think it’s good too, at the appropriate juncture maybe not at the moment that was said, depending on the situation and the circumstance. Particularly not if it’s in a group setting like a meeting, you might not want to say, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” You might want to say it in private so it’s more palatable or digestible for the person to hear. I think it’s better, to be honest, and just kind of explain to them. “Thank you for your suggestion. I don’t think that we can implement this, or I don’t think we can implement it in the way that you’re offering or suggesting, but I do appreciate your coming forward,” and critically encourage them to come back. “Please do not be discouraged because we’re not able to do this time, please keep sharing your ideas,” and I think you will build that trust and rapport tremendously.
Audience Question: Any suggestions for communicating with someone who knows it all, or at least thinks they do?
Ed Sherman: Okay, so that by definition, tells me something about that person and if a person presents as if they know it all or purports to know it all. I was trying to think of… I want to characterize this fairly and gently. That tells us something about the person and their life experiences and who they are. So, let me just say, the difference between a healthy person and a person who may be struggling with some life experiences, they have had that have brought them to a difficult place. A healthy person will not presume to have all the answers. Nobody has all the answers. It doesn’t matter what your education experience life trajectory is, it doesn’t matter. Nobody has all the answers, so that’s number one. Number two, this person is going to require, unfortunately, some special handling. And what I mean by that is, they bring some unique personality characteristics to a situation. I’m going to say, It’s going to be more difficult to interact with this person. This is the type of situation, where you may need some help support, and advice on how you deal with it, what you do, and what potential risks there are in responding in certain ways. So, it really does take a little bit of work to interact with this person and you know, please, if you, if you’d like to, feel free to reach out to me afterward, and I’ll give you some more ideas and suggestions. But I will just simply say, generally speaking, there is that percentage of the workforce and the population. And it’s going to be a little bit more difficult to deal with them. But, again, I think, if what you offer, and the way you approach it is, even if they are being difficult, is not respond in kind, not that you would do that. But, I mean, it’s a natural human tendency that we sort of get irritated by those things. If you can kind of ask them and solicit advice from them, what to do? And then if you give them some feedback and say, “We can do certain things, but we can’t do others,” that may help a little. But I’m going to say people such as that, that’s going to be tough. It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to take some extra effort.
Audience Question: Do you have any tips or any more tips or perspective shifts to showcase that building positive personal relationships does not limit their authority, but instead builds it?
Ed Sherman: Well, absolutely. I mean, I will say I think that there’s probably research that demonstrates that. But I also think that there are countless interactions and assessing this type of situation over many years time I have worked in paramilitary organizations, and I will certainly say, there is a need for a command structure. There is a need for dispensing orders at certain times. There is a need for receiving orders and carrying those out without debate or discussion at certain times. But I would offer and suggest that that’s a small percentage of the time. It actually happens that my doctoral research was on this particular topic, and I talked to public safety executives. And what emerged from that research was the fact that they get in the mode of dispensing information and not receiving it back, because of the urgency and because of the action-oriented nature of the profession. But when they stop to really think about it and evaluated, did it produce the results that they wanted? Did it produce the interpersonal relationships that they wanted? Did it really work out well for them? The people that I spoke to said it didn’t, and then I continue that conversation and discussion with a lot of people, in a lot of different settings and domains. And so, again, I won’t say it’s an either-or proposition, that there are times that there’s a command structure where decisions are made, and they must be carried out. That’s absolutely true. But I believe that there’s a wide swath of information that says, that that isn’t as effective as what I will say is a historic approach to doing those things.
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