Donna's blog on coaching, leadership, and life

Someone driving you crazy at work? Ask yourself these questions.

Many of you will relate to this next sentence. One of the most significant causes of workplace frustration is unresolved conflict between two people. Two leaders don’t see eye-to-eye, and as time goes on, their teams begin feeling the impact of the lack of alignment at the helm. Two co-workers who find each other’s work styles frustrating fail to talk through it, and while unspoken frustrations increase, productivity decreases. Passive-aggressive behavior between two people on a team, begins impacting open dialogue among the larger group during team meetings.

There are numerous resources, tools, and approaches that an individual can use to generate a professional, candid, and collaborative resolution with someone. But today, I just want to share this quick exercise that may help to provide a shift in your thinking about how you might be contributing to the very dynamic between you and the other person who is driving you crazy.

Here’s the exercise . . .

1. Write down these two sentences:

They are ___________.

What in me is ___________?

2. Think of someone who consistently frustrates you, or someone you find difficult. (You can use a person at work, or a family member if that’s easier to think of at the moment 🙂 Think about what you hear yourself saying about this person, whether you tend to say it to yourself or to others. Take a look at the first sentence above, ask yourself the question about that particular person, and fill in the blank with a word or phrase that comes to mind. Examples might include: judgmental; not listening; stubborn; selfish; negative; arrogant; curt; etc.

3. Now simply drop the same phrase or word you placed in the first sentence into the second sentence. Considering the examples offered above, as you complete the second sentence your first reaction may naturally be…I’m not a judgmental person. I’m an excellent listener. Or, I’m not a stubborn person—I tend to be very flexible! Perhaps you’re right about your self-assessment as it relates to your tendencies or general behavior. The more focused question to ask yourself is: What in me is judging, not listening, or stubborn, when it comes to dealing with this specific individual? Explore if there’s any truth to the second completed sentence, as it relates to your specific internal thoughts or external behaviors before, during, or after you interact with them.

Our human nature has us sometimes acting in a way that mirrors behaviors of the people who are frustrating us. If someone stops listening, the odds of us eventually not listening to them, in return, are high. If someone is stubborn, it’s natural that we may become less flexible when we’re working with them. Let’s face it, when we’re upset with someone either overtly or covertly, it’s easy to slip into a judgmental state of mind. Are we bringing negative energy or apprehension into a conversation or situation simply because we’re dreading or anticipating negative behavior or energy from the other person(s)? Are we failing to address concerns directly with the individuals we’re challenged by, and then wondering why they’re not aware of the impact of their own behaviors?

The key point is that if we take just a few minutes to explore how we might be contributing to the dynamics that are widening the gap between ourselves and others, perhaps we can shift our participation, and positively impact the relationship. Maybe we can approach the person with an acknowledgement that it’s been tough. Maybe we can enter the conversation with the intent to suspend judgment or assumptions, ask questions and listen, with the hope of agreeing to some flexibility on both parts.

Hey, you never know….With a slight positive shift in your efforts, you may be contributing to a resolution you both can live with and benefit from.


Managing a highly-skilled contributor, who is short on interpersonal skills? A few tips.

I’m guessing many of you can relate to the title of this post. It may be about a salesperson who is bringing in a ton of revenue, yet fails to treat support staff with respect. Or, it may be someone with exceptional technical skills who is alienating their peers with poor or gruff communications. In some cases, your ability to enforce certain standards may be—or may feel—limited.

We know how important it is to set consistent performance standards across our teams and organizations. We know how crucial it is for professionals to build internal relationships. Yet, it’s not unusual for specialized talent, tenure, or organizational metrics to get in the way of truly requiring these things.

Situations like these can be very frustrating for managers. They can be even more frustrating for peers or employees who have little to no control over performance outcomes. These circumstances can also cause unrest and low morale on a team.

The good news is, as a manager, you always have the freedom to engage someone in their own development. You still have the opportunity to provide candid feedback, coaching, and support. You may want to start with a formal and genuine exchange. Get the person’s perspective of their comprehensive performance, offer yours, and go from there.

So what can you do if a difficult, yet gifted, person reports to you or is a key contributor in your organization? Here are just a few quick guidelines that may help before, and during, that necessary one-on-one discussion:

– Before the meeting, take time to review or consider the job description or “requirements” of the job. (Ideally, they’re documented.) Note any competencies in the job description that fall under interpersonal successes. Do any of them describe attributes relating to service attitude or teamwork? If so, this will help you discuss what’s expected relating to relationship building. You can also use your organization’s values, if applicable, as an anchor for discussion.

