KnowledgeBases > Article: Effective Interaction in the Workplace
Effective Interaction in the Workplace
by Renťe Mickler
Ineffective interaction in the workplace is the single greatest contributor to low productivity, failed projects, abandoned goals, demoralized staff, and more. Yet it is sometimes paid the least of attention.
I say this after two decades of observing people work together (or not) and talking with them about their interactions. When I first started consulting, how well people communicated with each other wasnít considered a big factor in performance. As long as the individual didnít have significantly dysfunctional interpersonal and communication skills, they were thought to be valuable and productive.
Over the years, I observed the need for people to "handle" a wider range of situations including complex circumstances more frequently. To handle a situation means to approach people in such a way to have a productive outcome and not create negative by-products.
There are many opinions regarding what effective interaction actually is. Many people think it means "getting along" with other people. Other people interpret it as being liked by most people. Still others think it means not being in conflict with others or showing evidence of conflict amid a group. I hear comments such as,
"Iím not here to make friends."
"I donít care if people like me or not."
"This is business, not a popularity contest."
Comments like these reflect outdated attitudes and expectations of the old workplace. In the workplace of the past, managers and employees were mechanistic and task-focused. People kept emotions out of the workplace and concentrated on getting the job done. Emotions were seen as a sign of weakness and had no place at work.
These comments also reveal that we donít understand what effective interaction means and why it is important. To me, effective interaction means achieving the intended goal of your communication such as to get input, or to persuade a certain decision, or to gain commitment to a specific project - achieving that goal in such a way that does not aggravate people and cause them to shut down.
The Way It Was
In the past, decisions made about promotions, better assignments, or more responsibility, were objective, straightforward and understood by everyone. There were accepted rules concerning promotion. For example, after working for four years as a Widget-Maker, an employee could expect to be promoted to Senior Widget-Maker. This was standard operating procedure. Promotion was almost automatic Ė hardwired into the employer Ė employee relationship. Rules, regulations, contracts, and policies, either company or union, determined an employeeís compensation, status, and privileges. Promotion was most often based on seniority or tenure.
Jobs were narrowly defined and were very task oriented. The need for communication was very limited because all that was generally needed after an initial training period in the new position was a simple set of instructions or directives. For managers, the type of communication and interaction required in this environment involved a limited range of single-dimensional communication or one-way communication. Informing employees of directives from upper management or giving assignments only required the manager to talk to the employee, or more precisely, to talk at the employee.
There was no need for a two-way dialogue because the manager was simply instructing, training or explaining. Persuading and influencing might be used occasionally but it was more appropriate to keep oneís mouth shut than to make waves, so disagreement wasnít prevalent.
Employeesí interaction and communication skills were limited to following instructions, informing, or asking non-confrontational questions in order to gather information. Employees were generally most valued when they conformed and "got along". Diversity and individualism was not celebrated or even tolerated in some organizations.
Most companies now have evolved into Information Age workplaces with very different rules and norms. The rules and contracts that were used to determine qualifications or promotion potential in the past have changed dramatically. Decisions about hiring, promoting, assigning, firing are much more subjective today. Often, the judgments about people, their abilities and performance, are based on the most observable behavior, namely, how well an employee interacts with others. Since many managers do not have intimate detailed knowledge about the various jobs in a department, they donít have much else to go on when evaluating a personís performance.
In addition, the work environment itself has changed. It is characterized by ambiguity and constant change. These circumstances create emotional havoc for everyone and demand higher-level communication skills.
Why Should I Care
In many circumstances, an individualís interpersonal skills can be more important than their technical contribution. These skills can make or break a career in todayís workplace.
I often see the situation in which the employee shines at the technical aspects of her job, however, her interaction with coworkers and customers is ineffective much of the time. Managers tend to overlook this situation until it becomes a real problem, so these folks receive very positive feedback about their technical expertise, but their interpersonal issues are left unaddressed. At some point, however, it becomes important for this technically adept person to interact effectively. This employee is unaware that he has little skill for productive interaction. He will often carry the belief that his performance should be solely judged by the objective measure of technical expertise. In some cases, a manager or interested party has mentioned to this employee that he needs to improve his communication skills. Unfortunately that statement is too vague and easy to ignore. The individual has little or no understanding that their growth is being limited by an inability to work collaboratively with others.
