Thursday, May 31, 2012

Handling Awkward Situations With Class

In a truly cringe-worthy spectacle, back-from-obscurity talk show host Kathy Lee Gifford made a spectacular faux pas yesterday while interviewing Martin Short.  After pronouncing his marriage a showbiz success story, she asked him how many years he had been married and other lighthearted questions like how he keeps things romantic with his wife.

While it's true that Martin and his wife Nancy Dolman were married for 36 years, the sad truth is that she passed away from ovarian cancer in 2010.

There were many ways that Short could have handled this extremely awkward situation and no one would have judged him if he had become irate, but he chose to be a class act and show us all a thing or two about grace under pressure.  He answered her questions and moved on without correcting her.  Short is a seasoned professional who knows how to think on his feet and while I don't know what was going through his mind, he probably decided that informing the hapless Kathy Lee that his wife was dead on live TV would only make it worse for everyone.

After the segment, Kathy Lee apologized to Short on Twitter but I'm hoping she took the time to do it in person as well.  And, I'm sure there's a researcher at the Today Show who is dusting off his or her resume this morning.

On the other side of the spectrum, at an awards ceremony I attended last night, someone was called up to the stage to present an award.  When the MC handed her the microphone, she explained to him that he had pronounced her last name incorrectly and informed him of the correct pronunciation.  The MC was obviously uncomfortable and under the circumstances, the correction seemed unnecessary. It was a long night and it's unlikely that the paths of these two people will cross again.

While most of us will never have to deal with questions about a deceased spouse on live television, we could all learn from Martin Short on how to handle someone's gaffe with aplomb.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Should you disrupt your primary job function to be "nice"?

But I was just trying to be nice...

Last weekend, I left the cottage with my kids to return to Toronto for an afternoon engagement.  I had just enough time to get there with one coffee stop and one bathroom break. Yes,  I should have given myself more time but that's another story.

Feeling groggy and facing a three-hour car trip, I decided to pick up some coffee at a local coffee shop to steel myself for the trip. I won't name the coffee chain here but it is a huge chain with a great deal of Canadian share of heart and a long history in this country.  Some would characterize their coffee as uninspired but I like it.  It's mild and reliable and I know exactly how it will taste and that appeals to me. 

Mindful of my impending deadline, I checked the drive-thru line and since there were only two cars in it, I calculated I could complete my transaction in five minutes, seven if someone was ordering a sandwich.  I would have gone into the store but I was alone with my kids and wasn't in the mood for what would happen if they came face to face with the doughnut display case.

When I joined the drive-thru line, I was third.  One car was at the window already and another had just placed an order.  After ten minutes, the line hadn't budged and new cars had joined in behind me.  I assumed that perhaps the driver in the first car had ordered breakfast for several people and it was taking a while to microwave the eggs and sausage.  After 15 minutes,  there were eight cars behind me and I started to worry that something was wrong and the mechanism that signals waiting cars to the drive-through was malfunctioning.  So, jammed in a static line with no way out, I did something I almost never do.  I honked my horn, quickly and only once.  Seconds later, a furious voice came through the order speaker announcing that the staff of this particular coffee chain do not appreciate it when people in the drive-thru honk their horns and to stop it at once.

Soundly put in my place, I slunk down in my seat and waited my turn.  Finally the first car drove off, the second one was dealt with quickly and I sheepishly pulled up to the window.  If looks could kill, I wouldn't be here to write this post so, I smiled wanly at the clerk and explained hat I had honked my horn because I became frustrated with the delay and lack of communication.  She smiled back and said, "Oh, that's okay. The driver of the first car was going somewhere and asked us for directions.  Two of us were trying to help him get where he was going."

I was floored.  I know that she truly believed that by explaining that the holdup was due to their efforts to be nice, I would trade in my impatient attitude for a newly-acquired appreciation of their sense of community. Sadly, it had the opposite effect.  Although I didn't verbalize it, inside I was thinking, "I waited for 20 minutes so you could give someone driving directions?"  At this point, I just wanted to pay for my coffee and get out of there, which I did, after lifting the lid to make sure all looked normal.