– Schedule a meeting with the individual to discuss their perspective of their successes and challenges on the job. Assure them that you’ll offer your perspective as well. Let them know that your goal is to establish how you can partner with them to best support their development and success.

– As you prepare, be ready for resistance or defensiveness, so that you’ll be ready to respond versus react. Be prepared to calmly respond while reiterating the importance of improved relationships. Give some thought to what resources, articles, or tools you may be able to provide them in support of this goal.

– Ask them for their perspective first. Ask what’s going well, and where they may be struggling on the job. Listen and take notes as they answer both questions. Once they’ve finished, offer your perspective. Come prepared with specific examples to validate their successes, and to help clarify their development opportunities.

– Let them know that they are your very first choice to be successful in this role. Reiterate that their position calls for their ability to build collaborative internal relationships. Let them know that you’re willing to provide coaching in support of their development efforts.

– (This would be a great time to offer any resources or tools, mentioned in the third bullet, above.) Ask them to choose one or two specific action plans or new approaches that they’re willing to focus on and use within the next few weeks. (Be prepared to offer a few ideas if they’re stumped.) Let them know you’ll meet again to debrief their experience with action plans, and discuss any results or challenges they may have experienced. Tell them you remain available in the meantime for any questions or if they think a conversation will be beneficial.

– Before leaving this meeting, schedule that follow-up meeting 3-4 weeks out to discuss progress and establish a way forward. Be sure to confirm about a week ahead of time and restate the objective of the meeting. This approach reinforces the importance of their willingness to take part in their development.

Although addressing performance relating to interpersonal traits and behaviors is not easy for anyone, applying these simple tips is a great start for further discussions and results.

On a personal note…My creative side is dying to come out!

Just to clarify, I’m referring to my ability and motivation to produce creative art. Actually, I’m talking more about my desire to produce art, and my lack of motivation to get started. For those of you who read my blog, you know that 99% of the time, my posts are focused on workplace topics, tools and strategies. But today, I feel compelled to share one of my personal journeys. And I’m asking you directly for any thoughts or guidance you might be willing to offer.

I enjoy playing with clay. I love to write. I’ve thought seriously about starting a video blog on aging gracefully. “Aging Grace”….. See? I even named it! Yet, the weeks fly by, and they become months and then years and I consistently find myself disappointed in myself because I’ve not taken the time to express my creative side. How often do I think about these things? Almost daily.

I did collaborate on a poetry and art project this past year with my brother who is an incredible artist. He had a gallery showing of art representing mental illness and states of mind, and he asked me to write prose to accompany several of his pieces. It was a great experience. With someone waiting for me and counting on me, by a specific deadline, I’m golden. But left to my own awakening? Well, that’s another story.

My professional work and business is demanding. I’m fortunate that I love it, but it is time consuming and it calls for a great deal of thought. Spending time with my spouse is a priority for me. Our immediate family has grown to 11 people and I love spending time with each of them. And seeing my girlfriends is crucial to my well-being! Not a whole lot of time left to dabble in creating tiny heads of clay 🙂 If I were offering counsel to myself, I would say… “Do it in small chunks. Just devote 10 minutes a day to one of these artful endeavors, and see where it takes you.” I know intellectually that’s a great idea. But I can already hear my brain closing shut when I say it. So….Can you relate? Am I alone in this feeling? Do you have any thoughts or strategies to share that may help me or readers who may be experiencing something similar?

Thank you for listening! I actually feel a little better already.

Practicing empathy when frustrations are high

I was inspired to write this brief post after a business associate expressed that she’d like to learn how to be empathetic when frustrations are high. I thought that was a brilliant goal. And a hard one to reach. It got me thinking and this is what I came up with………

People who are striving to be more empathetic at work can generally find small ways to practice. They can ask more questions at the beginning of a conversation to better understand where someone is coming from. They understand when someone who is grieving is not at their best. They may reach out and offer support to someone who is struggling with a specific work issue.

It’s difficult to practice empathy at work with someone who frustrates us over time. When we’re focused on our own feelings we’re less likely to have a genuine interest in understanding others. We tend to judge and defend. We’re less equipped to influence or experience collaborative results.

It’s even more difficult when our buttons get pushed in the moment. We have an immediate physical reaction. Our heartbeat increases. Our palms sweat. We become defensive, resentful, angry or frustrated. Being empathetic to what the other party is experiencing in that moment is near impossible. We’re way too busy inside our own heads!

