Management, employees: Success is in the pronouns

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We need to talk” is an announcement that bad news is coming, and that’s a shame.

We do need to talk. We need to instruct a new employee, explain why there’s a change in the work plan or tell someone she did great work. So why is it so difficult to talk about what really matters in the workplace?

Some business managers are at ease talking with their employees but most bosses dread meeting with individuals or groups of employees about anything that won’t be good news, requires a bit of finesse or will generate difficult questions.

Some employees don’t make it easy. In any group of employees there is always one or two who are sure they could run the business better than “that moron I work for.” They will use a group meeting to posture and show-off some jargon, if not knowledge. Any meeting with the boss is a chance to complain or campaign for or against something or someone.

For every employee who stays focused on the topic and asks good questions there is an employee who is not listening or is trying to push his own agenda at every turn. I understand why so many managers avoid meeting with employees.

I have had to attend all kinds of employee meetings and have seen some horribly stiff, defensive presentations and watched as the employees complained, smirked or dozed off. I have seen meetings that were combative, and a few that were bizarre.

The first time I witnessed Frank, the CEO of an insurance company, lead a meeting with his managers and supervisors, I pinpointed the cause of the problems in his company. It was Frank. He made long pointless speeches, and instead of allowing the managers to ask questions he did the “you might be asking” technique that allowed him to ask and answer his own questions.

But what made Frank a standout for the bizarre award was an affectation he had. He would pause for dramatic effect, throw his head back as far as his neck allowed, his mouth would open wide, his eyes rolled back, and he would flick his tongue out as if he were trying to catch a fly. The first time Frank did this I asked my seatmate if we should be dialing 911; I thought Frank was having a seizure.

One of the fastest and easiest ways to understand what a business is like culturally is to attend a meeting. Frank the fly flicker wasn’t interested in anyone’s ideas or questions. He was the CEO, he called the tune, did a little dance and expected applause. His managers gave him nothing more than a token greeting as they rushed out of the room when it was over.

I have also attended a meeting with a few hundred employees packed uncomfortably into a small cafeteria. Ken, the CEO, made some announcements, presented a slide show that was mostly sales numbers and a progress report on different projects. Any employee could raise a hand, ask a question and Ken would listen carefully, make a bad joke and answer the question if he could or ask the other employees to chime in with information.

What Ken did was act as the MC instead of the entertainer. He facilitated a meeting that had an agenda but allowed for a free flow of questions and discussion. People were engaged, ideas were put forward and everyone was comfortable.

Ken had about 400 employees. He didn’t know everyone, but he made it a point to wander around the facilities and stop and talk with employees at random. He was nosy, always had an opinion but had learned to listen to the employees doing the work. And the employees appreciated being heard even if he didn’t approve their suggestion; he took the time to explain his reasoning.

With Ken there was mutual trust and respect. He didn’t need to try to impress and the employees felt no need to put him on the defensive.

There is one other quick way to know what a business is like — it’s in the pronouns.

If people use the inclusive “we” and they are talking about everyone — employees and managers — that’s a good sign. But when I hear people use “they,” that’s a sign that the managers and employees don’t see things the same way. They aren’t motivated. They don’t listen. They don’t try. They don’t care.

Listen to a lifelong fan of the 49ers or Seahawks: We made a touchdown in the final seconds. We got into the playoffs. We did something great today.

Even when the team fumbles and the game is lost: We should have prepared better. We do need to talk ... regularly, respectfully and honestly.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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