TSLH #050: 7 Tricky Work Situations And How To Best Approach Them

TSLH #050: 7 Tricky Work Situations And How To Best Approach Them

Read time: 4 minutes


Happy New Year 2024!
I wish you a great health, a lot of happiness and tremendous personal and professional success!
I spent some time during my Christmas break wondering about what to write about first in 2024. After I had a consersation with one of my very good friends, it dawned on me:
I should write about tricky work situations where we as persons or leaders typically struggle to respond to.
My friend described such a situation where he was very frustated by his manager’s behavior.
Here’s the situation and 6 others. You may face them at some point in your career, as a leader, and I am giving you some tips to best approach these situations to handle them properly and bring the best response.
Someone takes credit for your work. My friend told me about his situation at work. He had developed a very complex pricing model for a project and had provided his manager with a thorough analysis of how he thought that project should be handled from a financial standpoint. To his great surprise and frustration, he learned from one colleague that his manager had reused his work and analysis with the senior leadership of the company without even crediting him for the work done.
The problem with this situation is that the manager presents the model and the analysis as their work, not the work of somebody else.
This is a tricky situation to handle professionnally, without giving in the emotional side, and without jeopardizing your relationship with your manager.
Here are 2 things I do recommend to do in such situations though:
  • In your next 1-1 with your manager, bring the topic, show assertiveness by explaining how you felt when you learned about what the manager did – focus on your feelings, don’t blame the manager – and explain what you would have liked to see instead. Then ask your manager to commit to let the people know that this was your work.
  • Sometimes, you will have been put in the To or Cc distribution list of an email where someone will claim your work as theirs. In such instances, rebound on the email by replying to it and without blaming the person who took credit for your work, write something like “Thank you for highlighting the points I had discussed with you after I worked on the model. If anybody needs more insight or has questions, please reach out.” Such a message will ensure everybody knows the work is yours. At the same time, you’re not jeopardizing your relationship with the other person, because you did not blame them.
Doing these 2 things will positively showcase you as a leader:
  • Who don’t play the victim game and instead step up and take charge of solving a disagreement.
  • Who can claim back their work without triggering a conflict.
  • Who is able to tell their boss or anyone taking credit for your work that they’re wrong. It will also give you an upper hand in that relationship in the future, something you could leverage to get something back that the other person won’t be able to refuse.
  • Who can take ownership for their work and provide even better insights.
You’re asked to stay late or dial in late when you have a personal obligation. These situations frequently occur when you let other people own your agenda. The #1 lesson to learn here is that you must control your agenda, otherwise people will do it for you and it will feel miserable.
Here are 2 quick fixes to own your agenda and time:
  • Visibly and clearly label your personal time in your calendar, so that everyone knows when you are available and when not. This can be done easily in tools like Outlook or Google Calendar by creating time blocks that are specifically for your personal time. For instance, you could label a block of time “Family time”, or “Bring my son to school”.
  • Learn and practice to say “no” in a way that is fair for you, i.e., protects your own time. A simple “I can’t, I have another commitment at this time. I could do this day/time instead” works wonders.
When you can do this, you create clarity because:
  • You have clearly set your expectations of when you are available.
  • You give enough information to everyone in the organization and people will know that crossing your boundaries may appear aggressive or intrusive.
You have a disagreement or conflict with someone. Those situations happen frequently in the workplace. As leaders, we have to share opinions, ideas, try to persuade other parties that idea A is better than B. All this can lead to disagreements or conflicts. In essence, conflicts are good and healthy to have in an organization as long as they do not turn into personal relationship conflicts.
When personal conflicts or disagreements occur in a team or an organization, this can derail the performance and engagement of people very quickly.
The best approach in those cases is to use a combination of:
  • Giving feedback and hearing the different voices of disagreements so that people have a chance to vent, express their feelings and how they are impacted by a particular situation.
  • Leverage your team to manage the conflict or disagreement. This is a very powerful approach to use, provided you have set expectations about how to manage conflicts/disagreements with the team early on. And the best way to do this frankly is to ask the team how they want to behave when there is a disagreement or a conflict in the team and what they want to do and not do when these happen.
When you can manage these conversations without a huge emotional field of blame and finger-pointing, you get this:
  • You deal with facts, and there is no blame.
  • You provide people with an opportunity to mutually strengthen their relationship by working out their challenge together.
You must say “no”. There are several reasons you might want to say no. It can be to protect your time (see the second situation described above) or it can be because you disagree with someone’s proposal. I want to focus on the latter here.
A blunt “no” may result in a conflict situation, or degraded relationships that will in the long run impact the team or the organization.
If you disagree with someone’s idea and you want to keep the discussion going, I suggest you follow some simple rules:
  • Avoid words/sentences like “but” or “It won’t work” because they tend to focus on the negative and will prevent true proactiveness from happening.
  • Reframe a person’s idea into something positive, like “This is a good starting point” or “We can investigate this idea more to understand all the implications”.
