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Saturday, April 5, 2008

taking it personally

A reader writes:

I would like to get your advice on an incident at work. I was wondering if this warrants talking to my supervisor and if so, what approach I should take in speaking with her. The incident has left a bad taste in my mouth and I am compelled to search for other employment.

I asked X and Y for help/clarification on a procedure to send out District email mailings. Specifically I was asking what the codes meant on the Widget function so that I can understand what I am doing when I choose the Widget codes for each District mailing.

X and Y came to my desk and explained in a very muddled and hurried way what the codes meant and what needs to be done to implement them. They went to my screen and in a very fast way had me do the steps needed to create the target groups and to exclude the newly created group from the mailing recipient target group. They then told me these steps need to be taken with each and every District (eight of them). They then left with me feeling more confused and bewildered rather than confident that I had been properly trained on a crucial skill I need to do the job I was tasked to do.

My complaints:

1) The questions involved highly technical steps using the fields in the Membership database. I should have been given the steps in a more controlled, deliberate and organized way instead of given a muddled, hurried run-through.

2) They should make it clear that they will follow up and make sure that the steps I took were correct and that I did not make a mistake. They are in charge of the membership database, after all, and any functions that involve using it correctly they should have oversight.

3) Sending out District emails involves a very public way of communicating with our Association members. Any mistakes and technical issues reflect badly on our Association as an organization. The lack of care and muddled way they handled teaching me how to address an important aspect of the District mailings sends the wrong message to me on the care we take in communicating with our members.

4) Finally, as a colleague and professional who they have to interact with day to day, I just feel like I have been disrespected and left to muddle through, by trial and error, a complicated, technical procedure that has implications for communicating with our members. This is very much unnecessary as they could have simply explained to me what needs to be done, asked me if I had questions, and provided any technical assistance or documentation for any technical details beyond my capabilities. Better yet, they could have simply answered my emails and given me the steps I need to do in writing so I have documentation on what I need to do step by step instead of having to muddle through the steps by memory and guesswork.

What I hear in your letter is that you're taking personally something that isn't personal. Would it have been better if they had done the things you suggest? Of course. But most people aren't expert trainers; they muddle through as best they can. If someone who is training you in something isn't giving you what you need, you need to speak up and tell them that you need more help. If you have questions, ask them. If you need to see it demonstrated more than once, ask. If you want to have something in writing to refer to, ask for that (or write down your own notes as you go and ask them to review them for accuracy). If you want them to review your work after you use the new skills for the first time, ask. If you ask directly and still don't get what you need, ask your supervisor if there are other resources available to you to learn the skills needed.

There's nothing in your letter that indicates this was intended as disrespect to you or that it was in any way personal. But what I do hear are very loud alarm bells going off in my head about your attitude, not theirs. I'm going to be blunt here: You can't expect to have everything at work spoon-fed to you, you need to speak up when you need clarification, you can't get offended when people don't know precisely what you need when you haven't asked for it, and quitting over this would signal to any future employer that you're dangerously high-maintenance. Do you really want to be that employee?


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for answering my question. Before I took action of any kind I wanted to get the perspective of an outsider and if indeed, the problem lay with me or with the people who were training me.

Some additional background:

- I have been sending X emails about this the past week with no response. I only got a response after I started emailing Y

- The approach that X and Y took included telling me "I only have ten minutes to do this" and then leaving abruptly. I took it as they weren't willing to receive anymore emails or questions from me from this point on, that I had been pestering them, that their time was too valuable to waste on teaching me. Not exactly making me feel comfortable that they are approachable for questions and clarification if what they gave me was insufficient.

I try not to take things personally at work and 99% of the time and 99% of the people around me I am OK. I took this personally because I was tasked to do a job, and when I asked for help and clarification on something I did not understand, that I got a half-hearted, hurried effort that gave me a "figure it out on your own" impression.

For the record I am not a database or IT staff. I am willing to do this job they gave me but I can't do it effectively if the "training" I get is insufficient.

I try to be cooperative and not be a high-maintenance employee and try to just do the job and react to events beyond my control with good humor. I don't even have any objections to figuring things out for myself. But I know certain things are beyond my knowledge and skills and if I need to ask questions I need to know that people are willing to help instead of making me feel as if I am just pestering them.

JT O'Donnell said...

Hi Reader,

I can appreciate your position. I also think Ask A Manager is bringing up an interesting point.

I know it's hard to consider that you might be contributing to this situation, so here's something that may help broaden your perspective...

