"Your hours are 8 to 5. Your lunch time is between 11 & 1. I don't want to have this conversation again." She followed up with an email stating four arbitrary rules, similar to this one.

I had mentioned my son's elementary school concert was at 2:00 so I thought I'd skip lunch, go to the concert, and if it took a bit longer than the half hour, I'd work past 5 to make up the time. Granted, we had that conversation a few months before and her response with a condescending smile was "Sarah, lunch is between 11 & 1! You can take vacation time to go the concert."

I was not a shift worker. Maybe she missed the part of my job that said professional. Or maybe she didn't realize I wasn't hired as an administrative assistant with hours restricted by the times the phone must be answered. Perhaps she missed all the positive feedback we had received as a successful project team, particularly in reporting to our funders. 

Whatever her issue, what she was saying was that she didn't trust me to get my work done and that she was in control.

It was tempting to respond to the message with a similar tone. It was tempting to unleash a torrent of frustration via an email message, explaining that I am a professional, that her attempts at control were counter-productive. It was tempting to make a laundry list of her bad management practices, using specific examples of cruel things she said to me. I typed that list into a text document. I unleashed every frustation I had for the year I had worked for her, revealing the defensive, sad and angry feelings I had been experiencing for months. I listed every hurtful incident in that document. Then I printed it and closed it without saving it anywhere so I could take it home with me. I started my email response, closed the draft, and waited until the next day before finishing it and hitting the send button.

Thank goodness for the advice I was given years before.

"Always wait a minimum of 24 hours before sending anything you write while angry or frustrated."

I've added to that advice over the years. When I share the advice with others, I include any messages where the tone can be misinterpreted. I always suggest that when tone is really important, a phone call should be made to explain the email prior to hitting the send button. That advice has saved me many tense conversations, I'm sure. Of course, there continue to be times I hit that send button before really thinking through the message and audience. I've consciously hit that send button with the thought in the back of my head: "I just sabotaged myself." Those incidents are getting fewer each year and each job. Maybe it's the old adage that with age comes wisdom? Or maybe, just maybe, I'm not quite as impulsive as I used to be. Either way, those lessons I listed a couple of years ago - the lessons I learned from that job - continue to work for me, I just have to re-read them every few months.

It had to be embarrassing to the young mother when I brought her four year old son onto the stage between songs. One of our police officers found him wandering around the park, looking for his mom and getting scared. I figured the best way for us to connect the boy with his mom was to bring him up on stage and have him say his mother’s name into the microphone. There were hundreds of people and I knew it would be difficult to get attention. His mom came to the stage to get him, quickly describing her search for him for the past 30 minutes. I know I would have been embarrassed, too, so I announced into the microphone:

“Great! Joshua found his mom! Hasn’t that happened to all of us? You only look away for a minute and your toddler can disappear. That’s when your heart climbs up into your throat as you panic and start your search. It happened to me, too!”

It's tempting to judge, right?

It's tempting to wonder where the mom was that the toddler would get lost. Wasn't she paying attention? What kind of mom does that? It's tempting to think badly of her - but that kind of thing can happen to the best parents. In reality, that mom did a great job. She gave her son the tools to recognize the situation and to seek help. When Joshua started to feel uncomfortable because he couldn’t see his mom, he reached out to one of our most friendly police officers. It’s a small town, which makes things a little easier. All of our officers know each other so if there was a fake uniform at our weekly summer live music event, it would have been caught. Joshua’s mom must have told that little boy many times to find a police officer if he ever got lost, and we all know it takes more than once for that kind of message to sink in. The boy wasn’t too frightened – there were no tears. He knew when he hit his discomfort limit and his good instincts led him to exactly the right person.

In business, judgment takes a different form. Health choices, smoking, tattoos, piercings, pregnancy (non-married employees), family member reputation; all of these can raise questions and judgment in the workplace. Wouldn't it be better to consider a person based on her quality of work, rather than on whether she smokes or whether her sister dropped out of school?

Sometimes personal issues raise concerns in our workplace. I’m a big believer in dressing appropriately for work and in behaving professionally. That’s why, when I notice an appearance issue or a general behavior habit that might be affecting an employee’s professional growth, I will say something; not in judgment, but in concern for his future.

When an employee’s personal life is impacting his professional life, offering constructive feedback about the work is far more effective than criticizing or judging his personal choices.

Is your employee generally professional and hard working? Does he try hard to do his job well and is he usually effective?

Those are the questions to ask yourself when you interact with your employee. Before you interact, make sure that your intentions are good, that you are being constructive in your feedback, and that your feedback is directly related to work. And always, always be kind.