Not impossible though. One effective approach is to better prepare for those sensitive meetings or conversations. Prepare to tap into your self-awareness. Commit to noticing your sudden physical reactions. And when you do….Stop, Probe, and Listen. Prepare to learn more before responding. One hallmark of empathy is considering others’ feelings. Perhaps the other person is not equipped to receive your idea in the moment. Maybe a calmer conversation in a follow-up meeting will be more effective.

Choose a specific upcoming meeting or conversation and practice. Increase your contributions, influence and results.

City Living: Forget the Car, Grab Your Walking Shoes

In the spirit of Summer and life/work balance, I thought I’d share the following article I wrote some time ago. I updated the number of years now spent in our neighborhoods, but the enjoyment of walking in the city remains the same for us.
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I grew up in Rochester, on the east side of the city, and I’ve continued to live in the city for most of my life. The sounds of the city, including passing traffic, lull me to sleep at night. I find myself missing the traffic buzz when I’m traveling and staying in a suburb or country setting. I understand that a small city like Rochester, NY is a far cry from what you might experience in Chicago or Boston, but I love it here.

My husband and I have felt at home in the Park Avenue/Neighborhood of the Arts neighborhoods for over 30 years. We raised our children here. They attended city schools and enjoyed a diverse group of school and neighborhood friends.

One of the things we love most about living in the city, is that we can go out to dinner, take in a movie, shop, or people-watch, without ever getting in the car. If we want to take it slow, and enjoy our surroundings and each other, a pair of walking shoes will carry us from dimly lit neighborhood bars, to casual bistros, bright diners, European-style coffee shops, and a variety of international restaurants that offer casual to fine dining.

We can walk to a supermarket, bakery, ice cream shop, gift shops, a beauty salon and spa, and the Post Office. We have Cobbs Hill Park, the Memorial Art Gallery, a variety of small art galleries, the Eastman House, and the Museum and Science Center and Planetarium, all within a three-mile radius. We can walk downtown and check out the calm or raging river depending on the day. And we can enjoy a mix of modern and old architecture along the way.

We share our neighborhood with many long-standing merchants and residents, as well as a robust rotation of businesses and neighbors. Our neighbors—from the Monroe, Park, East, and University Avenue areas—range from affluent to poor. It’s not unusual to encounter a wealthy business man sitting at an outside café with his client, while another man is pushing a clanking grocery cart full of returnable cans and bottles, reflecting his hard work and his day’s wage. Once in a while we’ll encounter the transient or familiar individual who will pass through and approach us for money. Or we’ll enjoy guitar music from the guy who’s playing on the sidewalk hoping to collect a few dollars in his music case.

On a walk through the residential neighborhoods on a summer afternoon, from one vantage point on the street, we might hear jazz coming out of one house and hard rock from another. We’ll see children playing, college kids gathering on a nearby roof patio, and an elderly couple walking on the sidewalk that they’ve shared for 30 years. Or, we might pass a formal garden wedding reception taking place in the yard of an old and beautiful home. After dark, while walking through the same neighborhood, the glimpse of flickering lights and movement in each house window profoundly reminds us of the simultaneous realities taking place only 50 feet apart from one another.

We have our share of visitors in the area—people who might take an afternoon or evening to visit this part of the city. So, if you’re in the mood to slow down a bit, even just for a couple of hours, take a break—park the car, grab your walking shoes, and enjoy.

Administrative Assistant as Strategic Partner

To create that top-notch working relationship between you and your assistant, and have it work in a way that’s ideal for both parties is truly an art. The Administrative Assistant profession, like no other, runs the gamut relating to roles, responsibilities, and status. The role offers a blank canvas for all kinds of possibilities, levels of support, and opportunities.

Most important to the foundation of the executive and assistant relationship, are the interpersonal dynamics in the partnership, how highly you both value the partnership and business results, and how clearly you have both worked to set expectations and standards for the relationship.

There are multiple strategies that you can take to help you and your assistant elevate and fine-tune your support of one another. Here are just a few strategies that may help you get started.

• Position and jump-start the shift.

Talk with your assistant and let her know that you’re taking the time to think about how she might become more of a strategic partner. To start, ask her to schedule a meeting for the two of you in a week, where she’ll come prepared to discuss at least one area where she feels the relationship is going really well and one area where she feels you can both improve communications and/or increase your support of one another. Let her know you’ll come prepared to offer her the same. Prepare for the meeting and be ready to listen, compare notes and discuss. Once you meet and have the discussion, identify one action that you both agree to collaborate on. Set a reasonable target date when you can both evaluate and discuss your successes and challenges in taking that action.