I fumed all the way home and pondered why I was so upset about what was, at its base, a gesture of kindness.  It occurred to me that, in our paid work, whatever that might be, we all have things that are considered our primary function.  A plumber's primary function is to repair broken pipes, a coffee chain employee's primary function is to serve coffee and in my role as a freelance communicator, my primary function would be to communicate on behalf of my clients.  In the course of our day to day life, we also encounter requests for help or other interruptions, that do not coincide with the primary functions of our paid work but could be considered part of the primary function of our existence as human beings and citizens in a society.  But we can't respond to everything that is put in our path. We need to assess, consider the consequences and make decisions.  While most people would willingly arrive late at a meeting so they can help the victim of a car accident, it's probably not a good idea to make customers wait 20 minutes for coffee so you can tell someone how to get to a bed and breakfast.  In this case, there was an easy fix.  The coffee chain employee could simply have asked the driver to pull over, come into the store and wait until there was a lull in the customer traffic.  

Later on that day, I tweeted to the coffee chain that I had experienced a service disruption in one of their franchises.  They responded immediately and suggested I call their guest services line so that I might explain the situation in detail the next morning.  I did so, spoke with a wonderful woman who apologized profusely and promised to follow up with the store in question.  

Overall, I was pleased with the customer service response and I hung up the phone, relieved that, despite a small blip, I had been treated with respect and kindness and could continue to patronize my favourite coffee shop. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Is it still rude to wear a hat indoors?

But it's part of my outfit...

I was at a business event the other night with about 200 other people.  The guest speaker was great and the topic was relevant but throughout the night, I was distracted by something that other people may not have noticed - a young man wearing a fedora indoors.

The 'No Hats Inside Rule' was strictly enforced in my childhood home and is so ingrained in my psyche that when someone violates this etiquette guideline, it just feels wrong, like snow in summer or a cheerful DMV employee.

I have carried over this particular rule to my own home and family.  My kids and their visiting friends know they are not allowed to wear their hats inside and absolutely must remove them for meals. If I'm out for dinner with my peers and one keeps a hat on during the meal, I would never ask them to remove it (that would be rude) but it will annoy me for the duration. Of course, that is my problem, not theirs.

But times change and well-intentioned rules are relaxed or abandoned all together for reasons of practicality or enlightenment. The rule of removing hats indoors was established decades ago when men regularly wore hats outside to protect them from the elements.  They removed the hat indoors so that the elements (rain, dirt, etc.) did not fall onto meals or other people.  Where did they put their hats?  Well they probably checked them with a coat attendant who knew how to properly store them so they didn't get smushed.  It's unlikely that the same service is available today in most establishments.

Today, hats are a fashion statement for both genders and can be such a part of one's "look" that asking someone to remove their hat is akin to suggesting that they take off their shoes.  There are other things to consider.  Many of the etiquette rules that formed the North American approach to acceptable social behaviour were written at a time when the population (or at least the ruling class) was homogeneous in terms of religion and therefore, didn't take into account the need to observe the customs of faith by wearing hats or head coverings indoors.  The Emily Post Institute notes this in its updated, more modern list of acceptable places to wear hats, as well as the fact that cancer patients need not worry about this rule.

So, like so many other "old-fashioned" guidelines, the "no hat" rule will probably fall by the wayside in the next few years for reasons that include an embrace of different cultures and a general relaxation of appropriate attire.  I can accept that, but I don't think I will ever be able to stomach a baseball hat worn indoors at any time.

What do you think?  Do you have guidelines about hats in your home?  Does it annoy you when a man doesn't remove a fedora indoors?  Would you even notice?

