How I Use One Single Question to Change My Interactions at Work

When I landed my first job, I quickly found myself in a tricky situation: I worked with a coworker who thought it was ok to belittle me.

The attacks were subtle. He wouldn’t make eye contact when we were together unless forced to. Took every chance he got to make sure I knew he had more tenure than I did and therefore obviously knew more. Never tried to get to know me by making small talk. Never, ever asked for my input on anything.

We worked on the same team and it was daunting. It shook my confidence. I second guessed decisions and kept to myself during team meetings. I never felt good enough.

This went on for months, until I found the courage to confront him. It wasn't a pleasant conversation. I learned he was frustrated that I had been hired in at the same level he was, even though I was so much younger and just starting out. And he was taking that frustration out on me, sometimes even subconsciously, because he was so angry and couldn't get over it.

How often do we do that to others?

When we spend the majority of the day thinking about ourselves, we risk coming from a place of negativity or selfishness when we interact with colleagues. Our thoughts perpetuate subtle, belittling behaviors because we're only focused on ourselves. Sometimes we consciously do it, but other times we don't even realize how we're treating others because we are so focused on our own feelings.

It looks like:

  • I can’t believe I didn’t get credit in that email chain. Intentional reaction: Next time I'm just not going to reply at all.
  • My boss never thinks my ideas are good enough. Subconscious reaction: Not talking in team meetings, answering emails or playing on your phone instead, not interacting with the team.
  • I am so angry at the amount of things on my to do list. Intentional reaction: Since no one else on the team has as much work as I do, I'm going to complain every chance I get.

What if, instead of focusing on how we feel, we came from a place of: How do I want you to feel when we're done talking?

Most of the time we don't intentionally go into a conversation thinking "I want this person to feel like I don't like them" or "I hope they feel inferior to me after this" but that's exactly what happens when we spend the majority of the day thinking about ourselves.

Having an "I" perspective can be detrimental to how others view us, especially if what we're thinking about and dwelling on is always something negative and we let it affect how we treat others.

Next time you join that conference call, answer that email, or go to a meeting, ask yourself: How do I want others to feel when this is over?

Your "I" perspective will instantly disappear.

When We Show Up

What do you want to be known for? What values and traits are most important to you?

We all have different answers to these questions, but these answers have something in common: they all come from a place of good intentions.

I can guarantee you weren't thinking -

"I want to be known for throwing others under the bus. And for having low integrity. Oh! And I also want to be known for being rude and unfriendly.

-or-

"I value being passive aggressive. And making others feel like they're not good enough because I don't like them."

How we show up matters.

On our best days, we think about how we're showing up - we are intentionally kind, choose our words and tone carefully, think something through before we say it. (And on our very very best days, we might even think: How will this make the other person feel?)

But on our worst days? Pessimism, frustration, stress, or negative events can all dictate how we treat others. It happens subconsciously and as a result, we don't even think about we're being perceived, don't see a problem with our behavior, or worse - don't even care.

Once these emotions come out and start controlling our actions, it's hard to stop. That's where these questions come in.

Asking yourself: What do I want to be known for? and What values and traits are most important to me? are centering. They create pause, help to set an intention, and make us proactive, instead of reactive, to feelings.

Taking one minute to think through these questions works, and it works any time: Before getting out of bed, walking into an intense meeting, or talking to that annoying coworker who needs extra direction and guidance. While responding to a rude email, participating in a team brainstorm session, or dealing with a random drive-by while trying to get something really important done.

Here's what it looks like in action:

  • It's the weekly team meeting- no one really gets along and your manager is talking down to everyone for not hitting numbers and as a result there is finger pointing and blame being passed around. Instead of joining in, the intention could be: I want to be seen as flexible and a team player here, someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to get the team back on track. I value integrity and collaboration.
  • It's Monday morning and you're expected to stop working when new hires are brought around for introductions - but something blew up over the weekend and you're trying to get back on track and answer all the emails that came in Sunday night. Instead of just giving a quick smile, barely looking away from your computer, or even worse, ignoring them (thinking, why does it even matter if I say hello and act nice), the intention could be: I value friendliness and want to be seen as someone who cares about others and puts people first. I want to be known for making others feel good about themselves. I don't want to be known for being the standoff-ish one who is always too busy to say hello.

How we show up matters. Be intentional about it.

The "F" Word

Feelings.

