Changing the “reality of our work lives”

Photo by mangpages


Peter Bergman writes in the HBR Blog about: When Your Voicemails and Emails Go Unanswered, What Should You Do? He describes a situation where a professional does an interview for a project and then hears silence.  He reaches out with a few calls and e-mails but hears nothing. And then the doubts come in:

This is not an isolated situation; I hear some version of this story at least once a week. One person reaches out to another with no response and they interpret the silence negatively.

This is Bergman’s analysis of the situation:

That’s the reality of our work lives these days. We all get more emails than we can answer immediately. So we triage. We deal with the crisis and then, when time opens a little — maybe on a plane ride or a weekend break — we catch up with the less urgent ones.

I have to admit that I’ve been in Alex’s shoes many times and I’ve made the mistake of sending multiple messages to the unresponsive person. But as I thought about Anthony’s email I realized something: not a single one of those multiple follow ups worked. Sure the people might have called me back eventually, but I never — not once — got the work.

Bergman then goes to prescribe good advice about how to deal with this situation from the candidates side. One, elevate the follow up to a crisis email; Two, recognize that it’s not a crisis; Finally, manage your own emotions. And while the situation Bergman describes is real and the advice practical, I could not help but cringe.

Am I the only who sees something wrong in “the reality of our work lives”? Am I the only one who thinks the silence, which is interpreted negatively should be broken? Shouldn’t it be different? And I am not talking about the candidate. I am talking about the guy who wants to hire him, but still does not give him an answer or a simple update – “we don’t know yet, I will get back to you in a few days”. Is it really that hard to give the candidate an update? Yes, we are busy, but there are so many automated means to do these things or delegate them to others that the excuse: “that’s the reality” just does not hold it for me.

I think this represents a bigger issue. When Bergman asks the potential boss, why hasn’t he returned to the candidate, look carefully at his answer:

I called Sam who happened to be a client of mine and asked about the meeting. “It went very well,” Sam told me, “I like Alex a lot. A good fit for the project.”

So why the unreturned emails and messages? “I haven’t gotten back to Alex,” Sam told me, “Because we don’t have financial approval yet. As soon as I get it, I’ll call.”

We know how hard it is for people to deal with uncertainty, but somehow people fail to recognize that need in others.  And silence is the fuel of uncertainty. As Bergman himself wrote just a few days ago:

Silence isn’t the absence of communication. It’s the nightmare of communication, fueling our negative fantasies

Sam has the knowledge. He can clear some of Alex’s uncertainty, but he does not. It is difficult for him to understand how it feels to be Alex. He is suffering from the curse of knowledge. This is the same process that happens to managers who fail to notice and recognize their employees:

And the same happens to us when we see an employee doing good work. We assume that the fact that we saw him and know what he did means that he knows that we saw him and knows what he did. What is the solution? Taking the opposite assumption. We need to assume that our employees never know that we noticed them. Then make it a priority to let them know that we did. Let’s overcome the curse of knowledge and starting noticing people.

In a world where the only way to succeed is to be truly unique, I refuse to accept the reality as an excuse for not noticing people. It is not only rude but also wrong. It is the right way to be an average, good enough manager. the worst kind. What will happen if you will be different and try to change the world of the reality of work lives?



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