Monday, May 7, 2012

8 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Burning A Bridge

To my knowledge, I have burned four bridges in my career.  It's possible that I have unknowingly and unwittingly burned more and that other people have burned bridges with me (with or without my knowledge).  But, there have only been four times in two decades (one every five years or so) that I have deliberately and willingly decided to end a business relationship in a way that clearly demonstrates there is no possibility of ever working with that person again.

Burning a bridge is a bold career move that is sometimes necessary and often misguided but it always feels great, if only fleetingly.  Many dysfunctional business relationships can come to a natural end without the need to torch anything.  People are fired and laid off everyday without the need for drama and business partners, clients and consultants often realize that they are not a good match and go their separate ways with a handshake and an assurance that they will be civil if they bump into each other on the street.

Burning a bridge usually means you leave a business relationship by telling your boss/colleagues/partner/client exactly what you think of them and their methods in no uncertain terms.  You might even channel your inner Scarlett O'Hara and declare that "as God is your witness, you will never cross paths with them again".  Highly unlikely if you work in the same industry but full of impact nonetheless.  Others burn bridges in more passive ways, simply disappearing, not showing up for work, refusing to answer phone calls, etc.  In this case, their silence speaks volumes.

It's hard to have a successful career without lighting a few flames but you should do so judiciously and ask yourself the following questions before you pour the gasoline:

1. Was this person's behaviour truly abusive, egregious or unethical? 
There's a big difference between someone who is incompetent or a bad fit and someone who is abusive.  We have all had our share of crappy bosses and catty coworkers but unless their behaviour can truly be described as abusive, just move on and chalk it up to a learning experience.

2. Do I plan to continue working in this industry?
If the answer is yes, then think twice.  It's a small world and you'll likely encounter the person again. I once purposely burned a bridge with someone I considered unethical and years later, he showed up as a valued partner in a piece of business I wanted to win.  When I found out he was involved, I backed out, but it was lost revenue nonetheless.

3. Is my reputation strong enough to withstand this? 
Have you spent years helping others,  building your reputation, growing your network and collecting a portfolio of good work?  If so, you can probably survive any mudslinging that arises as a result of this situation but if you're just starting out or your reputation is already on shaky ground, walk away quietly and regroup.

4. Do I need this person for a reference?
No matter how much you may dislike someone, unless you already have three solid references to present at future job interviews, don't burn the bridge.  I've been shocked to see some people dramatically burn a bridge in writing at their very first real job and then actually ask that person for a reference later.

5. Can I burn a bridge in a dignified manner?
Don't just explode in a hail of profanity. That's all that will be remembered. If you're going to have this conversation with someone, do it with as much class as you can muster.  Plan your departure in advance and choose your words carefully.  Leave out personal insults and petty grievances.  They'll only weaken your case.

6. Is it really necessary to put it in writing?
So you've decided to burn a bridge.  Why create an everlasting archive by putting it in an email or letter?  Simply meet with the person in question and explain why you will no longer do business with them.  I know some disgruntled employees have received front-page coverage with spectacular public resignation letters  but that just paints you as an attention-seeking troublemaker, not an ideal future employee.

7. Did I play a role in the breakdown of this relationship?
Is this a case where you did your very best, worked hard, followed through and acted professionally but were still treated poorly?  If so, get out the propane torch.  But think seriously about your role, if any, in how things went awry.  Unless you come out squeaky clean, it might not be worth it to play the blame game.

8. Do you have the stomach to handle the potential outcomes?
You just want to say your piece and move on to greener pastures but the object of your wrath might not cooperate.  They might fight back, take it public or launch a smear campaign against you.  Are you okay with that?  If not, you may not have the stomach to handle burning bridges.  Better to take the high road and focus on more positive things.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

She'd be great, if only I could motivate her

If only I could have more autonomy...

When I ran a business, the realization that it was my job to motivate staff hit me like a ton of bricks.  I had just assumed that everyone was motivated by the same things and at first, took a fairly formulaic approach to motivation.  When this didn't work, a mentor suggested that you can't actually motivate another human but you can find out what motivates them and use that to your advantage.  So, how do you find out what motivates someone?  You can ask them outright but you won't always get an entirely truthful answer.  For example, some younger workers claim to be motivated only by meaningful opportunities but my negotiations with them usually revolved around higher salaries and fancier titles.