This experience isnít limited to people in technical positions. Over the years, Iíve heard managers complain about being overlooked for promotions or plum assignments or visible projects without knowing the reason. After all, they had enjoyed regular promotions up to a certain point. Often, the manager is promotable in every other way, but because their ability to effectively interact with colleagues is low, their career advancement is limited.
Low interpersonal skillfulness doesnít just cost the individual. Our collective productivity suffers on a daily basis. People donít bring up new ideas in meetings because they think they should go along with everyone else. They donít want to be labeled a non-team-player. Or they donít raise questions about a current issue and the team rushes into a decision and then experience problems that could have been anticipated.
Most teams that fail to achieve the high level performance initially expected, donít fail because of a lack of mental power. They fail because someone didnít speak up with their thoughts. I came to this conclusion after working with teams in a number of different companies. Because I observed the team meetings and talked with individuals between meetings, I knew what people thought but werenít saying publicly. I usually got a glimpse into WHY they werenít talking too.
The opposite can also interfere with an individual, or team, or departmentís performance. Vocal team members can inhibit a teamís performance by behaving in an unproductive way. There are lots of dysfunctional types of behavior that cause a discussion to go down the tube.
Some people use team meetings as a stage for their own personal dramas. Or they use them as a platform for an on-going argument with another team member. Or they criticize others and make it personally motivated as if team members set out to make them look bad.
Whatever the dysfunctional behavior, other team members shrink away from discomfort. Others just donít bring up certain topics or say certain opinions so not to "stir things up." They just donít want to hear the responses and no one has learned how to effectively reroute the conversation.
As team members disengage or avoid conversations, solutions and ideas are lost. There may be a realization that this issue is critical, but the discussion is so painful that it is easier to end the discussion rather than work through it. A painful and prolonged discussion on a certain point should act as a signal that the issue needs resolution, but most often the discussion is ended or tabled and the issue is left unresolved. It inevitably rears its ugly head again at the worst possible time and forces itself to the forefront. At this point opinions are even stronger and opponents are even more dug in and less willing to listen to others. People with poorly developed interaction skills are likely to appear even worse at times like this.
People with strong opinions about what does and doesnít work appear to be closed-minded or resistant to new ideas. Over time, managers and employees learn to go around these people or bring these people in at the last minute. A task force, for example, might try to get as much discussion as possible finished before they invite a difficult or reluctant person into the conversation or meeting.
Beyond avoiding the person, there is loss when others disregard this personís advice or input. They donít even hear what he has to say.
Ultimately, people with strong opinions have valuable input but interacting with them is so painful that they are avoided. This limits the possibility of greater performance in a workworld that depends on the collective intelligence of a team.
I remember one individual that wanted to be involved in the big projects. He had knowledge of several departments and a strong analytical mind. He liked being considered a valuable resource to the company. To Joe, growth was tied to invitations to important meetings where his input would be highly received and appreciated. He wanted to be seen as the expert with a depth of technical knowledge. Unfortunately, his interaction skills were less than desirable.
Others interpreted his questions and comments as criticism. They believed that he was closed-minded, arrogant, and abrasive. People stopped inviting him to meetings. When they had no choice, they would email questions that he might have insight on, hoping to get the input back by e-mail. This infuriated Joe. He complained to his boss that his experience wasnít valued in the company and that dumb decisions were being made because people didnít have the benefit of his knowledge.
Steve, Joeís manager understood the value of Joeís experience and knowledge. More than once, Joeís analytical skills had forced him to think beyond the first solution. Steve recognized that the team was probably making inferior decisions or, at the least, making decisions that would later need to be changed. However, Steve also understood how difficult it could be to talk with Joe.
When I first met with Joe, he totally avoided me. He made no eye contact, his body faced away from me, he talked to the table, and he wouldnít respond to any questions. Finally, I asked him why he was avoiding me with his verbal and non-verbal messages. He responded that it was uncomfortable to be assigned a coach. He felt like the kid sent to the corner for time-out. I asked him, "So when you Ďfeelí uncomfortable, you avoid the person?" He nodded affirmatively.
I was able to take that understanding to help him see why others avoided him. They "felt" uncomfortable, attacked, criticized, belittled, demeaned, etc. He learned that having valuable information wasnít enough. He needed to deliver that information in an effective way. Once Joe broke through the perception barrier, we were able to identify the specific behaviors and actions that he needed to change.
