In the last month I have twice experienced two different managers from two different organizations and one of their employees coming to me separately to express concern about a situation between the two of them. In both cases it was clearly a lack of communication, with each individual seeing the situation from only their perspective.
From an outside view, all four of these individuals were valuable and skilled employees who were doing a good job in their roles. However, in both cases, the employees felt like they were being given too many or shifting priorities by their manager, and the manager felt the employee was not doing what they needed them to do.
My advise to all four individuals was the same. Have a conversation that starts with, “Help me understand…”
Stephen Covey’s Fifth Habit in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Managers is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. This advice works equally well for leaders as it does for individual contributors. It is an approach that you can use regardless of your position or role within an organization.
All too often we see only our view of the world and fail to step into the shoes of the other person and see their view as well. If you have had the opportunity to experience Niagara Falls from both the Canadian and U.S. sides (or seen pictures from these two views) you know how different the same falls look depending on your perspective. The situation I described above with the managers and their employees was very similar to looking at Niagara Falls from two different sides of the river. By expanding your view to understand the other person’s perspective, you can significantly improve communication and working relationships.
Here is how it works from the leader or managers perspective: You have an employee who complains that they have too much to do or that they cannot take on an assignment you ask them to do because they are already too busy and you feel like they should have more than enough capacity to do the assignment. Rather than becoming frustrated or irritated with the employee simply sit down with them and say to them, “Help me understand what all you are doing and the time it is taking to do each of these things.” As a manager, it is your responsibility to help your employees problem solve and prioritize their responsibilities. It is also important to explore if any of the resistance may have to do with the employee feeling like they don’t have the skills or competence to take on the task. Often this is the case but the employee is reluctant to admit that they do not feel competent to do the job.
Here is how it works from the employee’s perspective: You feel like you have more work than you can possibly do and then you get one more assignment, task or priority. Rather than suffering in silence or complaining to anyone and everyone except your manager, sit down with your manager and say, “I am happy to take on this latest assignment. However, I need your help prioritizing. Here is what I’m working on. Help me understand what is most important.” If part of the issue is that you feel like you don’t have the skills to do the assignment or that it will take you an inordinate amount of time because it is not a strength are for you being willing to say so and explore options with your manager.
It is amazing how many issues a simple conversation that starts with “Help me understand…” can solve and how much it can strengthen your working relationships. And yet, it amazes me how infrequently such conversations occur. Next time you encounter an issue with an employee, your manager, a colleague or even your kids or spouse, try implementing Covey’s Fifth Habit: First seek to understand…