Archive | February, 2009

Getting Inspired to Write

24 Feb

calliope2Some of us write for a living, and some for personal enjoyment. Or both. Any writer will admit that there are days when the muse just isn’t accessible. Call it writer’s block or just plain lack of inspiration, the inability to write is frustrating. In an agency environment that’s based upon productivity, writer’s block is an unfortunate inconvenience.

I’ve used the word “Blogamucil” to describe my tricks for more regular blogging. Laughing about it helps, but it doesn’t always solve the problem. Trouble is, there’s no cure for writer’s block. But there are things that can reset your creativity. Here are some of the things I’ve found to help:

  1. Walk around the block, or up and down a few flights of stairs. A change in perspective and a good dose of adrenalin can release new thoughts.
  2. Have a conversation with someone who will make you laugh. Often when I am blocked, I am simply taking myself or my writing task too seriously. Humor interjects new perspective into stale ways of thinking.
  3. Expose yourself to something artistic to encourage feeling, rather than analytical thought. This could be music, visual art, someone else’s  writing or dance.  The point is to short-circuit the cerebral processes and get to your soul, which is authentic and grounded—and also the basis for your creativity. This applies to all writers—creative or technical. Even when writing is structured, it is an organic process that must be inspired by something crafted for a unique purpose. When it feels forced or humdrum, we are not at our best.
  4. Learn more about someone else’s creative process. Reading biographies or watching documentaries about creative people always inspires me. PBS recently ran programs about two of my favorites: Jerome Robbins and Billy Strayhorn. Having some insight into others’ own self-doubt and creative challenges is reassuring. Or, instead of learning about a famous person’s creative muse, just talk with a good friend who creates.

What inspires you to create? Tell me how you reach the muse.

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Working with Difficult People: Part 5

15 Feb

What’s the definition of a “difficult” person? This installment is a reminder that it’s all relative—“difficult” is defined by our attitude and perspective on the person, and what reactions we chose to have in a given situation. One person’s “difficult” co-worker is another person’s genius.

From time to time, a company will bring in an industry outsider who’s an expert in transforming organizations, spurring them on from the status quo to the better “what’s next.” Of course, change IS good, but NOT when it’s just for the sake of change.

Mindful, careful change of strategies and processes rejuvenates and energizes our work. This is welcome when people need motivation and a different perspective. But when the real motivator for change is getting rid of people who don’t think like upper management, beware the Change Agent. This type is a difficult person.

Just like stepmothers, Change Agents have no blood ties to the family/organization. This puts them in a position where decisions can be made that do not honor the family’s/organization’s historical ethic—and thereby cut out the heart of its being, at the worst. Of course, not all Change Agents are like wicked stepmothers—just as all stepmothers are certainly not evil. But being awake and aware during change processes will benefit you in the long run. You can learn and thrive through the shifting landscape.

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Some hints for coping with the Change Agent:

  1. Openly engage in conversation (meetings, etc.) organized by the Change Agent. Be an active participant. Don’t blow off the Change Agent, because often s/he will have helpful angles to share. The Change Agent may seem like a difficult person at times because they push you outside your comfort zone, but that’s not all bad. Be open.
  2. Learn new ideas to help you grow professionally from the experience. Observe how those around you react to the experience of change. Observe your own reactions, but try to stay detached from your feelings about the process, so that your own reactions are measured—positive or negative.
  3. Carefully choose your words when responding to questions about what you think works and doesn’t work. Focus more on processes and products than people. Be aware that the Change Agent could take any of your comments out of context, innocently or not, and translate any perceived criticism into one of two things: 1) This person complains a lot and is an impediment to change; or, 2) This person has identified someone else in the organization that could be eliminated because they are holding us back.
  4. Keep your professional networks open and growing. This applies inside and outside the organization. Outside perspective will help you to roll with the changes. Inside perspective will help you to commiserate with trusted peers and advisers if the change is challenging for you.
  5. Exercise your judgment—and trust it. There are elements of change that will stick, and others that won’t. Some of what the Change Agent puts in place might remain—hopefully to benefit the company’s efforts. But much of what purported agents of change bring to the table can be shortsighted and neglectful of core strategic priorities. Speak up if any of the changes suggested by the change agent would damage your core business or valued customer base, and put your concerns in that context.
  6. Be thoughtful in your response to change. Don’t be afraid to question what doesn’t fit the culture and values of your organization, and welcome the aspects of change that will truly improve the company. Remember that Change Agents are inherently proselytizers—their job is to bring everyone along and marginalize those who don’t agree. Keep the change process in perspective, and don’t take it personally if you are criticized during the proceedings.

Here’s an essential reminder if you encounter a Change Agent who’s a difficult person:

Like the wind, change blows in, and it blows away.

