Why the work-around doesn’t work

20160227_152827.pngWhy the work-around doesn’t work

I once had a senior manager tell me that the reason she wouldn’t confront one of her direct reports about an issue was that she wanted to “preserve his dignity.”

Instead, she worked around him, hoping he’d figure it out.

Of course, he didn’t.

We have probably all seen (or done!) this at work. It’s understandable. Most of us spend more time at work than any place else and it can seem easier to avoid, dodge, or preserve than to address a situation head-on. Especially if it’s a situation we’ve allowed to fester. The problem is this quick work-around is obvious to everyone – often even to the person who’s being avoided – and it undermines morale of entire groups. The person at the center of the problem doesn’t get a direct opportunity to address whatever’s going wrong, which is certainly not a way to preserve their dignity, and avoidance breeds cynicism and distrust.

The telltale sign of a work-around is if you’re having a conversation about a problem with someone other than who the problem is about.

When you avoid saying what needs to be said to the person who needs to hear it, you’re working around the problem.

This can go from small things (not assigning a project) to organization-wide structures put in place to avoid one person’s behavior. The cost over time is much higher to work around the problem than to address it.

Next time you catch yourself having a parking-lot conversation consider these alternate approaches:

Say the unsaid.

If the manager had taken the direct report aside and told him clearly what the problem was, she could have communicated in a dignity-preserving manner what he needed to do to improve instead of leaving him wondering why people didn’t respect him or want to work with him. Nobody wants to be the kid other kids don’t like but we can’t figure out why. Say what others are afraid to say.

Say the unsaid to the person who needs to hear it.

Respect your colleagues enough to tell them what they need to hear. Feedback isn’t easy sometimes, but it’s the only way we grow. Delivered with compassion and good intent, it’s the essence of professional respect.


Hear their side of things with an open mind. They may give you fresh insights or tell you something you didn’t know. Be open, so you can design the solution with them. If they’re “the problem” they need to be part of “the solution.”

Tell others what you’re doing

If you change your behavior, people notice. In the absence of an explanation, they will make up a reason and we are a creative bunch! So tell them what’s going on. The more direct you can be about why you’re trying something different, the more likely they are to understand and, when it works, emulate your behaviors.

If you’d like a straight forward read on how to work with others around you, The Power of the Other by Dr. Henry Cloud has specific examples you can apply to many situations.

5 Ways to Receive Bad News Better


I recently shared five ways to deliver bad news better, which got me thinking about receiving bad news.

We’re never just the person dolling out bad news (if we are, we might need to do some soul-searching with some close friends) and hearing something we don’t want to hear can be painful. But it can also be an opportunity to grow.

If you’re like me, you can probably think of a few  things you’d rather be doing instead of learning what’s not going right, but if you’re lucky, and people share the good, the bad, and the ugly with you, you may be able to mine some gold from those murky moments.

How to grow with grace?

1. Don’t try to be perfect, don’t pretend to be perfect, in fact, forget all about perfect.

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, baby, practice.”

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons. The thing is, I’m tone deaf and not musically inclined. A lot of practice made me better, but it never got me to Carnegie Hall.  Eventually, I stopped worrying about playing the piano and moved on to other things. But that phrase bugged me. A lot. The implication being that if you just work hard enough at something, you’ll get there. In my perfectionist mind, I hadn’t gotten there. That meant I was on the failing end and it was my fault.

The quest for perfection is something we admire and laude, but taken as an absolute it can prevent us from trying, learning, and seeing what’s not working. Criticism can bring up our defenses and a lighting-fast urge to “fix it” and get back on the perfectionist path can prevent us from taking the time to be open to what we’re hearing.

I’ve read a couple of books about Frederick Law Olmsted recently, and they both describe a young man in search of his path. Landscape architecture wasn’t a profession yet, and the man who eventually designed Central Park and so many other magnificent spaces tried his hand at surveying, being a sailor, running a gold mine, and farming (to name a few). When something didn’t work out, he tried something else. Over time, he developed his path and his profession in a way that suited his interests. I can only imagine that there must have been times when it would have been easier to try harder and stay with something he’s started.

Instead, he took what he needed from those experiences and moved forward; his ability to change course with integrity was a character trait noted by his friends.

If we’re not blinded by the search for perfection, we can be open to the sparkle of truth when something isn’t going as planned.

2. Give it a little time

Receiving bad news is not easy. No matter how much equilibrium we may be experiencing, it can knock us off balance. If we’re not ready to hear it, that’s okay. Sometimes the best way to receive bad news is over time. A day later….a week later…..sometimes it takes us a long time to see into our dark spots.

But what to do in the moment if you feel that rush of anger or adrenaline kick in?

Have this phrase handy: “I’m going to need some time to think about this.”

What if what’s really going through your head is “You have no idea what you’re saying, there are a million things wrong with your assessment and you’re wrong, wrong, wrong!”

You could try to set the record straight.

If there are inaccurate facts or missing pieces of information and the conversation is time-sensitive, you could try to share them on the spot. But if you’re emotional, you may not be able to hear what’s being said and you may not share your information clearly.

What about, “I think I can offer some clarification, can you give me a minute/hour/day/week?

3. Don’t let it get to you

I don’t mean ignore what’s being said, I really mean don’t obsess over it. When we ruminate, we can’t let it go. We have imaginary conversations in our head, we try out different versions, we test a response we wish we’d given. That’s a lot of brain power spent on being in a rut.

Does what you heard feel unfair? If so, ask yourself why. We react strongly to unfairness; we also react to the things that we know are our weaknesses. They rub us the wrong way and we go back to them like a spot we can’t reach, trying to resolve them.