Have you judged too quickly? Do you have triggers that remind you not to judge?

Photo by Margarita Sanchez https://www.flickr.com/people/gebala/

It was a 50th birthday celebration and we were in Vegas. We were two women out on the town and splurging on a fancy dinner at the Voodoo Steakhouse at the top of the Rio Resort and Casino just off The Strip. The reservation was made almost two weeks in advance for this special Friday night dinner - and we were dressed to kill. For a couple of women living in Montana, this was a big deal. We were graciously seated by a window with a nice view and were most certainly glowing with confidence and excitement.

The waiter could not have been more bored when he came to our table to ask about a drink order.

I spent 15 years in the restaurant industry and completely understand the urge to ignore a table of women. It’s anecdotal evidence; my experience was that more than 75% of the time I served a table of women, they were poor tippers, sometimes even stiffed me. Always the optimist, I rarely served a table with less than my usual sparkle and enthusiasm. Once in a while I’d be surprised with an above average tip. Call me a gambler, those few good tips encouraged me not to make assumptions that might affect my level of service.

That said, my friend and I eventually made friends with the waiter. It took us probably three of his visits to our table and a discussion about steak tartare and wine pairing before he warmed up. The man filling waters and clearing the tables always had a huge smile, a joke, and a flirtatious comment when he walked by our table. He saved the day for our waiter. We were persistent; most guests would not have been as friendly after the first bored, uninterested interaction. By the end of our dinner our waiter was warm and friendly, he even provided a champagne toast for our birthday celebration (and the busser provided a triple espresso, yum.)

Customer: Persistence pays. When your server seems bored or even hostile, keep in mind that you don’t know the back story. In workshops, I remind every person to leave their bad day at the door, but there are often extenuating circumstances. It isn't your job as a customer to be nice and patient. It IS your job as a human being to be kind and recognize that some days are harder than others and that most restaurant employees don't have the luxury of calling in sick when they're not emotionally available to provide the best of service. In many states in the US, servers are paid a much lower wage if they are expected to receive regular tips. In recent years, the IRS figured out that many servers weren't reporting their full tips per shift so they started averaging restaurants' tips on credit cards. If your server does a decent job, tip 15% or more. If you didn't have to get out of your seat to get a drink, tip well. There are servers who haven't earned that 15% for service. In that case, tip the 15% once and make sure they know you were unhappy with the service. Is this a place you go regularly? Let the server and manager know what they can do to improve - be kind and reasonable. If you'll never go back, you may still want to let the server know what he or she could have done better for a higher tip. Again, though, be kind when making suggestions so the server may actually improve rather than get defensive.

Server: We all know some days are harder than others. Some customers are easier to like than others. Be a gambler and provide smiling, enthusiastic service from the moment you step near the table no matter who may be sitting there. That gamble will pay off more often than you think. Just as you would as a customer, remember that a customer also has a back story. Do your best not to judge right away, you never know where the customer has been and where he or she might be going next.

It has been said that everyone is your customer. I'm referring to the idea that you should treat your employee, your peer, your boss, as an internal customer, not too differently from how you treat an external customer. My interpretation of that is to treat everyone with respect, as if their experience with you is important and that you care about their perceptions and ideas. Make your interactions with people as positive as possible, knowing there is potential for cooperation and commitment to success with every communication. Of course, there is always an Eeyore around; there are people who will always complain and who will never be satisfied with your answer, even if they get what they initially asked for. Most people, though, will respond positively to interactions where they feel valued, respected, and cared for.

You’d think those observations were pretty obvious, right? So why are there still bosses out there who demean and criticize their staff? A colleague shared her frustration with me; she has been answering the phone with the same greeting for about a year, identifying herself and the department for which she works. Her boss snapped at her – after a year – “that’s NOT how you should answer the phone!” and proceeded to tell her how to answer. This is one of a few interactions my colleague shared with me. This is not a super-sensitive person. She is professional and well educated, an adult with experience and who is very good at her job. The boss is a bully and a micro-manager, and we've all had to deal with someone like that. I don't have any easy answers for my colleague. There are the traditional responses, talk to the HR office, don't take it personally, stand up to her, ignore her, etc. But really, she shouldn't have to tolerate this behavior, and, surprise, surprise, she’s looking for a different job.

Just think for a moment about how much more productive and efficient someone like my colleague could be if she wasn't hampered by the critisicms of her boss. My colleague is feeling severe anxiety, enough to have had sessions with a counselor to help her deal with the stress. She cannot be productive in that environment because she is always second-guessing herself and her confidence is dropping by the moment. I'm always curious about this kind of behavior; what makes people think they will get anything out of a relationship when they treat people so badly?

