Farrar's Faucet: A psychologist’s candid, productive and often humorous take on principled business behavior and better business outcomes.

Disagreeing without being disagreeable

We are currently working on three projects that involve significantly changing workplace cultures.  The projects are proceeding at different speeds, and I think it’s largely due to the ability of the staff to disagree without being disagreeable.

I’m not discounting the technology and infrastructure required to make change. You need a certain level of each…things like email systems, time for group meetings, and appropriate pay and incentive structures.  All things being equal these provide the background for the human factors of change:  the ability of people to understand the need for change and make it happen.

Workplaces are full of friction.  There are disagreements about accountabilities, customer requirements, the rate of change…the need for change!  Because workplaces are full of people they are also often full of the things people disagree about when they’re not at work:  religion, politics, sport, relationships and so on.

Things go more slowly when more time that is spent disagreeing on a action before taking action.  Things go less effectively when disagreeing gets in the way of choosing a right course of action. Disagreements about non-work issues can spill over and get into the way of work.  Being able to disagree in an agreeable, effective way is central to being able to manage work and change.

In every change project we undertake we first establish a set of ground rules for how people should treat each other.  Organizations don’t have to use our ground rules, but if they don’t have anything better we think they should at least have something like these.  We call them the Basic Interpersonal Skills:

1. Treat everyone as you want to be treated
•    With dignity
•    And respect
2. Maintain and enhance other people’s well-being
•    Be specific,
•    Be sincere
3. Always make an effort to make things better
•    Be firm with the facts, and fair with the people
•    Ask for help and engage other people to bring their time, talent and trust

I have written about the Basic Interpersonal Skills before, and you can see some of the context for the skills here.

In the workplaces where change is moving quickest the leaders have a vision of the future and have established a set of values with all the staff that determine common standards of behavior along the way.  One organization calls theirs “The Golden Rules Of [workplace X]”, and they had mouse pads and other supporting materials put up so everybody knew the rules.  Another organization called theirs “Our Mission, Vision and Guiding Principles”.

In most places the behavior standards look a lot like my Basic Interpersonal Skills, and that’s because there are good, frequently repeated studies showing the power of the three skills.

The Basic Interpersonal Skills enable people to disagree without being disagreeable.  In the workplace it is an implicit condition of everyone’s employment contract that they speak up when they see opportunities for things to be changed for the better, and don’t feel they have to keep quiet when they see something they feel is wrong.  The Basic Interpersonal Skills make it safer for people to speak and and more effective when they do.

In the organization where the changes are occurring slowest we are going to work with the leaders and staff to have them come up with behavior guidelines and bottom line values.  We think this will make their workplace a better place to work, and help them with the changes and improvements they want to make.
Workplaces where the Basic Interpersonal Skills are taken for granted provide an environment where that can happen.

No comments: