Monday, May 28, 2012

Author Interview: Elizabeth B. Brown, Working Successfully with Screwed-Up People, Part 1

We have a very special guest on Book Review Travels today. Elizabeth B. Brown, author of the book Working Successfully with Screwed-Up People has taken time away from her schedule to answer some very important questions that a lot people face in today's work world.

Jill Harris: Welcome to Book Review Travels, Elizabeth. Can you explain how you can improve a work relationship with a difficult co-worker without them changing first?

Elizabeth B. Brown: First and foremost, one must know that no one changes someone else. Change is a choice made by the person who determines what he is doing is no longer effective to earn what he wants or he perceives his beliefs to be untrue. Do you know how difficult it is to change your internal belief of right and wrong- or to even consider that your own actions are wrong? We see the world through our own eyes- my experiences, my worldviews, my faith. As irrational as it seems, you can be certain the actions that are causing you to spin are earning some reward and are justified in the mind of the person causing you distress.

So, how do you improve the work relationship?

(1) Address the question: Do I really want to bring about positive change in the negative relationship or do I prefer to have someone to blame for the workplace ills?
(2) Determine to be unflappable, imperturbable, and unflustered. Eventually, if you continue to respond with maturity, not allowing someone else’s actions to put you in a pickle, his tactics will change. Why? Because what he is doing to get his way is not working.
(3) Change your actions and responses. Change causes surprise. It is impossible to continue the same type of interactions if one of the parties has metamorphosed.
(4) Address wrongs up front instead of walking on eggshells trying to be ‘nice’ or ‘pretend‘ you didn’t understand or hear- or, when anything you do at the moment will elevate the level of dysfunction, walk away- physically or emotionally.
(5) Develop mental images and phrases that help you distance yourself from negative interactions: picture the person as a storm, blowing through or a pouting or stomping child.
(6) Use quiet calm down phrases if such will not add tender to the fire: “Sorry, you are having a problem with this… I’ll think about that… Let me get back to you on that…I hear better when you are talking, rather than yelling…You must be having a bad day…”
(7) Be real about what is possible to change, what might change, and what will never change.
(8) Determine your limits. Assess whether the benefits of staying in your position outweigh the cost of dealing with the challenges. Does this mean that if you change the person who is difficult will become a different person? Absolutely not, though you can be sure you will be different because you will have learned the valuable skills to keep from spinning off and around a SUP.

Jill: Should we assume that we are also one of the difficult people in a work environment, or should we assume that only others are difficult? (Is the problem you or I?)

Elizabeth: There is a degree of shrewdness you need before entering the workforce, and often no one tells you any of the necessary skills to obtain that wisdom. That is why thrown into a shot-gun marriage with a mix of people who have their own way of thinking and reacting, one can find himself wondering: Is the person really difficult, or am I just being overly sensitive? Is what I am asked to do unreasonable or merely a different way to get the job done? Is it the manner or quirkiness of my co-worker or boss’ personality that sets me off or is that acceptable behavior?

Most of us are bewildered by the get-along problems at work. We feel stuck between emotions, stung by out-of-the-blue encounters, wondering if we are the cause, and questioning what should be done to make things better. Maturity and experience help assess the situation, but the initial reaction to what seems wrong is to growl and lock on our body armor. Each of us is programmed to believe the way I act, interpret, and respond is the right way. But that doesn’t let you off the hook: you are part of a team. It is crucial to mature your skills at peacefully working with those whose burrs irritate.

Step back for an objective look. That may sound simple, but if it were a book like Working Successfully with Screwed-Up People would not be needed. Objectivity requires an analytical look, laughter, and respect for yourself, as well as the person punching your emotions.

• Analyzing cools the emotions. It also helps you see patterns. Most difficult people are not difficult all the time. Sometimes they are wonderful. Ask, ‘Why am I on fire with this person but not another who has many of the same traits?’
• Laughter about the situation prevents you from being jolted by every challenge like a wagon without springs.
• Respect allows you to consider the possibilities being offered by your co-worker without spiraling ‘I am right; he is wrong’ thoughts. Self-respect allows you to let wrongs or ridiculousness bounce off like water off a duck’s back.

It is crucial to mature your skills at peacefully working with those whose burrs irritate because, like it or not, you are part of a team at work. If you burrow in the muck you become an integral part of the problem and it is no longer just the other person’s behavior that is causing turmoil.

It may help to look at problems in relationships with difficult people at work as an opportunity to become wise. From them we learn what not to do as well as what to do to be a positive influence on those in our life.

Jill: Difficult co-workers can cause a lot of stress. Could you discuss how we can manage that stress?

