Quint Studer: Are you wearing out your boss or coworkers?

Some tips to help improve communication between employees and bosses.

About 30 years ago I started a new job on the same day as my boss. He was the executive director and I was in marketing. We went through orientation process together and developed a strong bond.

My main job was to handle and gauge customer feedback in hopes of expanding our customer base. Things went along quite well...at least for a little while. 

My boss and I would meet often, maybe once every 7-14 days, and I provided my boss with what I was hearing in the field. I'd highlight customer problems. I'd talk about which aspects of our business that needed improvement.

All the while, he had his hands full. He was brought in to improve the organization's performance, so naturally our conversations gravitated toward the areas where we were lacking.

Improvements followed suit.

As we spent time together, I remained vigilant about collecting and reporting issues I gathered from the field, fueled with even more motivation now because we were seeing results. Then one day, I turned the corner and ran into my boss. He looked, saw me, abruptly turned and retreated into his office. A short time later his office door opened. He waved me in.

"What is wrong?" he asked. It was the question that, unbeknownst to me in the moment, had come to define our working relationship to that point.

He told me I was wearing him out.

When he saw me, or when we talked about anything for any length of time, it was about issues. Almost always negatives.

"Do we do anything right?" he'd ask.

I gathered my thoughts as quickly as I could.

"Yes, there are a lot of good things here," I told him.

"It would be nice to hear them, too." he replied.

While it was unpleasant, it was a wake-up call for me.

All this time, I fell into the habit of focusing on what's wrong and not enough on the positive strides we made. It's a lesson that I carry, and remain conscious of, to this day.

This experience made me more aware about the tone I can set in the workplace. Research shows that if a person hears three "positives" to one negative from an individual, they feel positive about that person.

If there's two positive comments to one negative, it creates a neutral feeling. And if you make one positive comment to one negative - a ratio people have long thought to be sufficient to create a positive culture - it in fact creates a negative feeling with the recipient.

During speaking engagements I often ask the audience this question: "If you receive a message from your boss and it says "Call me when you can," is your first thought, here comes more positive recognition?

The group laughs.

Then I ask bosses: "When your employees see a message from you, what are they feeling?"

The group is silent.

The last question is: "When your boss sees you or your name, how do they feel?"

It usually gets both supervisors and employees thinking about how they affect each other.

Some tips to help improve communication between employees and bosses:

1. Take time to track what you are bringing to your boss. The most valued workers bring solutions. Any boss appreciates those who bring a solution versus just stopping at "We have a problem."

2. Share positives about things your boss does. Let the boss knows what they do that you appreciate. Positively recognized behavior gets repeated. An example is "Scott, I really appreciate that when I have a question you take time for me, Thank you."

3. Drop your boss a note. While verbal recognition and rewards are good, take time to drop your boss a note outlining specific items you appreciate.

4. Help them find other positives. Let your supervisor know who you feel is doing a good job. Leaders want to recognize people. However they often are not in position to see the good work as often as the co-workers are. Send the boss notes on peers who are doing good work.

No one wants to wear a person out. No one wants to see their boss hiding from another update. Don't hide from the issues, just be mindful of bringing positivity to the boss-employee dialogue.

Mr. Studer founded Studer Group in 2000. In 2015, Chicago-based Huron Consulting Group acquired the company. Mr. Studer retired in early 2016 to pursue community improvement projects in Pensacola, Fla.

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