There, I said it.

Most of us have been conditioned to not discuss how we’re feeling at work. Maybe we’ve had leaders who didn’t do it, so we grew up in the workplace thinking it was taboo. Or our current boss judged us for sharing something pretty personal so we shut down and stopped altogether. Or we don’t even think about it because we’re by nature introverted or results focused and could care less about uncovering how someone is feeling.

In Gallup’s 2016 State of the American Workplace report, only 21% of employees say they are managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. If you have a team of four, that’s one person. One.

We can’t live like this.

Motivating employees is an art, but it all boils down to one thing: the need to be noticed. Ask me how I’m feeling – you’ve noticed me. Talk through goal setting and help me understand the strategic plan – you’ve noticed me. Give me feedback (positive or constructive) – you’ve noticed me.

When we don’t discuss feelings, we are leaving out a critical part of motivating an employee. Being able to openly share is a gift, and it doesn’t come naturally for a lot of teams, which means it’s up to the leader to ask the right questions.

·        What’s been your biggest success this week? What are you most proud of?

·        How are you feeling about __ project right now? Why is that?

·        What can I do to help you feel that your work is meaningful?

·        What in your work is really inspiring right now?

·        What are your top work values? How are they being met right now?

Feelings. We all have them, yet at work we pretend not to have them. We sit in 1:1s with our boss and say everything is fine, or don’t share about the big personal issue at home that’s affecting our ability to concentrate, or see our boss’s poker face all the time and think that’s the only way we’re supposed to be.

Or, we want to share but are never given the chance.

There's a new "F" word on the block. And using it could make all the difference.

Creating a Sense of Belonging

I've talked to a few friends recently who either don't feel like they have friends at the office or don't want to get a new job because they don't want to struggle at building relationships. It made me think about how difficult it can be to have colleagues become friends, but it's critical to feeling a sense of belonging at work. Otherwise, who can we bounce ideas off of, vent to when we're having a hard day, or share successes with?

I have a colleague who refuses to share anything personal about herself at work. She keeps a wall up and to others it comes across as rude and unfriendly. And guess what? She feels like others don't understand her and that no one supports the work she does. Guess how often she's willing to go above and beyond for people? 

We don't have to make work colleagues our best friends (though at one job I had that and it did wonders for my engagement), but creating relationships and building a sense of belonging is critical to engagement. It's also a crucial skill for leaders (I call this interpersonal savvy), because employees need to see their boss as "real" and not just a work robot. 

If you're struggling to build relationships at work, try one of these tips: 

Ask someone out to lunch. It seems simple, but introverts rarely do this. Getting off campus to learn about someone you work with creates friendly, casual conversation. If it feels out of your comfort zone, start with someone on your team (And if you've got direct reports, then please, please start with them. Going to lunch with other colleagues and never going to lunch with direct reports sends a bad message). Then, ask someone from another department, telling them that you're trying to learn more about the business. 

Start doing informal drive-by conversations. When I am trying to establish a relationship with a colleague, I will pop over to their desk to say good morning or ask how they're doing. It doesn't have to be a long conversation, but I'm betting that the more you do this, the longer the conversations will become, because you'll discover more and more things to talk about. 

Ask questions. I'm guilty of only focusing on myself in a conversation - what I've got going on, what's not working well, what I'm doing this weekend. Flip the script and stop talking! Ask open-ended questions (people love to talk about themselves). You'll learn more about the person and they'll think you're a great conversationalist because they got to share about their life.

Ask for feedback or ideas. I've made some pretty good work friends by simply asking for feedback on a project I'm working on or getting their thoughts on a leadership topic. Using someone else's feedback builds trust and creates a support system. If you've found someone who willingly gives you feedback about your work (bonus points if they're not on your team or if you get that feedback over lunch or coffee) then you've found a friend. Trust me. 

Smile. Results-focused people rarely smile around the office. They're too focused on what's next on their task list or what went wrong in the afternoon project meeting. Looking people in the eye and smiling invites them to talk to you. My colleague who refuses to share about her personal life also rarely smiles at coworkers or makes small talk in the break room. If you have direct reports, how often are you smiling at them and inviting small talk? 

When I started working in HR I rarely did any of these things. They were learned behaviors that a mentor had to teach me and that I had to watch others doing. Now that I incorporate each of these into how I work, I have better relationships, and it makes my job easier. Try it.