Workplace Words that Wound

Contributed by Lorie Reichel-Howe
Founder, Conversations in the Workplace
Presenter, NCHRA Small Company HR Conference – October 19, San Francisco
“Transforming Workplace Conversations” 11:15 am – 12:30 pm

 

We have all felt the sting of cutting words, the stab of sarcasm and the sickening silence when a coworker is assaulted with a verbal bomb.  When workplace word wars occur, employees become casualties, relationships are strained and morale plummets. When verbal outbursts occur, organizational culture erodes, productivity is held hostage, and attrition skyrockets.

Whether you are a manager or copy clerk, being told to address a behavior without a strategy for doing so, is as helpful as receiving a disturbing medical diagnosis without care instructions, surgery options, or a recovery plan.

Let’s face it, when conflicts escalate and issues arise, managers and staff run to HR.  While individuals with concerns need to own their issues and release any expectation that HR will magically make their problem go away, they also need strategies for safely dialoguing with their “offender.”  Since relational breakdowns are inevitable in every human group, including the work family, HR, management and all employees need first responder training in effectively addressing harmful zingers, jabs and verbal bombs. Let’s explore some ways to respond to these behaviors.

Scenario

Let’s imagine a manager approaches HR uncertain how to have a conversation with a frustrated employee named Kendall.   Kendall, after being informed that her support request to Help Desk was received and, due to complications with the new system software installation, should expect a two-day delay in technical support. Upon reading the Help Desk’s response, Kendall blurted out the following….

“The Help Desk department should be renamed the Helpless Department.”

Request clarification

In a calm and firm manner, ask Kendall to please share the words she said about the Help Desk. Also ask her to explain what she meant by these words. In doing this, Kendall is invited to self-reflect and you avoid accusing, lecturing or judging. The desired outcome of this activity is self-reflection and ownership of behaviors.

Acknowledge the person’s concerns and needs

During conflict, our human tendency is to experience frustration, anger, even fear.  When these feelings exist, it’s difficult for us to listen to someone’s perspective, especially a perspective different from our own. Being understood is an anger diffuser.  Even so, it’s not a fix-all solution. Acknowledging concerns and needs doesn’t mean you approve of a harmful behavior, it simply means you understand what motivated the behavior.

Communicate positive wants or desires for those involved

People are more open to working with you when they believe you care about them and desire a positive outcome for them.  It’s assuring to know someone cares about you especially when you’ve acted impulsively and spoken inappropriately. One way to communicate caring is to verbalize that you’d like Kendall to get technical support in a reasonable time in order to complete her work. In addition, share your positive desire for Help Desk, to have a more manageable case load and not be buried under tech glitches from a new system upgrade.  Lastly, include your desire for a positive work environment for everyone in the department where concerns are addressed respectfully.

Bring awareness of the impact of words and actions

Effective communicators help others understand the impact of their words and actions. Share with Kendall that when you hear a comment that the Help Desk Department should be renamed the Helpless Department, it seems like a department has been attacked. Share the impact of this comment identifying that comments like these can create a negative work environment and divide departments instead of unifying departments within the organization. Share your concern that when people hear comments like this, they feel attacked and disrespected and that, once negativity spreads, it’s hard to stop.

Invite brainstorming a different way to respond

Having shared impact, ask Kendall if there are avenues other than Help Desk where she can obtain support. In asking Kendall to brainstorm, you help her move from attacking others to problem solving. This is what you want Kendall to do the next time she is frustrated.

Request agreement that behavior will not occur moving forward and identify next steps

After discussing what happened and the impact, it’s equally important to get an agreement of behavior in the future from Kendall. Ask her to commit to respectfully verbalizing future concerns (without attacking).  Ask Kendall what (or if a) follow-up action needs to occur. This could be phrased as a question asking Kendall if she believes she needs to do something in order to bring peace back to the department. Ask Kendall what does she believes her co-workers need to hear from her.

If you expect an apology for follow-up action from Kendall, clearly communicate this along with any consequences that will result from her behavior and whether documentation will occur.  Avoid surprising someone in the future during a performance review.

Relational response training needed by all

While first aid kits are available for minor physical injuries and 911 calls can be made for medical emergencies, relational first-aid office kits do not exist. All employees, managers and HR staff need first responder training in effectively addressing harmful workplace zingers, jabs and verbal bombs.

 

About the Author
Lorie Reichel Howe is founder of Conversations in the Workplace. She leverages over 20 years of expertise in communication and relationship management and equips managers and teams to have “safe conversations” – transformative dialogue that uncovers hidden workplace issues to foster greater innovation, inclusion and collaboration within the organization.

Lorie has a diverse career experience as an educator, leadership development trainer, mediator and conflict coach. She has supported organizations such as San Jose State University, Northern California Human Resource Association, Association for Dispute Resolution Northern California, Dress for Success, Rimini Street Incorporation and California League of Schools.

Lorie mediates small claims and civil harassment cases at the Santa Clara Superior Court and provides community mediation for the Santa Clara Department of Human Services. Learn more about Lorie’s impact at www.ConversationsIntheWorkplace.com.


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