So don’t become overly attached to the Change Agent. Likewise, don’t be too disappointed if you don’t agree with where the Change Agent is leading the organization, because it’s likely that they won’t be there for the long haul.

Working with Difficult People: Part 4

14 Feb

Bosses come in all personality types. Some are overly demanding and never satisfied. Others treat us like children. Still others treat us like friends (when clearly we are not). And then there are the bosses who just won’t do their jobs. Today’s post is dedicated to a difficult person that must be handled very delicately: Slacker Boss.

Undated cartoon of a obese man sleeping in a chair with his hands folded over his belly.  The caption reads "Fast Asleep."  Undated Cartoon by Gillray.  Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Undated cartoon of a obese man sleeping in a chair with his hands folded over his belly. The caption reads "Fast Asleep." Undated Cartoon by Gillray. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Once I had a boss who was famously unprepared, on a regular basis. At a meeting with dozens of partners before whom he was sent to present, he forgot to bring his Powerpoint slides. I spent the first half of the meeting’s agenda recreating his presentation for him, just in time for him to deliver it—newly minted after 10 minutes. Whew.

Another time, I had arranged a staff meeting for him with all 50 employees. Everyone filed into the room and was ready to listen to his words of wisdom, but he did not appear. Where was he? We had the handouts there, the projector was fired up and flashing a tempting title slide…but no boss. I sneaked out of the room and did a floor-by-floor search. Turns out he was two floors up, casually visiting with a friend…not a care in the world. Thirty minutes AFTER the presentation was set to begin, he waltzed in. Boy, that room was hot. Urgh.

In my industry, it’s important for people to look good. But PR for the Slacker Boss is difficult. Try as we might, we cannot gloss over laziness. He knows how to do his job, but he doesn’t put a priority on it. For me, there’s a real disconnect when I am working for someone who does not model the type of expertise and behavior I can look up to. It’s just not as fulfilling as working for someone who is intellectually ans psychologically “on it”—and cares about the work.

Reporting directly to a Slacker Boss is anxiety-provoking. Do we make him look good or not? If we do, people catch on and know that we’re covering for him. If we don’t, and he goes down, our job could be at risk. Another likely outcome is collecting resentment against the Slacker Boss, which does nothing good for us. Running through all of the scenarios to formulate the end of “If he had just…” drove me to distraction. It’s just not worth the time.

Blogger Chief Happiness Officer (what a title!), aka Alexander Kjerulf , has some good ideas for how to deal with the Slacker Boss. What it all boils down to is this:

Project, personality and boundary management

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Be clear about what you will handle, and explain this verbally and in writing.
  2. Don’t accept responsibility for Slacker Boss’s failings.
  3. Stay well-networked within your company to demonstrate your work ethic to colleagues and others up the chain from Slacker Boss, and ensure that you are not seen in the same light as Slacker Boss.

Tell me about your experiences with a Slacker Boss…I’d love to hear about how you managed this difficult personality.

Working with Difficult People: Part 3

8 Feb

There are times when through collaboration at work, we forge bonds that stand the test of time. And then again, there are times when we find friends that turn out to be frenemies. This post is dedicated to those special people out there who suck the life-force from you—the vampires of the workplace who drain your blood supply to a trickle. This unique type of difficult person at work is called: The Friend Who Wasn’t.

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My experience with frenemies at work has been limited to the female variety, but I’m sure that the male ones also exist. Either way, it’s a variation on the same theme. In the extreme, the Friend Who Wasn’t moves in the for the kill by luring you into a trusting state, then they execute a power-play, back-stabbing action before you realize that you need to make a substantial investment in garlic. If you can avert this type of outcome, then she’s just mildly irritating.

Here are some warning signs:

  1. Bending over backwards to help. This “friend” offers to stay late, help you with menial tasks and otherwise ingratiate him- or herself to you. There’s a motivation for this, which you will later learn about. Don’t take this at face value.
  2. Telling you their life story and innermost secrets. This is particularly a tendency with women, who share secrets in the process of building friendships. But this person goes beyond, by sharing information that’s a bit too intense. They have no boundaries and want to dump testimonials on you far too often. It may get a bit embarrassing. At all costs, be careful about sharing personal information with anyone who’s too forthcoming. It could signal issues you don’t have time or inclination to explore.
  3. Putting you on a pedestal. At first, this “friend” seems to worship you and feel like you can do no wrong. Really, no one is perfect, and neither are you, so don’t trust this behavior. Everyone makes mistakes, and the first time you do, the fall will hurt. Badly. Because The Friend Who Wasn’t’s pedestal has a trap-door like a hangman’s platform.