Elizabeth: There are two simple facts about workplace stress that are helpful to consider when feeling overwhelmed. First, problems in the job, the duties, are most often referred to as challenges; problems with people, on the other hand, are labeled numerous words that describe acid-reflux irritations that cause us to spin rather than try to logic through the possibilities that might bring about change.

Second, stress is directly proportional to the degree to which you care. Not caring, you would do your best, shake off the irritations and frustration, and get your paycheck without concern about what others did or thought of you. Focused on the nuisances emotions wrap around the negative behavior of a co-worker causing chronic stress that, like mange in a dog, eats away at you.

You enable stress by feeling a pawn in negative encounters, unable to change or openly address the issue. The sense of ‘little control’ exacerbates the problem. But, it isn’t the fact that you are unable or someone hits your hot spot that is the problem; it is your response to the action. Anxiety, tension, fear, and anger do not exist independently of you in the world.

You need a plan. Freedom comes from determining what sets you off and then choosing to brush it off or address the problem directly. A plan helps you deal with reality: some things can be changed, some things might change, and some things will never change. One employee said he spent many sleepless nights worrying that his boss’ decisions were killing the business. Finally, he dealt with the facts. The boss owned the company and it was his to do with as he chose. As an employee he would do his best, state his ideas, then let it go. If the company went up in flames, he would find another job- a difficult reality, but he said, “Dealing with reality opened my eyes to the fact that my steaming did not change the boss.”

When you find yourself knowing better decisions could be made, do your best to share your ideas. If they are heeded, all the better for all. If not, find escape-valves for pile-up emotions: a walk at break time, pulling yourself away from a negative encounter before emotions escalate, talking yourself down, being flexible, letting off steam with a counselor, distancing yourself emotionally by key thoughts or visualizations… this too shall pass, this is a storm blowing through…

All the above techniques are good stress relievers; yet, the most significant possibility for lessening the negative effects of stress at work is a healthy social life with family and friends after work. People are nourished by caring relationships in which they are both served and are servant. Such out-of-the- workplace relationships are as crucial to health as fertilizer in soil. Positive relationships counter-balance the negatives spinning off SUP at work.

Jill: Can you speak about how the “hardwiring” of co-workers can make a difference in the workplace? How can it be used as a positive instead of a negative?

Elizabeth: The way we see and react to our world is both innate and programmed into us- nature and nurture. That is to say, key personality traits are ours through the gene pool and attitudes and beliefs inoculated through family, friends, and culture. The nature part of us is ours for life, unchangeable. The nurture part, the homegrown beliefs, can be changed with great effort.

So how do we deal with the encoded temperaments that nature has hardwired into our operating system: the core of each of us, the unchangeable when those traits are prepackaged and wired to the side of the coin from which we perceive, interpret, and judge information? We discern the difference between ‘who-we-are’ and how we behave. A discourteous, hurtful, or unjust action is a behavior choice, not temperament- a choice to be disrespectful.

Saying that, there is no question some differences are easier to respect than others. If you turn on in the morning but your boss isn’t awake until noon, you know to save critical issues until later in the day. If your desk is immaculate, but your co-worker’s is pile-up chaos, it is her problem, not yours. However, if you are a rule follower and your co-worker stretches the line, you will be troubled. If you think out loud it will be easy to judge someone who internalizes and finalizes his thoughts before speaking as less intelligent. If you believe business must be considerate of its employees and customers so everyone wins, you will be stymied by actions that only consider the business’ bottom line. You may be totally put off by the pessimist in your office that always sees the downside of the possibilities even as he considers you a flake for your disregard of ‘facts’ and unrealistic focus on ‘it-will-workout.’

In Working Successfully with Screwed-Up People we list ten key differences in temperament that affect our workplace interactions. (As you think about it you may discover even more.) Recognizing these traits makes it easier to screw the right light bulb into the right socket, figuratively speaking. Yet, some traits are less amenable to conciliation. The only possible position may be to shake hands and agree to disagree. Different perspectives, actions, and reactions may be best for overall business, but different does not feel better.

Jill: Can we really change a difficult co-worker? What about the person who seems to enjoy being difficult?

Elizabeth: It is true that no one can change someone else. Change is an inside job. But equally true is that if you metamorphose your actions and reactions, it is impossible for that person to continue the same type of interaction with you.

Difficult people are difficult because their actions get them what they want, regardless of any excuses they may use to justify the contrary. When what they are doing no longer works they will change tact. Unfortunately, too often we partner with them by being too trusting, too altruistic, too impressionable, too na├»ve, too susceptible to flattery, too desirous of praise, too immature, too materialistic, too dependent, too lonely. Deep down inside you know the game is out of balance. You just don’t know what to do about it. Feelings of agitation, anxiety, and uneasiness stir as innate sensors pick up on clues: something isn’t right with the praise, charm, crocodile tears, money, approval, attention, apologies, threats, intimidation, or whatever else is needed to draw you into the web.

