Friday, April 9, 2010

Couldn't find a smile if it was nailed to his face

I would love to be a song writer, and a singer, and I wish I had musical talent.  I love that lyrics and music can be so profoundly honest, and yet safe.  Here's one of my favorites by Spirit of the West, from the song, "Venice is sinking": "couldn't find the smile, if it was nailed to his face. I know people who fit this phrase, as I am sure you do too.

No truer words were sung.  I have an interest in communciation. I love words.  I love writing them. I love finding ways to express ideas. I love all kinds of writing and communication - from annual reports and business plans to 5 word tag lines that are succinct and powerful.  There is power in words. Just think about Nike's slogan, "Just do it."  Or even brands that stand the test of time - like Kleenex.  Words are powerful.  They can be healing and consoling - think Hallmark. They have the market on feel good sentiments.

What's more, we have been taught to "be nice" through nursery rhyme and folklore.  Think Bambi - "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Or the golden rule - "Treat others as you would be treated."

That is why I am shocked by those who use words carelessly, abusively, hurtfully or with anger. In a personal setting, this is more likely to happen because when we feel safe, we sometimes use words to express frustration or anger.  But then we apologize, because we want to keep our relationships.

But what about in the workplace. What happens when the language of work is not nice.  When people are rude, inappropriate, or berating.  Most workplaces have respectful workplace, harrassment and bullying policies to protect against this kind of culture. What do we do with these people who are just plain mean?  Do we report them? Do we correct them? Do we ignore them?

Common human resource policies indicate that the person being attacked should confront the inappropriate communicator and give them a chance to change.  Practice also suggests that documentation is required.  Finally you need to contact your Human Resources department.

Over the years, I have never seen this work effectively. First of all, the victim is further victimized. If the person with inappropriate behavior didn't see it before, he or she will never see it, especially when it is brought to their attention by their victim.  More anger tends to follow.  We also tend to avoid the situation in the corporate world.  We don't like to admit that there are people among us who should never talk to anyone at the very least.  Most of the time, we walk around these people and give them what ever they want so they don't talk to us.

That works in the short term, but not the long term.  I think the best way to deal with this kind of behavior is using a business approach.  Modify the business practice to exclude the possiblity of commucation or participation where it is not wanted.  Decison making models are also useful tools to block personalities and leave them outside. Project management methodology does this.  There are rules of engagement that participants must follow.  This allows the process to be managed smoothly without interference of bad behavior.  Finally, laying out the ground rules for communciation helps by limiting what can be said and what can't.

At the heart of good communication is leadership and culture.  A positive working environment that does not tolerate inappropriate behavior does now allow bad behavior to persist.  And that's really the bottom line. If the description "Couldn't find a smile if it was nailed to his face" fits the leadership, then everything else is downhill from there.

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