So, in my lifelong quest to understand how to bring out the best in people (myself included), I was excited to read DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, a New York Times bestseller from author Daniel Pink.  According to Pink, the old carrot and stick approach to motivating employees with external rewards like money is a relic of the 20th century that needs to be scrapped.  He asserts that the secret to high performance and satisfaction is the "deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things and to do better by ourselves and our world" and to implement this, we need to let people experience autonomy, mastery and purpose at work.  Pink encourages modern workplaces to abandon motivation 2.0 (assume that if you give employees total autonomy they will shirk their duties) and embrace motivation 3.0 (assume that everyone is ready to work hard and do a good job in the right setting).

Pink asserts that people are happiest and most productive when they're in "flow", that magical time when we lose ourselves in our work, becoming deeply engaged in achieving our goals, challenging ourselves and learning new things.  I completely understand this concept and I have experienced it often but if I'm perfectly honest, I'm more inclined to experience "flow" when I'm reading a book on a beach or tending to my garden, in other words, things that are not attached to how I pay the bills.  Pink believes this Zen-like state is also achievable in an office setting and provides many ideas and examples of how to make it happen, including:  

Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) - Focus on results and nothing else, let people work whenever and wherever they want and don't waste time judging how people get the job done.  I love this idea and I can see it working with highly-disciplined individuals in certain environments. However, although Pink touches on autonomy versus accountability, he doesn't really offer any solutions for how to deal with employees who are allowed to work from home at midnight and still don't meet their deadlines.

Remove financial incentives and just pay everyone a healthy flat salary - Sounds good, but what's healthy? Is it the going rate in the industry or a few thousand more?  Is it what you think the employee deserves or what they believe they've earned? Pink argues that commissions, bonuses and even billable hours don't work and just force people to get creative when filling out forms and I can't say I disagree.  But human nature suggests that that there will always be people who think they're working harder or contributing more than their peers and who will expect external rewards, whether it's in the form of more money, extra vacation time or public recognition.

Let employees run free for a few hours - Informed by the reality that even the most creative person can get crushed under the weight of a deadline, Pink shares stories of companies which carve out time each month for employees to work on something completely unrelated to the business and not connected to compensation at all.  In this free time, liberated from client demands or management constraints, employees can really get their minds working and come up with their best work.  According to Pink, this is how Google News was conceived and scientists at one organization even won a Nobel Prize for Physics for something they developed in their non-work time. I can get behind this.  Many marketing types would say that the work they do for fun is much more creative than what they're "allowed" to do for clients. But when every single day is packed with new deadlines and fresh crises, how would a consulting firm find the time?

The book is well researched and Pink backs up his claims with reams of scientific data, study results and real-life examples although most of the workplaces he mentions are large tech companies and the scenarios don't always translate to an advertising agency or a retail outlet. I enjoyed the book, would recommend it, and I agree with Pink that the old models of motivation and reward are not working and are no longer applicable.  I would even say that this approach, or a form of it, is worth a try.

But I'm still skeptical about his belief that inside every seemingly lazy, disaffected worker is a hard-working Einstein just waiting to burst out if only the workplace culture is revolutionized.  It doesn't take into account the many personality traits and innate differences that shape humanity.  In my experience as an employer, wife, friend and mother, I know that some people genuinely want to do a good job at everything they touch and will respond to any kind of motivation.  Others can only excel if they're passionate about the subject matter.  Still others are purely transactional, will work for money, do no more than what's required and don't care what you think of them. Some thrive in a structured environment where they're monitored closely and there's little room for distraction and others can be trusted to work at home and not spend the day watching Tom and Jerry reruns.

What do you think?  Are you ready to embrace motivation 3.0?