The best way to deal with the Friend Who Wasn’t and avoid unpleasant outcomes?

  1. Keep your distance. Build and maintain boundaries. Be courteous but non-committal in your dedication of time to this “friend.” By all means—do not go out for cocktails with this “friend.”
  2. Seek out friendships with people who will tell you when you are full of shit, and who will support you in times of need. Don’t buy into the extremes of “friends” who see work as a place for maneuvering and manipulation. The purpose of time at work is just that—work. Don’t hang out with people who want to turn it into a soap opera or reality TV show.
  3. Stay right-sized at work. Hire and work for people who have similar professional values. Keep your head on straight and don’t be led astray by people who have ulterior motives—including those who kiss up to you inexplicably or give you an unnecessarily hard time over nothing. Know yourself and don’t let anyone make you grander or lesser than you are.

My personal experiences with Friends Who Weren’t happened years ago, at a time when I was too immature and unaware to see the danger signs. I came away with a few scars but otherwise survived to tell some pretty interesting stories about the unbelievable things that people can do to themselves and others (which will not be published here or anywhere by me).

Perhaps the best way to summarize is this: Real life is MUCH more interesting than fiction, and it’s better to observe pathological behavior at work from the sidelines than to be in the line of fire.

Working with Difficult People: Part 2

7 Feb

This post is dedicated to that colleague you seem to constantly offend. Every day. There’s no rational explanation for it. Call it personality or style difference, call it philosophical mismatch. We’ve all been there. I call this type of difficult person: Corner Office Troll.

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Courtesy of Jan Brett

Sometimes there are people who just won’t like us, no matter how hard we work or how much we try to convince them otherwise. But being liked, or treated “fairly,” is not a requirement at work.

I once worked with a woman whose behavior was universally perceived as troll-like. Despite being quite charming, well-read and interesting to talk with, she put people off by her anti-social behavior. She embodied the character of the Troll in the “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Try to cross her bridge, and she reacted. Snarky e-mails, character-blasting commentary in meetings, routine snubs in social situations—it messed with me. I wanted so badly to figure out how to make her happy, but it seemed impossible.

Everyone liked her despite the gruffness, but she didn’t seem to have any care for others’ opinions. She just operated in a cut-and-dried way, getting the work done flawlessly and sending the message that no one could do it better. She was reluctant to engage with others on projects, preferring to work alone. Beyond being introverted, she shunned the company of others and seemed more comfortable brooding in her office. She would often mutter to herself, in negative terms, making it clear that she gave herself a hard time just as much as she criticized everyone else.

In my case, interaction with the Troll was particularly challenging because she played a role in evaluating my work. Here are some of the things I did to stay focused on the work, not her behavior:

  1. Be clear about the quality of my work. As much as I dreaded them, I had regular conversations with the Troll to ensure that my work performance was up to snuff. This helped me to separate her negative behavior from her assessment of my output and quality.
  2. Don’t gossip. There were PLENTY of ironic and amusing real-life stories that arose from my well-intentioned but usually unsuccessful attempts to win over the Troll, but I did my best to not speak negatively about her with other co-workers. I’ll admit that processing the Troll’s antics with colleagues helped me to keep a sense of humor and perspective, but there is a fine line between gossip and commiseration, and I tried as hard as I could to not cross it. Character assassination has longer term effects that make any fleeting sense of gratification just pointless. This is just professional etiquette—even if it’s not reciprocated by the Troll. Integrity counts.
  3. Don’t take it personally. Some people just genuinely don’t care about other people. I am to the core a people-pleaser, so this was really hard, but I made a concentrated effort EVERY DAY to think positively and not let the negativity distract me from stellar efforts.

That being said, sometimes there’s only so much you can do. For the sake of career advancement, I did make the decision to leave the company, because working in the midst of a “my way or the highway” attitude was not challenging me to grow or learn. Instead, it seemed to be encouraging me to become more invisible and less noticeable, lest I offend the Troll. This is fear-based response, and I know it, so at a certain point I decided I had to move on.

Some time has passed now, and I have come to a better understanding of the Troll. I don’t wish her any ill will. I’ve come to understand that the judgment she directed my way was symbolic, in a way. Carl Jung talks about the shadow side, the part of ourselves that is repressed. In the Jungian framework, the Troll fits—as the shadow side who reminds us of everything we can’t do. Others like to think of this as the devil on our shoulder, the one who not only encourages us to do bad things but keeps us from performing to our God-given potential by discouraging us from trying, or scaring us into thinking that we won’t succeed. Simply put, it’s the bully within.

