The smartest things to do when we have a problem at work
If you have millennials on your team, you know most don’t like speaking on the phone. As we interview twenty-somethings, many tell us voice calls are not only time-consuming but require them to give their full attention to a glacially slow form of synchronous conversation. Yawn. Not only that, but many believe that calls are actually rude—as if they are making a sudden demand for the other person to speak to them, now, versus allowing that person to respond when they can.
Such attitudes about voice calls have certainly trickled over into other generations. We can’t count the number of times a manager has told us of phone-phobia appearing with older employees too. One manager related a recent conversation she’d had with an employee who is a professional woman in her forties:
Boss: “Did you get a hold of the client? He seemed pretty upset.”
Employee: “I sent him an email. But he hasn’t responded.”
Boss: “Did you call him?”
Employee: “I figured I’d give him a while. It’s only been a couple of days.”
Boss (sighs): “Can you do me a huge favor? Hang up with me and call him right now. Leave him a message if he’s not there. Can you do that? Then report back.”
When did we collectively lose the knowledge that, when problems arise, we need to connect with people personally?
As part of our day jobs, the two of us are asked to deliver keynote speeches to conferences around the world on culture and employee engagement. Keeping the calendar straight can get a little tricky, and recently something fell through the cracks and Chester ended up getting double booked on the same date. We can’t remember the last time this happened, but there we were with egg on our faces.
So, what did we do? We sent an email. Rookie mistake.
But hey, it was a great email, we thought. It offered a sincere apology to one of the conference organizers explaining how we’d messed up, asked for understanding, and offered some compelling alternatives that would allow Chester to fulfill the other promise while still delivering a wow to their attendees.
The response: No thanks. We sent another email; this one was even better—Shakespeare would have been jealous. We waited, prayed. The same response. The situation became tenser; Chester was losing sleep.
Finally we realized we were making the same mistake we were hearing about from our consulting clients. So we got the number of the conference organizer and decided to not only call her, but make the assumption she was a good, reasonable person who only wanted the best for her conference. So did we.
Sure enough, once we actually talked on the phone and had a chance to walk through the options, we came up with a great solution together. We ended up accommodating their conference, throwing in extras for the inconvenience, and still being able to live up to the other obligation.
In short, we assumed the best and picked up the phone, and good things happened.
And not only did we find a solution, but we began to develop a connection. Everybody messes up now and then, it’s the response to the mistake that will make or break a relationship. We got to know each other on that call, worked together through a dilemma, and we know will have the chance to work together again.
There’s an old saying that Chester’s dad passed onto him, it goes something like: “Assume the best about people, and 99 percent of the time you will be right.”
And yet there can be a lot of reasons we might not assume good intention in others. It might be a remnant of early man in us. On the Savannah, after all, it was not smart to indiscriminately trust others—they might have spears hidden in their loincloths. But in modern business, we accomplish much more by assuming the best, that people are reasonable and good, until proven otherwise.
Just imagine your place of work if everyone assumed the best about their teammates, suppliers, bosses and customers. Heck, imagine what would happen in politics if each side would assume the other side had good intentions, even if they didn’t agree with their policies.
Of course there some bad people out there, but not as many as we might be led to believe by watching the news. The vast majority of people want to do a good job. Yes, they face challenges, pressures, internal ambitions, and they have made promises of their own. But if we give them the benefit of the doubt when things get tense, and talk things through personally—versus communicating only electronically—in most cases we can reach positive outcomes.
As always, we love to read your thoughts and stories. Are we up in the night about this—then tell us why? Or do you agree?
Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick are the New York Times bestselling authors of The Carrot Principle, All In and What Motivates Me. They are also co-founders of The Culture Works, an innovator in employee engagement and leadership training solutions.
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