When the time comes to evaluate, and if all’s going well, keep discussing and adding best practices that you both agree are well-worth trying. To start, the change may be minimal such as: You might agree that your AA’s new responsibilities include recommending specific changes to your calendar based on what she sees as your upcoming demands and travel times. Or, you might agree on texting versus email under specific circumstances, etc. Your agreement may relate to a larger responsibility such as: Your assistant taking over your expense report, or managing a budget, or taking the lead on a committee or department initiative.

• Meet with each other one-on-one formally, and often. Keep each other informed.

In addition to your on-the-run conversations and on-demand communications, schedule regular one-on-one meetings (10-15 minutes) where the two of you have the uninterrupted opportunity to discuss upcoming demands, expectations, and needs, from both perspectives. These meetings—and your focused discussions with each other—should be treated as a priority and take place at least twice a week. If you’re primarily on-site, every day may not be too often to meet. If you’re generally off-site, adjust accordingly. Ask your assistant to come prepared to your meetings with a checklist of what she needs to discuss and you’ll do the same. And if your scheduled one-on-one cancels for any reason, ask her to reschedule, ASAP.

When I ask executives what their number one goal is relating to support from their assistants, they say they want their assistants to “anticipate” more. The surest way for an assistant to anticipate your needs is to keep her consistently well-informed!

• Periodically explore changes or expansions in your assistant’s role and responsibilities. Expect your AA’s role to continue to evolve over time.

To start, ask your assistant to prepare and document her thoughts about the following. Schedule a time for the two of you to discuss.
– Where specifically does she feel she may be ready and able to expand her responsibilities to best support you?
– If she’s swamped in a particular area of detail, what are her recommendations for specific strategies that will allow her to eliminate some of the pressure and increase her availability? And, how can you best support this?
– Where does she feel she may need more mentoring or training?

The answers to questions like these will provide a basis for exploring how you might go about coaching, developing, or providing training for your assistant, which will increase your contributions to each other’s success.

• Appreciate and recognize your assistant’s contributions to your success.

We all know a simple thank-you goes a long way. However, highlighting an individual’s specific contributions to your success during a thank-you is more powerful. In addition to the traditional or typical thank you card or gift-giving during Administrative Assistant month, you may want to take the time to give something that is especially chosen with your strategic partner in mind.

Notes: Early in my career, before entering management, I spent several years as an Administrative Assistant. I served as Secretary to Sales, and then Executive Assistant to the President, in a telecommunications company, and as a Legal Secretary and Office Manager in a law firm. I’m very grateful for those years where I learned so much about business, service, and building relationships. In the earliest years of my consulting business, I specialized in providing management and communication skills to administrative assistants in varied business environments. I still sometimes have the opportunity to serve as a consultant to executive and assistant teams, to help them elevate their strategic partnership—which is what prompted me to offer a few ideas here. Interestingly, 95% of Administrative Assistants in the US are female. I have met and read about men who are thriving in the Administrative Assistant role. Whether male or female, the right person in an AA role with the right set of skills, can create their own career path, and catapult an executive’s ability to be successful.

(Btw, in this post, I’ve written as though I’m talking to the person in the executive role. However, if you’re in the assistant role, and you’re looking to increase the level of your service and partnership, I encourage you to take the lead and the initiative, and recommend these joint strategies to the individual(s) you support.)

Strong Decision-Makers Strike a Balance Between Asking and Telling

Strong leaders make tough and effective decisions, promptly. For others, the fear and risk of making the wrong decisions may slow their ability to decide. Meanwhile, indecision may chip at their confidence to offer direction, often when direction is needed most.

Soliciting feedback from colleagues and advisors—or employees who may be significantly impacted by a decision—can be a good and strong practice. However, the practice of soliciting too many perspectives before making a decision, can stall progress and sabotage successful outcomes.

Here are a few key points that may help move decision-making along, and strike the crucial balance between asking and telling:

– Note the areas, relating to your decision, where you’re confident in your direction. If you can isolate the area(s) of indecision, you’re less likely to be crowding your thinking or decision-making process with needless information.

– Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer yes to all of them, chances are you’ve done your due diligence, and it’s time to step up and make your decision.

o Have you carefully reviewed the related data and/or feedback that you’ve already solicited?
o Will the decision you’re leaning towards generate a strong business impact if successful? If so, are you prepared to explain the value?
o Are you prepared to manage the outcome if it’s less than successful?
o Are you prepared to build in target dates for evaluating interim outcomes in the event there may be a need for a shift in direction?

The balance between soliciting the opinions or perspectives of others, and arriving at a decision based on your business experience, confidence, and leadership is crucial to you, your organization, and the people you lead.