Decide your course. Most problems do not resolve themselves. They only get worse as time goes by and you, by your silence, rage, or counter tactic, comply with the sought-after response. Consider your options, the cost of change, your limits, and boundaries if you intend to stay in your job. You may recognize that in this position ‘it is what it is!’ Or, you may see the possibility of change if you address the difficult person straight on… or discuss the problem and seek resolution with a supervisor or counselor. Do it honestly, quietly, and without rage, threats or blame. Refuse to self-talk the negatives: she won’t listen; I’ve tried and it doesn’t work; nothing ever changes.

It doesn’t take two people to change a difficult relationship. If one changes the way he interacts, the other must do likewise. That is a hope point. Yet, you are wise enough to recognize that doesn’t mean your being nice is going to change Mr. Bad Guy into Mr. Wonderful. It simply means you no longer are hostage to unjust or hurtful maneuvers. Won’t he be surprised when what has worked before no longer kindles your fire!

Jill: What can I do to handle the office politics? Can this have a positive use or do I need to just ignore it and hope things work out fairly?

Have you ever been in a supermarket when the cashier opens another checkout line? Competition begins at birth and ends at death. Being realistic about the unlikelihood that when you go to work, share your incredible ideas, or pour your all into a project, others on your team, viewing from their unique perspective, will question your plan and find flaws in your design has much to do with being wise. It’s not personal. Each of us internalizes and interprets the same issue from different vantage points. The problem is that we rarely stop for just sharing our point of view; we want others to join our team. The more on our side, the better we feel.

Eventually most people learn to temper their need to be the line leader and have the final word, but it is a slow process. You could lead the way by being more laid-back and less reactive, opening the door for others to act the same. Ignore, or divert the attention away from, the inconsequential childish games. But if the politics is branding someone, creating division, causing strife, speak up in support of teamship. Politics in the best sense entails the art of respect and compromise.

Jill: Is it possible to work with family? What are some tips you could offer for making this work successfully?

Elizabeth: Working Successfully with Screwed-Up People deals with getting along with difficult people in your workplace, but I assure you, the problems in a family business require not only this knowledge, but also a sheer determination to put family contention to bed. Families in business together split over issues too insignificant to be more than a speck on anyone’s radar. There is no getting away from business and fractured relationship problems if you work with a family member- and then go home with them, or even if you only join for holiday get-togethers. If the wheels of your family’s automobile are not running smoothly before you begin working together, you are in for a bumpy ride. However, if you work well together now, share responsibilities, appreciate your differences, easily forgive, and keep business problems separate from your relationship at home, you have a good chance of success and the added bonus of loyalty and caring for each other as a family.

Cohesiveness is less likely than division in a family unless the seven unspoken business rules discussed in the book undergird the business. Let me quickly nutshell them: Create a plan; choose the right person for leadership or responsibility regardless of birth order, age, or gender; talk out all issues; define responsibilities clearly; keep quiet until emotions cool; keep business in the business and home problems in the home; and importantly, use three words frequently: please, sorry, and thanks.

There may be a pot of gold in the family business if the family can hang together. But sometimes the best decision for family cohesiveness is to sell and distribute, or hire others to run the company store. That is a crossroads decision, a turning point, and one as personal as whether to stay or leave a marriage. Neither decision, joining the family business or selling out, is without some pain. But, the benefits can certainly outweigh the challenges if everyone determines that nothing will divide the family- first priority: family.

Jill: What can you do to change things when it’s the boss or supervisor who is causing the problem?

Elizabeth: The first critical step in dealing with a difficult boss or supervisor is settling the question of whether you are staying or leaving this position or job. That decision empowers you to keep a lid on steaming and streaming emotions! Staying? Know why you stay. If the job is worth the headaches, put on your big boy pants. Business works off an authority chain and, like him or her or not, the one in the power seat is in charge. A bad boss offers you the great opportunity to grow maturity that empowers you to detach, control your emotions, and with calm offer the help and/or advice that may or may not be accepted or appreciated. Consider that you obviously are needed or you would be looking elsewhere for work. That should empower you to set limits as to what you will allow.

Many times a bad boss or co-worker can be outstayed, especially in large and multilevel companies, churches, schools, hospitals, and corporations, but be assured staying under someone who fits the emotional description of screwed-up is costly unless you focus on the good you bring to the table and the company. Perhaps in what feels like impossible situations, you recognize that not only your skill set is needed, but, also your encouragement, support, and kindness to a difficult boss and your co-workers who also feel his dysfunction.

You can be sure if you work for a difficult boss I would be wishing for you the same as our dog who watched a skunk eating from his food bowl: wisdom and patience.

