Avoiding the Muck

January 16th 2014

Consider these scenarios:
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A. You’re deep in conversation about an important matter with a colleague when someone higher on the org chart than you are steps in and begins discussing something else entirely. You are annoyed at the intrusion but enjoy your paycheck. What do you do?

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B. You’re up to your neck in deadlines when your very best employee sticks her head around the corner of your cubicle and says, “Got a minute?” You don’t. What do you do?

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C. Your projects are piling up, but your bosses love you so much they want to put you on the company’s Fun Committee. You would rather stick pins in your eye. What do you do?

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These are three examples of how you can easily step into professional muck. All of them are tests of your boundaries and the communication skills you have to navigate your way around the muck. 

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Here are four rules of thumb for situations when your boundaries are tested and, occasionally, crossed:

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  1. Think bigger than the moment. Remember that when people cross your boundaries, they usually do so out of ignorance. Often, they really aren’t thinking about you; they are focused on their own immediate needs. Also remember that some of these people can affect your success at the company, so think long-term when you approach the muck.
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  3. Be honest (but remember #1). Many people are afraid to do this. They allow constant interruptions to the discipline of their day, they don’t tell others what they need, and, consequently, they feel victimized by intrusions on their time. This is a major cause of unhappiness at work.
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  5. Clarify and schedule. Determine what, precisely, the other party wants from you. Be sure you both understand it. Decide whether now is the best time to respond to their needs. If you can’t do it in that moment, determine when you can, and let them know when they will be at the top of your to-do list.
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  7. Respond to uncivilized behavior with civility. Only a tiny minority of people are truly impossible to get along with. Most are trying to get through their day, meet their obligations, and do a decent job — just like you. They simply may not remember the good manners their mother taught them. But you can.
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Now, using these four rules of thumb, here are possible responses to the boundary pushers exemplified above. 

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A. In response to the higher-up in our first example, you can stop  your conversation with your colleague, but only long enough to look the interrupter in the eye, smile, and say, “Bill and I are just about to wrap up our conversation on this project. Would it be ok if I came by your office in ten minutes?” Phrasing it as though you are asking permission softens the blow that you’re not responding to the interrupter’s needs instantly. It also conveys respect. Giving a time frame like ten minutes lets your higher-up know exactly when his needs will be attended to.

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B. Your employee who needs you is important to your success and your company’s, because she’s “your very best employee.” Think carefully about your response, given your deadlines. First, stop what you’re doing. Second, look at her: she needs your acknowledgement. Third, in a calm voice, say, “I’m bumping up against several deadlines. I can spare five minutes for you, though. Will that be enough time to help you?” Then listen to her answer. If you can solve the problem in five, great. Do it. But hold  yourself and your employee to five minutes. At the end of that time, close the discussion. If it’s going to take longer, agree to a day and time when you can both meet.

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C. Ah, the Fun Committee. Mandatory fun really isn’t, but plenty of companies haven’t yet gotten the word about that. However, if you think being on the committee would give you some exposure to others in your company who you normally don’t get to work with and might enjoy, then by all means sign up. But if there isn’t a really good reason to  join, you’re well within your boundaries to say no. Try this: “That’s a good committee, but it’s not a great fit for me. I would be unlikely to contribute much of value. But I’m really excited about some ideas I have to keep employee turnover low. How about if I serve on the Recruiting Committee?”

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In the process of avoiding muck and setting your boundaries, do your best to be gracious. It’s important from the standpoint of civility. It also matters because someday, without a doubt, you will need the grace of others. 

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