Dr. Liane Davey is a psychologist, business strategist, author and speaker. The co-founder of 3COze, she works daily to take healthy teams to the next level of performance and to rehabilitate teams that have become unproductive and toxic.
She does this by combining her expertise in strategy with her deep insight into group dynamics – and because of this, she is sought out by some of North America’s leading financial services, high-tech and healthcare organizations.
If you like what she has to say below about meetings, networking and workplace relationships, please be sure to check out her two books: Leadership Solutions and You First.
Paul: As you know, a lot of my work centers around conversations in the workplace and meetings in particular. I love your take on the best way to decline a meeting invitation – can you share it with my readers?
Liane: When you receive a meeting invitation, it’s important to think about whether or not it’s a good use of your time to attend the meeting. Don’t just “accept” as a reflex.
First, consider whether the meeting is set up for success. Is the topic timely? Are the right people invited to ensure you can make the required decisions? If the meeting isn’t set up for success, suggest ways to make it more effective or recommend that it be canceled or postponed.
If the meeting seems like a good one, next you should ask yourself whether you’re the right person to attend. Are you the right person from your team? Does the issue need someone more senior? Is it an opportunity to delegate to someone more junior? Is there unique value you can add above and beyond the others who will be in attendance? If you’re not the right person to attend, it’s appropriate to decline and possibly suggest someone else in your stead.
Finally, even if it’s an important meeting and you can add value to the discussion, it might not be the most important thing for you to be doing at this particular time. Think hard about the opportunity cost of attending the meeting and make a call based on what’s most important for you to pay attention to. If you have something to contribute but can’t afford to attend, ask to contribute in advance or to attend for only parts of the meeting.
If you’ve decided at any one of these three points that you should decline the meeting, be polite and helpful. Regardless of which option is best for you, be deliberate and thoughtful about which meetings you attend and be forthcoming about your rationale for declining an invite.
Paul: Also in the workplace, you make a distinction between venting and gossip. In your opinion, what’s the difference between the two and how should both be handled?
Liane: Venting is when someone uses another person as an outlet for a buildup of negative emotions. They bluster away with a litany of issues and you have no room to get a word in edgewise. For the most part, venting is not aimed at anyone in particular and after a few minutes, the person feels better and carries on. Gossip is a more personal attack on an individual who isn’t there to defend himself. Gossip is insidious and quickly destroys trust in a workplace. If you’re on the receiving end of office gossip, there are a few things you can do. If you believe there is some truth to what the person is saying, you can channel the frustration into a forum where it can be addressed. For example, if your coworker is complaining that Sally was rude to him during the meeting and his ideas got short shrift, you can suggest that he ask to have the issue put back on the agenda. If you don’t believe there is merit to your coworker’s complaints, it’s important to say so. Where possible, take the third party out of the conversation and insert yourself instead. “Frank, I thought Sally was very polite, and she only asked to move along once we had spent 30 minutes on the topic. I don’t think you had enough data to support changing our approach. I’m happy to give you my thoughts on what it would take to reverse the decision.” Regardless of whether you think the gossiper has a legitimate point or not, the idea is to make it very uncomfortable for him to whisper about the issues rather than raise them in an appropriate forum. If every time your coworker gossips to you, you force her to have a grown up conversation, you’ll probably hear a lot less gossip!
Paul: What’s the most impactful way to help out a coworker who is stressed out?
Liane: First, although stress isn’t contagious in the traditional sense, it is common to pick up on the emotional states of others. Be careful when you’re helping a teammate who is stressed out not to take on their stress yourself. With that said, there are a few things you can do to be helpful. First, help reduce the stress that comes from isolation by listening and being empathetic. If you notice that their verbal or non-verbal behavior is concerning, just point it out. “I’ve heard a few big sighs coming from your direction. What’s up?” As you get the person talking, help them figure out the root cause of the problem and suggest some ways they might make things better. If the workload is too high, help them prioritize or solicit some help. If they aren’t sure how to accomplish a task, help break it down into more manageable steps. Even if you can’t help to reduce the stressors, you can probably help reduce the toll that stress is taking on your coworker. If you notice your coworker skipping lunch, grab her a bite to eat at her desk or encourage other healthy habits, like going for a quick walk or watching a funny video on the web. Don’t just ignore a coworker who’s stressed out. Take a moment to help them become more self-aware and to problem solve about how to get out from under the wave.
Paul: In Harvard Business Review, you’ve written about the two sides of networking – instrumental and psychological – with most people not understanding the importance of the latter. Can you expand on why this part of networking seems to be missing for most people?
Liane: Networks (just like mentors) can provide both instrumental (job- or goal-related) and psychosocial (emotional) support. Many people rely on their network for one, but not the other. If you’re the type of person who is great at getting job leads, competitive intelligence, or new business opportunities from your network, great! But are you also finding folks to talk to about the more personal aspects of succeeding at work? Networks can provide great support in helping you manage stress, think about work-life balance, and deal with difficult bosses or coworkers. These are very valuable contributions from a network and shouldn’t be neglected. On the other hand, many people do the opposite with their network: they over-index on the psychosocial support and forget to reach out when then need on-the-job help. Don’t feel sheepish about asking for assistance on a job hunt or in finding new clients. Your support network can be a great career-booster, too!
Paul: Can you tell us a bit more about speaking with impact and writing powerfully?
Liane: I’m really passionate about good communication. Unfortunately, it’s very rare these days. Too much communication is unidirectional and just blasted into the world with little thought about its intent or impact. If you’re sending a message, start by thinking about the impact you want to have. Obviously, think about the information you have to transmit, but don’t stop there. Once you’re clear what people need to know after reading your message, clarify what you want them to think, how you want them to feel, and what you want them to do after reading. Then write your message with those outcomes in mind. If you want people to do a certain thing, have you infused your message with the right facts and emotions to spur action? If not, go back and revise the message until it creates the desired effect. Once you’ve got the content right, make sure your writing is clear and doesn’t get in the way of the message you’re trying to convey. Take out the fancy words and simplify your language. Clean up your grammar and make sure verb tenses all match (especially if you’re using bullet points). You’ll know that you’ve written a strong communication if the words don’t get in the way of what you want people to think, feel, and do!
Paul: Would you share what you are currently working on or other ideas that you have been exploring?
Liane: I’m spending considerable time and energy devoted to improving the use of conflict in the workplace. I’m really concerned that we’ve become conflict avoidant and we’re paying the price in reduced innovation, poor risk mitigation, and eroding trust. I’m trying to change people’s mindsets to understand the value of conflict and then to build the skills to have productive conflict. It’s such an important topic, but one many people are reluctant to talk about.