  • Open the discussion to the other voices of the group participating in the meeting. Especially true if you have silent voices. This is the moment you want to hear them, because they might bring totally different and new perspectives. In short, if you have introverts on your team, who tend to not speak up, this is your best opportunity to engage them.
Once you master these simple steps, saying “no” becomes easier because:
  • You can reframe ideas as just starting points.
  • You can entertain a conversation without having to commit to anything.
  • You show diplomacy instead of harshness, which impacts communication and the dynamics of relationships positively.
You need to give negative feedback to someone. This often tops the list of leadership challenges, and giving negative feedback is tough, especially when you have a good relationship with a person. I have already written about how to give feedback in a constructive way and I strongly recommend using such an approach.
In essence, giving feedback in a constructive way means:
  • You focus on a behavior you have observed, not on the person.
  • You stick to facts and what you have seen: A situation, the impact it has caused and a desired outcome you’d like to see instead.
  • You present the feedback in a way that best serves the person, that help her to grow and to reflect.
I remember a case in my career when I needed to give negative feedback to a manager on my team. She had been put in the manager role by her former leader and was struggling with being the manager of a team filled with people who used to be her peers, so for most of them, her friends. Nobody had trained her on handling that situation. When I offered my feedback to her, I essentially told her that I see her not doing the tasks a manager should do, and this is the impact it has on the team. I then told her that I understood the situation she was and I was ready to support her to step up. And I needed to know first if she really wanted to be the manager of that team. If yes, I told her, this is what I expect from you. If no, this is also fine, and I will work with you to help you get to the role you want.
My feedback was probably not pristine, but it hit the point of focusing on the behavior, on what I expected and giving space to the person for reflection and learning. She went on to become one of the strongest managers on my team.
You need to tell someone they’re wrong. It could be that your boss made a decision you think is wrong or a behavior is wrong. Whatever it is, especially if you have to tell someone above you, this is really tough to do.
The truth is, as a leader, your role is also to be honest with your boss and people above you. It takes courage to tell someone they’re wrong, and at the same time, this is your responsibility as a leader to help the person at the helm know when they’re wrong. If you look at recent examples of CEOs doing stupid things (e.g., firing hundreds of employees through a Zoom call, etc.), it’s easy to realize that nobody on their leadership team probably told them they were wrong. Imagine how different the decision might have been if someone on the leadership team had said “I believe you’re making a mistake and we should do this another way.”
My #1 recommendation to be able to handle such situations is to establish clarity with your boss and any stakeholder early on when you meet them. Make it clear that you intend to give feedback to them when you disagree; ask what is acceptable for them vs. not acceptable (e.g., how you should communicate, etc.)
If you can set these expectations, then you will:
  • Be able to clearly articulate concerns without worrying about how the message will be taken (since you have agreed on how this would happen).
  • Demonstrate strong leadership and ability to help a stakeholder get other perspectives of a situation.
  • Have an opportunity to offer an alternative solution and get involved in resolving a challenge.
You need to escalate a serious issue. You can have multiple issues here. One I have in mind is how people may behave with other people. One of my key values for instance is respect and I make it clear to every team I work with that not being respectful is a big red line for me. What this means is that if something is disrespectful to someone else, I will take action.
These are things I might do and that you can practice too:
  • Have a conversation with the person being disrespected to understand how she feels and how she would like you to respond. This is important, because although many people will of course want to see some reactions from their leader, some people might just want to stay quiet. I don’t believe the latter is the right solution, however, I would respect someone asking me not to intervene.
  • Have a conversation with the person who disrespected and let them know how the other person felt and how you felt too about it. Then let the person know that you expect them to go to the person and apologize.
  • Be very transparent about the fact that you are not tolerating the behavior and that without apologies, or in case of repeated misbehaviors, you’ll take this further.
Those conversations are tough to have. However, when you do them quickly after any incident, you get this:
  • There is a clear understanding from all parties involved that the issue isn’t just going away and that you will do what you think is right to settle the behavior.
  • Full transparency to everyone about how you will tackle the issue. There can be no misinterpretation about what happens next, because you will be very clear about the next steps.
  • Empowerment of you as the leader, and also the person who suffered from the behavior, which will help counter any frustration or disappointment that something bad happened in the workplace.
The situations described above are usually hard to respond to because they involve stress, fear of hurting relationships, and sometimes group pressure that would lead you to not want to speak up. My recommendation is however to speak up. When such a situation occurs for you, don’t rush, take some time to breathe and find what you want to say. And then take action. With practice, responsing to these situations will look like more and more natural.
I wish you a great read. I’ll see you next Saturday!
TL; DR (Too Long, Did not Read)
7 tricky work situations and how to best approach them
  1. Someone takes credit for your work.
  2. You’re asked to stay late or dial in late when you have a personal obligation.
  3. You have a disagreement or conflict with someone.
  4. You must say “no”.
  5. You need to give negative feedback to someone.
  6. You need to tell someone they’re wrong.
  7. You need to escalate a serious issue.

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