I believe at the root of your situation is a fundamental difference in Interaction Styles. As has been pointed out, it's more than likely that you, X, and Y all vary a bit in your preferred modes of communication. The result is frustration with a manager and/or co-worker who is your opposite. I'd be interested in having you complete the ISAT Test and then make an educated guess as to what X and Y are. From there, you can identify ways to 'tweak' your approach so that you can connect with each one better. I know what you are thinking, "Why should I do this?" but think of it as building your team building and persuasion skills - two things vital to growing our careers. The test is free at
I've used this tool repeatedly with groups who are struggling to build stronger team dynamics. As you've experienced, cross-training is one of those elements of a team that is heavily impacted by Interaction Styles, especially, in pressure or deadline situations. Good luck - this kind of situation can really eat at a person over time, turning a great job into something loathsome. I hope you can find a way to work it out.

HR Wench said...

OMG do you work for SHRM?

Very good advice from The Manager as always.

When people don't answer your emails, call them. If they don't answer the phone or your voicemail, go FIND them. If they are abrupt and pissy ask them what their major malfunction is. Seriously. Why beat around the bush? You can be professional about it. Be an advocate for yourself instead of a target of their ire.

Anonymous said...

Hello HR Wench and AskaManager

OK in the interest of advocating for myself here is what I plan to do. Now that I have had a weekend to cool off and get my anger down here is how I plan to approach the situation. I will send an email to X and Y, copying my boss where:

1) I will lay out what I learned from them last Friday and ask their feedback if I got it right. I will ask them to review my work and to let me know if I made any mistakes.

2) I will politely tell them if they don't alredy know that I do not have a database background nor have I had any formal training in our membership database. Therefore, the next time they try to teach me something please realize this and tone down the technical lingo and jargon and speak to me in plain English as much as possible so I could understand and follow what they are saying.

**Please keep in mind that X and Y both outrank me**. X is a couple of steps above my boss and Y is on the same level as my boss in the org hierarchy. When I was angry last week I cannot afford to just go toe to toe with them verbally because I would have said something that Iwould probably regret. That is why I sought help and context first in this blog and held off on doing anything until tomorrow.

How does this sound? Does this look like a good approach?

PS: TO JT O DOnnell, I am a Contemplator.

Ask a Manager said...

Hmmm. I think that's overly aggressive. I'd suggest instead that the next time they're training you in something, if you're not getting what you need, you tell them there, on the spot, politely, what would be more helpful to you. But I don't recommend emailing them about it now and cc'ing your boss, because it'll come across as complaining after the fact, and I don't think there's actually anything here that it makes sense to complain about. The big point I hope you'll come away with is that there really isn't cause for anger here -- you just need to tell them what you need when you're not getting it. And then if you still don't get it what you need fro them, ask your boss for advice on how to get the training you need (but without sounding like you're taking it personally). But emailing them and cc'ing your boss is going to be overly aggressive.

Ethical Slut said...

Why can't you walk over to your boss and ask her to give you an hour to train on the program sometime? With a smile?

I'm going to be honest with you, it sounds like you've got some social interaction issues. You should definitely seek out a therapist who can find out why you have difficulty communicating and make simple miscommunications into personal attacks. That you immediately assume that your probably busy supervisors aren't training you out of malice is a huge red flag. Obviously if you're wearing your anger and resentment like a cloak, its possible that they don't want to interact with you.

Some people just have issues with social interaction due to childhood trauma, autism, personality disorders, etc. Its nothing to be ashamed of, but you have to realize that you can't change the Xs and Ys you will be working with for the rest of your life, but you can change you act, behave, react, etc....

Productivity Guy said...

I would go into Outlook, create a calendar item and invite the person to a formal training. This other person sounds like me when I'm super busy and frustrated to show someone else how to do something... but if a time is reserved specifically for that (rather than me just taking a few minutes out of my hectic day on call), I am more willing to be patient.

So, schedule a time with the person and then follow up accordingly - phone or preferably in person - if they don't respond.

I understand your situation, but this doesn't sound like something to get very worked up over.

Or, write out what you think are the instructions to do your job (i.e. write your own SOP) and send it to the person to review. Easier for him/her to point out/edit mistakes than to just re-tell you from scratch.

HR Wench said...

No, do NOT send that email. Let it go and consider it lesson learned for next time. Between now and the next time this happens work on your confidence, maybe even take a class/seminar on emotions in the workplace. This will help you speak professionally when you are pissed off instead of exploding or sending crisp emails (trust me, I speak from experience). You have to feel good about yourself, really truly believe and focus on the fact that you can only control YOURSELF to get through these difficult work relationships (and life - makes it much easier I've found).

Think of it this way: next time this happens you will have a golden opportunity to reinvent your work relationship with these individuals. Play a little dumb, be cheerful, whatever it takes to disarm them and get them to give you what you need.

Best of luck to you and let us know how things turn out!!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the folks who say this isn't a complicated situation, although certainly annoying. No need for the email.