If there’s  crumb of truth in what you’ve been told, you may be defensive, or you may eventually come to consider it closely and see it in a new light. Sometimes we’re just not ready to hear what someone else is saying. That’s okay. If the same thing comes up time after time, we’re likely to notice it and eventually come to it with an open mind.

Running up and down a rut, replaying a conversation, and imagining how we could show the other person how wrong they are are diversions that prevent us from relaxing into an open mind.

4. Let yourself change

We all change. An interesting study discussed in the New York Times about the “end of history” illusion shows that we are much better at acknowledging how we’ve changed from our past selves to today yet we are not able to imagine how we will be different in the future. Try it: have you changed from who you were 5 or 10 years ago? Now look forward: how different do you think you’ll be in 10 years? For most of us, it’s hard to imagine we’ll change as radically in the future as we have in the past.

It’s okay to change your opinion, to adapt to new information, and to seek out new situations and experiences.

You will change.

5. Know what to ignore

These suggestions assume that the giver of bad news is well intentioned. There will be times when someone says something that isn’t true, isn’t well intended, or is downright hurtful.

Not everyone is here to help us grow, and it’s okay to toss those in the mental rejection file.

If you’re interested in the other side of the conversation, check here.

You’re doing great! You’re failing miserably! (and other useless feedback)


I got a book from the library a few weeks ago called Thanks for the Feedback – the art and science of receiving feedback well  by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.

Feedback? You probably want to stop reading right now, don’t you? Or offer some…

The funny thing was when I opened the book, the book jacket was on backward and upside down. I wondered for a moment if this was a librarian’s joke (our librarians have a great sense of humor- and I speak from personal experience here). Was I supposed to figure out how to give them feedback about the book?

But here’s the thing that makes this a great read – it’s that one extra word in the title: receiving.

The bottom line here may be that it really is all about you. How do you manage feedback? Because if every conflict has at least two parties, and you’re one of them, then you know which one you might stand half a chance of managing, right?

The book got me to think about how we use feedback at work and how fraught with conflict it often is.

  • A co-worker who is trying to help us see into our blind spots
  • An employee who is not meeting our expectations
  • A boss who doesn’t communicate well
  • Customers, committees, boards, clients

And outside work, we are always getting and sending messages to our friends and family.

Most of us really want some real information about how we’re doing, but it can also be hard to hear what usually sounds like criticism.

I recommend reading the book if you’re looking for a really thorough study of the art of receiving feedback with lots of how-to examples.

But here’s a specific aspect of feedback that can help reduce conflict. How specific are we being?

When a performance review, for instance, says “great job!” it’s hard to know what about your work was valued. The lack of specificity may even make us doubt that our supervisor knows what our work actually entails. They haven’t given us any clues to go by. Was it my presentation style? My written report? My interaction with a team? My supervisory skills?

When we’re trying to grow or develop a new talent or skill, we’re especially interested in knowing how we’re doing.

Specificity in feedback can reduce misunderstandings and conflict.

Let me be specific.

When we’re giving feedback, we can reduce confusion and increase clarity by sharing our observations in detail.

Instead of this:

Great job at this morning’s meeting. Let’s hit the deadline.

Maybe this:

At this morning’s meeting, you said (insert quote of that thing they really said – not a paraphrase – this may require you to jot down some notes occasionally). I was pleased because it showed an understanding of the group’s assignment and you were asking for others to contribute to the project (I’m making this up, but you get the idea – why is what they did important?). It’s important to get this project done on time and I appreciate your efforts to include everyone in the room. Do you need anything else to meet the deadline?

That’s an example of how to give feedback though. What if you’re on the receiving end of the first type of feedback?

You may try to ask for the specific information you need.

Imagine this:

Supervisor: Great job at this morning’s meeting. Let’s hit the deadline.

Awesome. Except I have no idea what was great. I was trying to manage three conflicting personalities in the room and my kid might be coming down with a cold and I kept hoping the school wouldn’t call in the middle of the meeting. And, by the way,  I’m nervous about this new project.

You: Thanks, I know the deadline is important to you. Can you share a little more about what you observed this morning that was successful? That might help me better understand what you’re looking for. This is a new type of project for me and I’d like to be able to meet your expectations.

Supervisor: No worries, you’re doing great, just keep doing what you’re doing.

Okay, s/he’s getting a little irritated. Maybe they were not really paying attention during the meeting? How can I reframe a check-in as being in their best interest? And perhaps model some of what I’m looking for?

You: Thanks, I know you have some high expectations here and it would help me to spend a few minutes sharing what I think is working and what our next steps are – maybe we could check in for 5 minutes later today? I’ll bring some specific questions so we can keep it brief.

Supervisor: Okay, sure, 5 minutes.

You: Great.

Ack! I wonder if I have time to run to the library, get that book, read it all and use it…..haha. Okay, what am I really after in this conversation? And I’d better arrive prepared with specific observations and questions that can be handled in 5 minutes.

Now it’s back in your court. The conflict in this particular situation is internal. You’re looking for information, guidance, direction, and your supervisor isn’t giving it.

Maybe by modeling the specific interaction you’re after, they’ll be able to give you what you need.

If you’re lucky enough to have employees who are asking for feedback, Thanks for the Feedback – the art and science of receiving feedback well  by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. is a good resource.

Taking the sting out of giving – and hearing – feedback can reduce a lot of workplace tensions.

Do you have examples of how you’ve tried this?

Has it worked?

When has it backfired?