What are common causes of workplace relationships that end unhappily? Usually, it’s a breakdown in one or more of the three “Cs”: Competence, Compatibility, or Communication.
The First “C”—Competence
This “C” concerns substantive performance expectations. The employee may lack the ability or willingness to get the work done in the way in which it needs to get done. When a gap opens between expectations and employee performance, helpful questions to ask are:
- Have I clearly communicated my expectations, the gap in performance, and why it’s necessary to close the gap?
- Have I worked with the employee to find solutions, such as exploring training needs, additional resources, working conditions, or other factors which, if addressed, might close the gap?
- Have I set up a “go-forward” plan with the employee by which I’ll assess behavior and measure results over a particular timetable?
The Second “C”—Compatibility
Many managers mistakenly attribute the failure of a workplace relationship to the incompatibility of the people involved. “We’re like oil and water. Nothing can be done.”
Before reaching this conclusion, take a close look at whether one or the other “Cs” may be at the heart of the matter. Are you attributing a problem to personality when it’s really an issue of competence or a failure of communication?
When performance expectations aren’t met, frustration typically follows. This emotion can create the appearance of a personality clash when the root is failure to perform. In any case, the focus should remain on performance and behavioral expectations. These expectations include how people treat each other at work.
In the rare case when the relationship truly is “oil and water,” it may make sense to end it. “Life’s too short for us to continue making each other miserable.” In that case, however, tread cautiously and seek counsel. If the personality difference potentially could be attributed to protected class status or activity, you could end up receiving an unwelcome lesson in employment law.
The Third “C”—Communication
Most breakdowns can be attributed to the third “C.” The parties get off to a bad start or something negative happens. The ships inexorably move apart in the night. Mutually-reinforcing assumptions are made. “She doesn’t care.” “He stacked the deck against me.”
If you’re in this situation, here are two acronyms that could help turn the ship around: D.I.S. and E.A.R.
D.I.S. stands for “Direct Immediate Specific.” The “D” means speaking directly to the employee with whom you’re having the problem. (No—email does not count!) The “I” represents eschewing avoidance and having that conversation at the earliest opportunity. Finally, the “S” represents foregoing general criticism (such as telling a worker “you have a bad attitude”) and instead providing specific feedback regarding the following:
- what observable behavior occurred;
- the results of that behavior;
- why the behavior and results matter; and
- how to fix the problem.
In addition, listen to your employee with your E.A.R. This means asking questions in a three-step sequence.
The first step is to “Explore.” Ask open-ended questions designed to engage the employee. “What do you think is the problem? What do you see as the solution? What are you prepared to do to help?”
The second step is to “Acknowledge.” Confirm your understanding of the key points the employee made from his or her perspective. “If I understand you, you see the issue as . . .”; “You believe the solution is . . .”; “You’re prepared to….”
The third step is to “Respond.” It comes last because: (1) the first two steps create an optimal environment for your message to be well received, and (2) responding after exploring and acknowledging helps you avoid making erroneous assumptions.
Combining D.I.S. with E.A.R. provides the best opportunity to determine whether the problem can be fixed and how to fix it. And if it can’t be fixed, you have the best chance at ending the relationship without rancor, bitterness, or desire for revenge—the breeding grounds for workplace litigation.
Jathan Janove, a former Ogletree Deakins shareholder and Director of Employee Engagement Solutions, is the Principal of Janove Organization Solutions (www.jathanjanove.com). Through consulting, executive coaching, and training, he helps organizations maximize the human potential within. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.