That is the message of a guide offering detailed scripts for handling dozens of the toughest situations at work, authored by bestselling author, and veteran life coach and career expert Stephen Pollan and his coauthor Mark Levine: Workscripts: Perfect Phrases for High-Stakes Conversations (Wiley 2011). (Disclosure: I was Stephen and Mark's editor in the early 2000s at HarperBusiness).
The authors fatefully pin the year of the transition to the beginning of the Great Recession: "In 2008 the workplace changed forever, forcing me to rethink and revise all the office communications advice I've been offering over the years." Pollan concluded that "five elements" are driving the new workplace.
- Face-to-face communication is rare: ubiquitous email has become a constant tool for time management and avoiding the informal meetings and conversations that until a few years ago were viewed as essential to generating cohesiveness, idea generation, and collaboration. Now the one-to-one meeting between manager and direct report only takes place when the stakes are high--what's more your skills at holding these conversations have likely deteriorated from years of calibrating your views in emails.
- Jobs and careers have expiration dates: the rules for job termination are unlike anything in your generational memory: you can lose your job for poor performance, office politics, or even internal rivalries, but these aren't the primary dangers to your career. Paradoxically, the most productive and effective employees are the most likely to be pushed out when management needs the numbers, because they are older, have larger salaries, and have done a good job training the people below them. The majority of people are losing jobs because of irresistible forces and economic trends such as information technology, global sourcing, and, the pressures to deliver stock market performance.
- Short-term results are all that matter: In recent years, the leaders of most large businesses have changed the way they view performance with implications that cascade down the org chart. Executive evaluations and pay have become more closely linked to stock performance than to any other measure. Instead of rewarding leaders based on, say, the long-term growth and positioning of the company for the future, corporate boards and shareholders make their decisions and judgments based on how the stock fared for the quarter.
- Employees do not trust employers: Of course the traditional compact between employer and worker has been in tatters for years. Until recently, however, employees did trust that their skills would be their safety net: senior executives would keep you on the payroll if you were productive and a performer. The Great Recession changed this dynamic, with employers firing their most experienced workers to save money.
- Everyone's work future is uncertain. People work in "an ad hoc workplace" in which excellence is no guarantee of security, much less advancement. Incomes and jobs come and go in ways you can't control, with the exception of managing your performance and how you are perceived. As never before, you need to avoid attracting unwanted attention and cultivate professional, guarded communications.
That means as a manager or direct report, each and every delicate situation must be steered to your advantage. Pollan and Levine's scripts cover situations including meeting your new boss, explaining a restructuring, firing a friend, firing a company icon, making an end run around your boss, being asked to become a part-time employee, warning of potential supplier or vendor problems, giving notice, speaking to an employee about a dress, appearance, or personal odor problem, and dozens more from both sides of the conversation. Scripts are presented as flow charts with various options for how your counterpart reacts, with guidance for how to prepare and follow up after your high stakes conversation.
What workplace conversations do you find require the most preparation? How do you maintain a professional approach to emotional, difficult confrontations?
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