Sunday, April 27, 2008

April 28, 2008 – Them’s Fightin’ Words!

Choosing the wrong words can start a fight. I vividly remember conducting a PMO status meeting with upper management in which I nearly started a brawl without meaning to. While reporting the results of a recent project audit, I made the observation that very few resources were completing their weekly status reports. I surmised that management was setting a poor example by not producing their status reports. Unfortunately I said it out loud, immediately creating a hostile environment for myself.

Here are five lessons to learn from this:

  1. Watch what you say. Obviously the filter between my brain and mouth was not functioning during that meeting. Check your filter before you let something slip. Report the information concisely and clearly. You can present analysis and reasoning, but leave out the commentary.
  2. Consider how you say it. Only 7% of face to face communication is the words you say. Tone and visual cues (body language, gestures, eye contact, etc.) make up the other 93%.
  3. Recognize a challenge. Sometimes people deliberately try to draw you into a fight. They know the buttons to push and they start poking them. It may seem like an innocent question or a simple statement but it is intent is to challenge your authority and put you on the defensive: "Our projects have not been completing on time. Is it the role of the PMO to audit them and ensure they are successful?" It may even come across as a show of support or sympathy: "The PMO is obviously too understaffed to be effective in this environment." Be aware of who is saying what and think through why they may be saying it.
  4. Don’t take the bait. There are some things that are worth fighting over, but not everything. Just because someone is looking for a battle doesn’t mean you have to take it. This doesn’t mean to run from a direct challenge but don’t jump at every offense. Choose the time and place for your battles.
  5. Respond appropriately. The greatest life management book ever written says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." Think it through and determine what is being challenged and then choose a response like one of the following:
  • Call them on it. A direct challenge in a group setting requires a response. One tactic is to look them straight in the eye and ask, "Are you challenging my authority on this?" Generally people back down at this point. If not, you may have to pick another response.
  • Ignore it. You can ignore a question or comment that is intended as an attack. Don’t ever try to answer question like, "Are you still beating your wife?" It may be prudent to ignore a slight at the time and address it in private later. Sometimes the offense is unintentional and it won’t happen again, but if it continues you will need to deal with it.
  • Apologize. This is especially effective if they are reacting to a perceived threat by you. Believe me, during that status meeting I apologized quickly. True as it was, I needed them on my side to be effective.
  • Just the Facts. People can get defensive but they can’t really argue with facts. Make sure you have them right and then present them as evidence to support your case.
  • Humor. Making light of a comment acknowledges it and defuses it. Don’t mistake ridicule for humor, however. Making fun of the person will just tick them off and escalate the fight.
  • Delay. Retreat is not giving in, it is allowing both of you time to cool off and try again later.
  • Defend yourself. When push comes to shove, sometimes you have to push back.

It is easy to throw out fighting words. Dealing with them takes maturity and forethought.

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