Colleague: You know what you have to do. You are looking for your next opportunity, but in the meantime, make it your goal to smile when your boss yells at you. It will drive her crazy, yes, and it will make you feel better about your responses to her. When she treats others with the same disrespect, give them a not-so-confidential smile, making sure your boss can see it. Suggest the same response to the others in your department - smile graciously when she behaves badly, making it even more clear to everyone around that she is behaving badly. The best piece of advice I ever heard in terms of dealing with a difficult person is to reflect on how you would want to remember the interaction in the future. Pretend - during the interaction - that there is a recording of it and that you're watching years later. Did you handle yourself with grace? Are you proud of how you behaved?

Boss: Your staff has the potential to make you look fantastic. Those people you are micro-managing are motivated to do their jobs well, despite your bad behavior; imagine how motivated they might be if you treated them as well as you treat your peers, the other directors in the organization! For starters, smile when you ask them to do something differently and only critique behaviors that matter. As long as the person is professional over the phone and doesn't offer inaccurate answers, leave her alone. Your staff will never do things exactly the way you would do them. If it really matters, train your staff on the finer points of what you want to accomplish and let them suggest ways to get there. Make sure you say at least one kind thing to each staff member. Every. Single. Day. Tell them when they do something well and for goodness sake, respond with "Good morning!", not "Hmph." How motivated would you be if someone treated you that way?

“Maybe he’s sneaking things you don’t know about.” The dentist was referring to my three year old with at least four cavities. That was his response when I asked him what I could be doing to prevent future cavities. I explained that we don’t have soda in the house, we rarely have juice, and candy is always soon followed by tooth-brushing. I called my friend, also a dentist:

“It sounded so condescending!
Am I over-reacting? Is this normal?

I mean, really, look at my teeth – and Jacob’s teeth –
does it look like we don’t take care of our teeth?!”

My friend said to start from the beginning.

I brought Max in to see our family dentist when he was two years old; I noticed dark spots on two of his new baby teeth. Yes, they were cavities. When I asked what else I could be doing, his answer was “you need to be more consistent about brushing & flossing.” I was a little defensive, but I thought maybe he could be right, so after getting those two cavities filled I buckled down on tooth brushing in our house. Six months later the dentist proudly proclaimed “no new cavities!” and put Polaroid pictures of both boys on the “no cavity club” board in the waiting area.

Six months after that, Max was three and I was brushing his teeth in the evening. I saw a big hole in one of his new top molars. I called right away to make an appointment and that’s when the dentist suggested that my three year old was “sneaking stuff.” My friend asked “what did the x-rays show?” “He didn’t take x-rays yet; he said he’d take them at our next appointment, just before he filled a couple of the four to six cavities he thought he saw.”

“He didn’t take x-rays so he’d know ahead of time what he was going to do?” She tried to hide her disappointment; it’s a small town and all the dentists know each other.

My friend is a professional and didn’t want to speak badly of a colleague. I saw right through it.

“Let’s make an appointment for a consultation. I’ll treat for the consultation and you can pay me for the x-rays.” She found EIGHT cavities in my baby’s mouth. “Some kids are just susceptible to these bacteria. I’ll send you home with prescription toothpaste, we’ll fill these cavities (one required a steel cap), and follow up in six months.” Max hasn’t had another cavity in almost ten years.

I called the other dentist to have both boys’ records sent to my friend across town. I offered to give feedback when the assistant asked why we were leaving. I suggested the dentist call me so we could talk about my concerns about the treatment. He never called. I never went back. The whole family switched dentists.

Patient: Condescension is never ok. Forget the fact that when the dentist looks at you, he or she may have preconceived notions based on your appearance and possible education level. If your doctor is condescending, either call him or her on the bad behavior, or find another doctor. If you think something is wrong with treatment, don’t just trust the person because he or she is the doctor. Get a second opinion! You must advocate for yourself and your family. I waited too long to call for a second opinion and my son’s baby teeth suffered for it. Don’t let that happen to you.

Dentist: Condescension is never ok. You may have preconceived notions based on your patient’s appearance and possible education level; don’t show it. If a patient asks for ideas, don’t stop at “you should be doing this better.” Ask for details to find out if more aggressive treatment is necessary. If you don’t have a good answer, FIND ONE. There are so many resources available to you with the click of the mouse. Use them to improve the lives of your patients and the success of your practice, no matter how many years you’ve been doing it. And most important in this story; when a patient offers to provide feedback in a calm and constructive way, TAKE IT! Not only did my dentist lose our family as patients, he lost my respect and the possibility that I'd recommend him to anyone with children.

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