You'll just have to be a pain in the neck, that's all. This sounds like something important, something you REALLY have to master. So you'll just have to keep bugging them and asking questions and bringing stuff for them to check until you feel competent. No need to send the email ccing their boss.

They'll hate this, of course, and try various ways to discourage you from approaching them (including, but not limited to sighing, rolling the eyes, asking "didn't I explain this already?" saying they don't have time right then and hiding under their desks when they see you coming).

But you can handle this for a while, because eventually you'll understand how to send these emails and -- like magic -- you'll disappear.

Until, of course, the next time they have to teach you something. They may say, "We have to take an hour to teach Z this, because he/she's an idiot" but that's OK.

Jackie Cameron said...

I am an activist ( just do it) learner - a co-worker was a reflector ( need to read about it and understand first). We drove each other nuts. I needed to get her to work alongside me - she felt threatened at every turn - we ended up not being able to communicate. It is a common situation. There are mismatches all over the workplace. Breakdown in communication is a very bad outcome- though!
Re your "anger" - it would be interesting to think about why you responded that way. I am sure a therapist would help but you might be able get an idea of what happened yourself first. Think about the trigger and your reaction to that trigger. Now - take some time and work out what was going on in your mind in between ( you have expressed some of this in your post) and then see if you have any evidence for any of those thoughts! We are all very good at talking to ourselves and talking ourselves into situations that don't really exist.

Anonymous said...

UPDATE: Hello all. Thanks very much for all the responses and advice. Here is what I did today.

1) I wrote down in documented form the step by step guide to doing the task I was being trained on last week. I did it as comprehensively as I can remember the steps, and
included screenshots. Anyone who is a new employee, can now therefore, make use of this guide and learn how to do the task.

2) I emailed the document to Y, seeking his feedback as a database expert if I got it right. I was specific where I was unclear about and what steps were missing in order to make the document complete.

3) Y came to my desk and helped me resolve the remaining issues in the document. He showed me the steps I was missing and the blanks that need to be filled. It was over in
less than ten minutes and I was able to complete the document.

4) I had a meeting with my boss today where I described the steps I took in compiling the info needed for the document. I told him I was not opposed to taking on this
responsibility but that I needed real database training so I can understand what I am doing. He agreed and said that I should get such training, and that the issue needs to be raised whether doing such tasks should even be part of my job description. He said that
the responsibility should fall on X and Y to create these types of training documentation for staff.

So all in all I feel that the issue is now over and I can get back to my regular duties older and wiser. I do appreciate the insights that I need to work on how personally I
took the original incident. I fully intend to address these personal issues. Until then, I think I did pretty well in keeping self-control from exploding considering how I felt originally, and coming to this blog for advice and context before I did anything rash or in anger.

One last question: I Googled for classes or seminars on managing workplace emotions and what I got were very pricey -- around $1,000 or so per class. Is this the norm for these types of resources?

HR Wench said...

Anything throught the AMA (American Management Assoc) is going to be very costly so I don't advise starting there. The best thing to do is ask your HR or training dept if they know of local reputable seminar providers. As an HR pro I usually kept a catelog or two for this very purpose. A class of this nature should be around $150 to 300 per day. Here are some providers to look up, I've used all for various classes and seminars: SkillPath, Fred Pryor Seminars, Padgett Thompson, Learning Tree International. Best of luck to you and thanks for letting us know how things turned out!

Ask a Manager said...

Wow, that is great! It sounds like this ended really well. Thanks so much for updating us and giving us the chance to help you sort through this!

Anonymous said...

I read this after it has all been resolved, but I realize that the write probably took the issue personally because he/she felt that their duty (in sending out the District emails) was very important AND reflected personally on his/her work. I can understand that you'd be upset at trying to figure this out on your own and having it look like you did a crappy job. But the writer also mentioned that X & Y are in similar rank or higher than his/her manager--so their time is very valuable. Glad it all worked out well, that your manager realizes this may not be an appropriate responsibility for you, and that you are seeking training. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Reader, this is a totally different take on things, but I worked (past tense) for a non-profit trade association once and left after becoming frustrated when I attempted to resolve a problem before it became an issue and was blown off by three departments none of whom would take action or any responsibility. Of course after the members complained my simple, inexpensive solution was implemented, but had anyone been willing to be remotely proactive rather than shrugging their shoulders, we wouldn't have gotten any complaints. Your assessment that they aren't overly concerned with the members might actually be more accurate than you think. Your individual issue with X/Y/training/communication aside, you may find that the problem has more to do with the lack of alignment between your values (service) and the rest of the organization/staff's actual values and need to consider if the organization is a good fit for you in the long run.