Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

The Workplace Doctors Are In.

Website LogoAbout six years ago I wrote to William Gorden, Ph.D., a former professor of Communications at Kent State University in Ohio, about an article on leadership he had written. We exchanged emails on the topic and a few weeks later he asked me if I would occasionally answer a question on his workplace communications website: Ask The Workplace Doctors.  After a year or so he and the other site participant, Dan V. West, asked me if I would like to join them as one of the Workplace Doctors. It’s been a great experience!

The website is a lot of work for several people: Dan West, an instructor in Speech at Rochester Community and Technical College, did much of the original site development work as well as working with Dr. Gorden to respond to questions. Natalie Glase, a multimedia developer for the New Media Center at Kent State University has provided tremendous expertise in an unfailingly helpful way. Dr. Gorden is the powerhouse behind it all! He and I answer questions, though we sometimes ask attorneys or HR experts to handle those that require deeper expertise than we can provide.

At first it seemed to me–and it might seem that way to you–that the answers to writer’s questions are intuitive and obvious. However, I have found that to not be the case. Dr. Gorden and I do not always agree on how something should be handled, and often my research has shown me a variety of potentially acceptable options for dealing with the same situation. In addition, Dr. Gorden and I have very different life experiences and styles, and different approaches to work issues, and that is reflected in our responses. One thing that affects my responses is that I often am writing very, very late at night or very, very early in the morning. I will look at a response months later (especially the ones that go on and on–and on–and think, “What on earth did I mean?”) Nevertheless, I know we have helped many, many people, because we get grateful follow-up from all over the world! Last week I received a thank-you message from someone who originally wrote several years ago.

Those who write to us for advice are of all ages, both genders, every type of business, industry and profession, and every country. Occasionally we hear from someone who has an apparent mental or emotional problem, and now and then we get supposedly sincere questions from students who I think hope we will do their homework essays for them! For the most part, those who write to Ask The Workplace Doctors are genuinely concerned, frustrated or angry about their workplace issues and want to know our opinions and ideas. 

Over time I have made some observations about our questions and responses:

1. No matter how clear we make the disclaimer that we are not a medical site, at least a few times a week we will receive a medical question. Sometimes those are the result of people having problems with understanding in a general sense. (“I have goldstones and the doctor says I need sugary. Are their herbs I can take so I dont have to do that?”) Sometimes people do not believe us. (“I know you say you can’t give medical advice, but I thought as doctors you might at least have some idea about this.”) Most of the time writers simply do not pay attention to the big red-lettered disclaimer right above the question section. (“Oops! Sorry!”)

Sometimes my heart goes out to someone who is writing about a medical situation about which he or she is frightened or when the writer lives in a country where medical care is not so readily available, or who lives here but does not have the money for medical care. In those cases I give them a list of resources and sometimes write a personal note of encouragement or advice. If you could see some of those messages you would be very grateful to be you, with your intelligence, capabilities and resources.

2. Many supervisors and managers observe problems at work but fail to do anything about them.  Many of our questions from supervisors and managers start with, “I have an employee here who has been a problem for the last ten years!” Or, “This has been a problem for as long as I’ve worked here.” No matter what kind of workplace, supervisors and managers often tolerate poor performance and/or behavior far too long, until it is very, very difficult to change. As a way for me to urge them to accept that something must be done, I will often ask,

“If you were interviewing this employee today, and knew everything you know now about how he or she was going to work and behave, would you hire him or her anyway? If you would, you may only need to guide slightly, learn to accept the employee’s foibles, and prevent those traits from disrupting others. If you wouldn’t, you need to ensure that the employee gets to where you wanted him or her to be when you said, ‘You’re hired!'” That seems to really focus the supervisor’s attention on what needs to be done, and I get very good, committed responses back from the writers.

The premise of my training, and my responses to those who write to the site, is that most supervisors and managers want to do a good job. Sometimes they are not trained or supported in their work, but in those cases they need to take personal responsibility for gaining the knowledge and skills they need. However, I am convinced that some supervisors simply do not care enough to become involved. In those cases their managers should supervise them more effectively.

3. Many employees who would otherwise like their work feel trapped in miserable situations with coworkers or supervisors. I will often ask for follow-up information about problems, and employees will send me copies of emails and organizational memos, or they will describe a conversation or situation.  I am fully aware that not all of those are accurate reflections. However, there are enough documented situations to convince me that supervisors and managers should monitor the environment and do something about bullies, jerks and nasty people–and should work to not be one of those themselves!

Supervisors and managers have a responsiblity for the work and the work environment. If only from a sense of fairness, each of us with that responsiblity should monitor the workplace and intervene to prevent employees from being rude, not doing the same quality and quantity of work as others, being disuptive because of some personal trait or habit, or engaging in psychological or physical tormenting.

On the other hand, employees should gain the knowledge, skills and confidence to deal with conflict on their own whenever possible. Many people who write to our site are looking for a rescuer so they do not have to take action themselves. (Does it seem that supervisors can play a large role in helping those employees gain the skills and take the personal action needed? I think so!)

4. Most of us–employees, supervisors and managers–create or add to our problems through our actions and reactions. Many of the people who write to the website, justify their own inappropriate actions or they fail to take action to solve problems, even when it is possible for them to do so. Some employees say they will be fired if they try to do anything–I think they are much more worried they will be disliked or feel awkward about it afterwards. Many supervisors go back and forth between being a nurturing parent or an angry parent.  Or, they violate every best practice of supervision and wonder why they are having problems. Just as you have sometimes felt frustrated with a friend or family member who complains but does nothing, so do I feel frustrated sometimes when it seems the writer could easily make things better–then I think about how many times I have not known what to do about my own problems, but someone else could see the answer.

5. “What we have here is a failure to communicate” applies in almost every workplace problem. Almost every workplace question we receive involves the basic issue of failure or inability to communicate effectively–talking, listening and responding. I think there is another failure and inability: The lack of training, reminders, counseling or correction at all levels of the organization, to ensure that those who cannot communicate effectively learn how, and those who can communicate effectively do it, without exception.

Think of it this way: If someone cannot communicate effectively in the workplace, and with their own work team, how can we be confident they will communicate effectively when dealing with clients, customers and others who are essential for the success of our organizations?

6. It is easier to give sound–though seemingly obvious–advice to others than to find it for ourselves. I often think back to a work situation when I was an employee, supervisor, manager or executive, and wonder why the answer to the problems I had then did not seem nearly so obvious as they do now.  As a humbling experience for myself I have sometimes written a problem or issue from years ago and looked at it again, from the perspective of a Workplace Doctor. Sometimes I feel confident that I did a good job of handling the situation, other times I cringe and wish I could re-do it.

One of the biggest values of having a few close friends who can also provide objective advice about work, is that it allows us to see and hear our concerns from the perspective of someone else. If we don’t overuse that resource, it can be very helpful. And, in the process of helping others, we gain new knowledge and skills for ourselves. The research I do to help me learn best practices to share with others, helps me as much as it does them.

I want to write a book one day, with the title I used for this post: The Workplace Doctors Are In. Thanks to Dr. Gorden and the website, I have an endless supply of material!

March 17th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 4 comments