Make It Safe to Tell the Truth – Working Well With Coworkers

Giving feedback upwards is hard. Giving feedback downward is hard. Giving feedback to peers can be the hardest of all. We work closely with our peers. They’re often our friends. And still, we need to be able to speak freely when our coworkers violate our expectations.

The key to being able to give peers feedback (to give anyone feedback) is to agree that doing so is not only acceptable but expected. Before agreeing to give and receive feedback, peers need to set clear expectations of how they’ll work together and treat each other.

Telling people how you want to work with them is always easier than asking someone to change their behavior. But it often just doesn’t occur to us to tell our peers what we want and need from them. We’re busy. They’re busy. And don’t they already know what courteous workplace behavior looks like? Return all emails within a day or two, tell people if you’re running behind on a project and will miss a deadline, and call into meetings on time from a quiet workspace. Aren’t all of these behaviors fairly obvious? Do I really need to tell people these are my expectations? Uh….yes, you do.

If you don’t want employees dumping these challenges on their managers, help employees talk to each other.

Here are seven steps to help people who work together set expectations and hold each other accountable:

  1. Schedule a meeting during which people working together can discuss what they need from each other to be satisfied and productive. Then facilitate a discussion during which the group creates 5 – 7 behavior guidelines each person agrees to follow.
  2. Put the list of agreed-upon behaviors in a shared folder. Leave the guidelines there indefinitely.
  3. Give each person in the group permission to talk to individuals who violate the guidelines. This is very, very important. For the most part, employees won’t tell a peer s/he is missing deadlines, gossiping, or is distracted during meetings. People will suffer in silence and avoid the offender rather than speak up about the behaviors that frustrate them.

Ask the group to grant each other permission to speak up when guidelines are violated. Giving each other permission to speak up will make future conversations possible – difficult but possible. Without permission and these agreed-upon behaviors in place, people will suffer in silence or talk about each other, not to each other.

  1. Ask everyone in the workgroup to take feedback graciously, responding with “thank you for telling me,” rather than with defensiveness.
  2. Two weeks after making the list of guidelines, get the group together on a call to review the list, and make any necessary changes to it. Discuss behaviors that were omitted, aren’t realistic, and are realistic but aren’t being followed.
  3. Then follow up by facilitating a monthly conversation during which group members give honest feedback about which guidelines are being followed and which are not, and problem solve as a group. These conversations aren’t a chance to embarrass or call people out in front of a large group. If one person is violating a guideline, that conversation should happen individually. Group conversations keep the lines of communication open – which is essential to making working with others work.
  4. You will need a strong facilitator for the group discussions. The facilitator must tease out people’s thoughts while making sure no one gets blasted in front of the group. Don’t let concerns, that you know exist, be brushed under the rug. Group members must openly and regularly discuss what is and isn’t working about their work environment, or frustrations will build, and unhappiness and dissension will ensue.

It’s not too late to put these practices in place, even with a group that has been working together for a long time. Just schedule the conversation and explain why you’re having it. People will be relieved and grateful.

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