I came to see this experience as a learning one, in the end. The Troll, for me, symbolized the judgmental, “you can’t do that, so don’t even try” part of my own psyche. Every time the Troll criticized me, I internalized it, to my own detriment, instead of converting it into an opportunity for personal improvement. Maybe I am a slacker because I made it to work a few minutes late due to weather or take an afternoon off to attend an event for my child. Maybe I am disrespectful because I suggest another way of thinking about leadership. All of these acceptances of the Troll’s innuendo undermined my own creativity and productivity, and I let it happen.

The Troll’s lesson for me? Push back, professionally, and move beyond the judgment—be it externally or internally motivated. Don’t let the Troll’s reality become your own. Cross that bridge to the greener grass.

Working with Difficult People: Part 1

3 Feb

It’s a well-known fact: Life is a struggle. According to Buddhists, this is the only thing we can be sure of.

And like it or not, most of the struggles we face, provided our basic needs for food and shelter are being met, come as a direct result of our own actions, interaction with other human beings or a combination of the two.

Work is a place of productive conflict, where we toil in the field, whether we’re actual farmers or pod-dwellers. Anyone expecting to avoid conflict at work should just go back to bed, because a workplace without conflict is bereft of new ideas and forward motion. It’s as simple as that. But there are ways to get through the conflict and produce great deliverables in the end, while preserving everyone’s integrity in the process. Not everyone cares to live by this approach, much to our dismay. These are the curmudgeons, the “difficult people” whom we will no doubt encounter in our professional careers. We will work beside, and God help us, for them. We will have them working for us. They are out there…lurking. Making our lives more challenging. And helping us to learn more about what’s difficult in ourselves.

I’ve been asked by the Columbus Young Professionals to give a talk on dealing with difficult people in March. To help get me in the right frame of mind to share some (hopefully helpful) insights, I am going to blog on a few possible topics.

Today’s focus: Friday Afternoon Surprise


The Surprise is not to be confused with any variation of “Afternoon Delight.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

This is a situation created either by someone else in your workplace (but never you) OR by a client. Your goal is to promote a peaceful and collaborative workspace, free of conflict and strife. But others are bent against your lofty aims. We’ve all felt the Friday Afternoon Surprise. It’s that brick-dropping, pit-of-the-stomach gut wrench that is caused by either difficult people, difficult situations or both.

Warning signs are as follows:

  • Any e-mail with the subject, “Heads Up!” High priority e-mails are also suspect.
  • Any phone call made after 5:30 pm on a Friday.

Nine times out of ten, it’s a tempest in a teapot. Someone’s stirring up trouble, and they suck you into it. Or someone gets anxious about a situation that’s no big deal. No matter the cause, the end result is one or more of these frustrating circumstances:

  • Hand-wringing and nonsensical phone conversations and e-mail messages (which are bound to contradict one another) well into Friday night’s happy hour or family movie night.
  • Extra work beyond what you’d already planned for the weekend. You’ve dared to stake out a quiet Saturday morning to write that proposal that requires intense concentration, but the Friday Afternoon Surprise will have none of it. You will spend all day Saturday and Sunday mopping up that Surprise. Alas, the proposal will have to wait until next weekend.
  • Your entire weekend becomes an extended prelude to Monday morning.

How to evade the dread Surprise?

  1. Make a habit of taking off time on Friday afternoons. Working on-site with a client or from home are both viable options, because the Surprise’s heat-seeking missile capabilities prey on those who are physically present in the office on Friday after lunch. Being virtually present gives you cover.
  2. If you don’t have the luxury of #1–and let’s face it, few do–there are evasive maneuvers to avoid the Surprise. By employing judo techniques, you can step aside and let the Surprise follow its natural momentum, past you and into someone else. Overlook that e-mail message. Pretend like you never received that desperate voice mail message. But there are karmic consequences to be paid for these maneuvers, and you must be prepared to accept them when they come back to you.
  3. Set limits. While there are legitimate surprises that happen on Friday afternoons, most crises do not require an overhaul of your entire weekend. Seek help from your colleagues—don’t feel like you have to deal with the Surprise by yourself. You may also successfully talk the Messenger of the Surprise off the ledge. If you can put the Surprise into perspective for them, it may take on less importance in the scheme of things. By not avoiding the conversation and instead talking through a difficult situation with a clear head while laying all the facts on the table, you could do the Messenger a favor and help them think differently.

The Friday Afternoon Surprise is a good example of a difficult situation turning good people into difficult people. Then again, there are people who do seek out crisis and try to spread the crisis around, just to bring attention to themselves or prove a point. My husband, who works in mental health, calls these folks “histrionic.” It’s important to identify this type of behavior and nip it in the bud. Clarify what you can and cannot solve, and get on with your weekend.

Dedicated to Diamond.


Next topic in this series: That Guy Who Will Never Like You, No Matter How Wonderful You Are