Welles: Communicating at work

You should ask for help on a challenging project and not say ‘can do’ if you can’t see it through

It’s the start of a new fiscal year. You are focusing on your priorities when your boss tells you to finish one project sooner than planned. You hear yourself saying, “Yes, I’ll get right on it,” even though with other priorities, you probably can’t keep that promise.

So why say yes when you really want to say no? According to communications expert John Buffini, people in the workplace have a hard time saying no. They are trying to fit in and avoid conflict. They are trying to keep relationships smooth and be part of the team. But in trying to get along, someone who says yes without meaning it might do more harm than good.

Under pressure, people often try to “nice” their way through communication. But accepting more work when you are already overloaded can cause you to ignore a project or do it poorly when there might be good reasons to raise it higher on the priority list.

“Many times people feel they can’t stand up to the boss or vice versa,” said Anne Kelley, director of the Treasury Department’s Federal Consulting Group, a franchise that provides executive coaching and consulting on performance management. “It depends on the environment a manager has created to make sure people feel they will be heard.”

“The No. 1 step of communication is to tell the workforce what you are planning to do and give an opportunity for feedback,” Kelley said.

Saying no is not always the answer. Some managers will resort to “urgentspeak” for one project even though they might have already made many other requests. Some situations require productive clarification, Buffini said. That means asking questions to clarify what a manager is requsting and what is expected, particularly when multiple priorities demand employees’ attention.

Buffini said employees have more power than they realize. Whether you are a boss talking to your employees or an employee talking to your boss, make an effort to overcome communication challenges in the workplace.

For example, an employee could respond to a boss’s request like this: “Fred, I know you want quick results on that project. Because of that, I have a question to clarify how to do that.” You can then explore expectations and discuss the priorities of other projects.

Managers also should be asking questions to make sure they understand what their employees are saying. A manager might ask how an employee expects to implement a project when its schedules and deadlines change.

The secret to effective communication in the workplace is learning to focus on what people really mean, not just on what they say. That means understanding someone’s motivation for asking a question. And that requires a manager who wants and uses feedback and an organization that places value on speaking the truth.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above