Jill: At what point and in what situation is it best to consider leaving a job? What are some keys to knowing when this is the best option?

Elizabeth: No one can answer for someone else whether staying the course in a job is the best decision. Staying does not mean you are stuck in the job; leaving doesn’t imply failure, a bad choice or inability to cope with your co-workers. Both are crossroads decisions, very personal.

For many of us the job we are in is not what we wanted to do- and certainly not our image of whom we were going to be when we grew up. For those, quitting a job is an epiphany, a calling to follow a dream or simply change direction. There is excitement and anticipation of possibilities. For others, there comes a time when the stacked problems cause an internal scream, “Enough is enough.” Leaving is painful but, like an optional surgery, is chosen for the hope of making life better.

Consider that staying in a job unhappy and bitter or leaving while clinging to the injustices is always negative. No one wins if staying engages halfway, wishy-washy, lukewarm, or negative effort. No one wins if after leaving you dwell on the negatives from the previous job. Make a choice. Straddling the fence is always a poor course management. It not only messes with the heads of those with whom you work, it wraps you around the wrongs: what you are not getting, what they should do, who is unfair. For your own sake, don’t play the ‘what-if’ game too long. Evaluate the negatives and positives and determine your course.

So, when is it best to leave? Ask yourself the following questions if the question looms in your mind. This might be the time to consider a move to another position in or out of the company if most of your answers are true.
(1) I can afford to quit.
(2) I am overqualified and bored in the current position.
(3) Though I have tried diligently to work amicably with my team (and have carefully studied to see if I am exasperating the people-problems), I am unable to find ways to ease the stress and tension.
(4) I am being passed over for promotions and sidelined even though my experience level should open the doors.
(5) The job requirements, hours, commute, etc. are creating tremendous tension in my home life.
(6) I am being asked to do things I consider unethical.
(7) I am being expected to do things that I know are illegal.
(8) I feel the need for a career change.
(9) A change in polices or staffing is unacceptable to me.
(10) My work feels like work.

Jill: What are your best advice and/or encouragement for people who have been laid off or dismissed in today’s competitive and highly changing work world?

Elizabeth: Foremost, do not panic. Breathe. For several weeks do something completely non-work related- a vacation, a visit to friends and family, something from your wish list. In this time your mind will slow down from sheer reactive crisis state to priority-decision time. Few see being forced out of their job as a blessing, but what if it is an opportunity? Begin to look forward. You will never see what lies ahead if your focus is on what you left behind.

Center on what you want to do with your life, not the bills. Of course, you do have to eat. Take advantage of the non-employment pay to keep a roof over your head if it is available- as a temporary stopgap, not as a paid vacation where you won’t search for work until the payments end. If there is not a pay umbrella, become creative. You can mow yards, hostess at a restaurant, or whatever may bring in a bit of cash.

The best time to find a job is while you are in a job- so, the sooner the search (after your emotions settle), the better. The job market is even fairly bleak after being out of work a year.

Practical tips:
• Work your networks. Who do you know that might be able to help you find another position? Many find their next job through a people to people recommendation. Be sure your resume is a reflection of your professional character. No matter how stellar your career, most resumes are handled on-line and sloppy results in an immediate delete.
• Drop the pride-thing. You may have been the top dog, but if a position opens that puts you back in the game, be careful about judging its merit on pay or title. Like yeast in flour, you have to be in the job to rise to the top, even when you have proven your abilities in a previous work situation.
• Become tech-savvy. Technology is critical to most jobs so if you are behind catch up.
• Be shrewd. Pushing the limits of middle age? Reflect on your last few years of work, not your entire history.
• Consider the opportunity for a career change. This may be the time to reenter the training track for a career that is more attune to your age and interest.
• Volunteer. Use your downtime to serve. Serving others puts life choices in perspective.
The hope is that you will say as many, “Losing my job turned out to be the best thing that has happened to me!”

Jill: What is your best advice for making things work in the workplace?

Elizabeth: 1. Know yourself. 2. Take responsibility for you own actions and reactions. 3. Imbed into your subconscious the words of Mother Teresa’s prayer:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It is never between you and them anyway.

Jill: Thank you, Elizabeth for sharing this valuable insight with us to help us in today's work world.

Jill: Readers, today's conversation with Elizabeth B. Brown only touches the surface of the contents of her new book Working Successfully with Screwed-Up People. Not only will this book help you determine if you are working with difficult people but it will also give you discernment as to whether you are one of the difficult people in your work environment as well. Working Successfully with Screwed-Up People is now available at your favorite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Stay tuned this week for more intriguing answers from Elizabeth B. Brown regarding topics from Working Successfully with Screwed-Up People...

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