Here come the complications
Now, donít get the wrong impression. People canít be cured of poor interpersonal skills but they can understand the skills that interfere with good communication and they can learn techniques that will help compensate or supplement their innate skills.
The receiver of the message is just as responsible in a miscommunication because they are half the equation, and active listening is not a strength that many people possess. Several missteps occur between the sender of the message and their intent and the receiver of the message and their interpretation of that intent.
People communicate on several levels at the same time. Not only is the content of the message, the specific words being delivered but impressions from non-verbal communication are also being delivered to the listener.
People draw conclusions about what those impressions mean. We hear someone speak with a certain tone and say, "They are trying to make me feel stupid." Or, "They think they are better than me." We donít really know what they are trying to do to us. Experience tells me that people usually interact based on their own emotions rather than focusing on that listener. So a person with an air of arrogance is usually someone who is intimidated and unsure about how to exchange words under the given circumstances. The speaker is guarding his own emotional well-being and is attempting to feel "in-charge during the interaction. The by-product of this is that the listener is made to feel stupid and shuts down. Many of us have experienced this as listeners and have probably done it as speakers without being aware of the impact.
We often walk away from an interaction gone awry without confirming our impact or the conclusions of the discussion. Of course, itís not important to know everything all of the time. But there are times when we should ask the person to help us understand what they are really saying.
Itís tempting to say that we should refrain from making the interpretations and conclusions. But we are constantly putting input and information together in our minds and then we have to do something with it, like weave a mental story. Unfortunately, we accept that story as reality or truth and then respond accordingly. Sometimes it amazes me that we get anything done because of the perceptions we have of other people.
Normal as it is, ineffective interactions cost us collectively and individually. Leaders of companies underestimate the negative impact of ineffective interactions on corporate performance. If they didnít, they would be compelled to address these deficiencies more. They may have seen instances in which productivity was lost because of what someone said, or they may have experienced a teamís productivity skyrocket after a member leaves. But for the most part, managers and leaders do not perceive the arena of effective interaction as an untapped potential for achieving a higher level of performance, positive morale, improved health, and increased profitability.
The concept of evaluating how well we interact with each other is not new. However, most people are unaware of how they are perceived. Even people courageous enough to ask for feedback, donít receive good input. We donítí have good definitions so we make statements such as "Improve your communication."
What can we do?
There are many aspects of communication that can be developed or improved but
first comes awareness and acceptance. The individual must become aware of his or her own behavior and they must accept their culpability in the problem.
Joe had the impression that people were jealous of his knowledge and didnít want him around because they "couldnít take feeling inferior." He believed that was someone elseís problem, not his. Once I outlined what people were really thinking, he owned up to the behaviors that caused others to respond negatively.
Not everyone owns up to his or her part in the problem or miscommunication. In this case, there can be no hope for improvement until they can accept responsibility.
Secondly, the individual must want to improve. It is one thing to recognize your impact on another person; it is another thing to WANT TO change your behavior.
In Joeís case, he wanted to be involved. He wanted to make a difference in his company. Being shut out of important projects prevented Joe from making his ideal contribution. He was willing to put the energy into changing his approach to people in order to be involved again.
We need to crank up our insight and intelligence about communication skills so we can give them valuable feedback. We need to give people specific actions, words, behaviors about which they need to be aware. Without specifics, they canít imagine what they would do differently.
We also need to recognize the power of effective group dynamics. Frankly, I didnít realize the importance until I studied and consulted with teams in several different companies. I knew the premise of a team is that several heads are better than one. But as I observed, thatís only true if those heads are talking and involved in the discussion.
It became clear to me that the time a team spends together (i.e. meetings) is the cornerstone of the teamís performance. Those hours are when the most powerful, highest level thinking occurs about the problem, or project, or whatever. If a team isnít achieving performance in those meetings, they arenít going to achieve much.
Organizations can recognize the impact on the bottom line and provide training and development for people. Or we can just go on with our business as usual and continue to lose profits because we donít have the courage to look at ourselves. The choice is yours.
This article was written for this KnowledgeBase by Renťe Mickler, President of Mickler & Associates, Inc., in Indianapolis, Indiana. You may contact her at 317.415.0274 or firstname.lastname@example.org.