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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Rethinking an Open-Door Policy

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a coworker who abuses my open-door communication policy. Our offices are side-by-side, and we both benefit from this arrangement by discussing dilemmas and sorting through issues to prioritize our group’s efforts.

However, my coworker has a very reactive way of coping with an e-mail she does not like or a phone call from someone who disagrees with her. She will come rushing into my office to rant about this e-mail or that coworker, or this phone call or that situation. This happens five to six times a day! This behavior is distracting because she expects me to put aside what I’m working on to pay attention to her. She’s also thin-skinned, very volatile, and I suspect less than receptive to a conversation that centers on her negative behavior. Any suggestions?

Open-Door Abuse

Dear Open-Door,

This is an interesting question because it’s hard to say which issue you should address.

The first skill of crucial conversations is picking the right conversation. Your two options are:

1. Reset expectations. This one is fairly straightforward. The key is to make it about you and not the other person. This is you realizing you need a different boundary in order to be productive in your work—not blaming your coworker for interrupting you. If you set it up that way, there is minimal chance of defensiveness.
2. Address your coworker’s volatile behavior. There are two reasons to address this issue first. One reason is if you think—no matter how careful you are—you’ll be unable to focus on resetting expectations. If this is true, then you have to address your coworker’s volatile behavior first. The second reason is if it is more important to address her behavior than it is to reset expectations. When you use words like “volatile,” it sounds as though you may have been putting up with abuse for some time and even enabling her misbehavior by not asking for things you want or need in your work relationship. If this is true, you have to hold an entirely different crucial conversation.

If you decide to reset expectations, as I said, make it about you and your needs—not a criticism of your colleague. This is both true and easier to express without creating defensiveness. Go in with a specific proposal—not just a vague criticism. For example, you might simply say, “I’ve noticed that I go home many times feeling disappointed in how much I get done. I’ve realized that one reason is that I don’t focus. I am going to start creating “islands of focus” in my day—when I do not respond to e-mail, talk with colleagues, or schedule meetings. This will put a cramp in the spontaneous conversations we sometimes have, but I want to try this. Can I ask that from 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. you not tempt me with interesting topics?”

You’ll then need to maintain this agreement and give reminders if there are encroachments. If you don’t, then you will be colluding in undermining your own request. So be firm and consistent—odds are it will only take a couple of reminders and you’ll have a bit of solitude.

Confronting her behavior will be more difficult. I might be reading more into this than I should—but I’m inferring not just to volatility (i.e., she gets animated when expressing frustrations) but to hostility (she is defensive and rude when you confront her about concerns). If I am correct, you may want to hold her accountable on this issue. You may also want to give some thought to how you may be rewarding this pattern by allowing it to cause you to tiptoe around other behaviors that don’t work for you (like constant interruptions). Over time, a weakness like this can turn into a technique when those around her reward it too consistently.

If you decide to address this issue, once again, start with safety. When confronting a longstanding pattern that you’ve colluded in, a good way to do this is to acknowledge your part. For example, “I’d like to discuss a concern that I’ve put off addressing for a long time. I realize the pattern we’ve fallen into is as much my fault as yours—as I’ve been staying silent and blaming you for my silence. I’d like to discuss the problem—including how I might be contributing to it—and find a way to work together that is acceptable to both me and you.”

From here, you’ll need to describe two or three examples of the pattern. Be careful, because each time you describe an instance, she’s likely to offer excuses for that instance. For example, you might say, “Last week when I pointed out misspellings on your PowerPoint slide you called me a loser. Then laughed and walked away.” If she then says, “I was joking!” You need to return her to the pattern. Say something like, “I realize there might be special reasons you said things in each circumstance I raise. And yet, what I’m asking you to notice it that there is a pattern—one that is unacceptable to me. If it happened just once, I wouldn’t be discussing this. This is something that happens regularly. Can you see that?”

This will be tricky, but the key is to maintain safety while being fully honest. You need to begin exercising a firmness you have not in the past. If you do, there is a good chance you can get closer to the kind of relationship that will work for you.

Best wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

5 thoughts on “Rethinking an Open-Door Policy”

  1. Ellen Mitchell

    Gosh, you give good advice. I enjoy reading your regular columns, which are full of practical wisdom and strategies that really will work. Thanks for adding value to our office and personal lives!

  2. grizzly bear mom

    The above is great advice. I also established office hours when I, I, I, made MYSELF available. Put a green one up when you are (such as when you are eating your lunch if that is the time that YOU make yourself available). Put a red stop sign on the door when you are unavailable. If your coworker comes in say I was just going to call customer Smith or work on the accounting report. Can we discuss this at 12:00 or 2:00. Which is better for you. Repeat as necessary.

  3. VTAM

    I appreciate the advice in this article. The emotional rollercoaster of dealing with the large personality of a coworker who exhibits the referred to behaviors has been difficult. Even after attending Crucial Conversations training, finding the best way to address the issues is worrisome to me at times.

  4. HRCohen

    I wonder if this coworker thinks you are helping her fight ‘a good fight ‘. If so,it is important to her well being that she understand when you agree and when you disagree. She may be seeking a reality check. If not she will soon list you among her enemies, problem solved. But do not engage in arguments. Just listen,remark,, and politely close the conversation.

    If you enjoy dishing the dirt, save it for lunch, offsite, or before work when she has had a night’s reflection and an opportunity to forget. I’m sure there are many practical reasons that may be used to avoid giving her attention.

  5. Sympathetic Sufferer

    The above advice is sage and indeed highly valuable. I am a huge advocate of accountability and agree with holding the coworker accountable. I have had a very similar problem in the past and found myself in the position of not only resetting expectations, but also redefining boundaries. In my situation I broached the subject by first acknowledging my own accountability by identifying my role in how the situation had escalated to the point of necessitating a crucial conversation.
    I will use the name “Sally” to reference the coworker in my situation. I broached my crucial conversation with her, by first saying, “Sally, I think I have somehow led you astray or given you mixed signals along the way.” Sally of course knew nothing of what I was talking about, so I went on by adding, “Somehow I have let you think I have lots of free time to chat or gossip, when in fact I really don’t. As well, I have never told you that I really disagree with office gossip. By not being honest with you, I have given you the impression it is OK to vent to me about things that frustrate you. Also, if I had been more forthright you, you would not have allowed yourself to place yourself in the position of breaking office policy and even confidentiality. This could lead to disciplinary action against you, so I think the time has come for me be honest with you and ask you not to stand in my office door and vent about your frustrations.”
    I went to apologize to Sally by saying, “Sally I also owe you an apology. I should have been honest with you long before now, long before this could become a problem. If I had been honest with you the first time I had this concern, this situation would not have worsened to the point of becoming a problem or worse getting a reprimand from management. So I apologize for not being up front with you for so long”.
    Sally of course was taken back as she had no idea how I had been feeling. Because I had not accused Sally of being disrespectful and disruptive, she did not feel blamed. My accountability for my part in the situation opened the door for Sally to be receptive to having a crucial conversation. We then embarked on our crucial conversation wherein we reset expectations and redefined boundaries. We also explored alternate avenues for her to express her frustrations with her job. The result was a much quieter and professional work environment, enhanced by a far greater degree of mutual respect with no one risking transgressing boundaries.

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