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Cheryl Boldt RN

Senior Consultant
Maun-Lemke Speaking & Consulting, LLC

There are times in our professional careers in healthcare when flashbacks to childhood give keen insight into current situations.

I remember playing in the sandbox with my friends when I was 4-years-old. One of my playmates was “being mean to me” so I ran crying into the house to my mother. Did I mention I had begged all day long to have someone come over to play? My mother’s response was swift and firm. She told me not to “tattle” on my friends or speak badly of them. She reminded me of how much I had wanted them to come to my house to play. She told me to go back out there and talk with them about what had happened and to work it out. She informed me of the choices I had. I could choose to ask them all to go home and play by myself, or I could choose to go out and talk with them and keep on playing with my friends. She made it clear she would not tolerate any whining or complaining. I did not want to go back outside to confront my friends. I asked Mom once more if she would go out and tell my friends to play nice. She said, “Come WITH me; let’s go talk WITH them together. She did not let me off the hook. Mom coached me as I told my playmates how I was feeling. I do not recall now what had happened, only that it turned out to be quite a small issue blown out of proportion. That was my first lesson in front line problem solving and learning not to escalate the truth.

This same type of passive-aggressive behavior occurs in the workplace today. Adult professionals “tattling” or “snitching” on their co-workers and talking negatively about them behind their backs. It is difficult for many individuals to confront a co-worker respectfully and honestly regarding concerns about work performance or personality differences. Yet, it is very easy to go to the break area and tell 10 other people exactly what drives us crazy about our co-worker who is not there to defend herself/himself. It is also easy to write a note or complain to a supervisor about the person and make it the “boss’s job” to fix the situation. This type of behavior is below the belt. If you are a co-worker or supervisor who allows yourself to be held hostage listening to these types of complaints or negative comments about co-workers, then you are equally guilty.

The excuses offered for not talking WITH someone in person include not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings or make them angry. Yes, there is a risk the person may indeed feel badly when you talk WITH them about the issue. They may choose to get angry, not talk to you at work, talk negatively about you to others… but it is still the right thing to do.

It is important to not confront others in front of a customer or other co-workers. Please try to use “I feel” statements instead of “YOU always” statements to minimize defensiveness. For example: “I feel when the trash cans are not emptied from the previous shift, it gets my shift off to a bad start. Could we please talk about this and resolve it?” This addresses the issue and does not attack the person. Then take the time to LISTEN to what the other person has to say and try to come up with a WIN-WIN agreement. In this instance it may be something like adhering to the facility policy for staff to round with each other during shift overlap to assure work is completed.

This approach does take courage, consideration, and yes, it may take some practice before you feel comfortable with it. You can explain to the person you feel it is better to talk WITH them than ABOUT them. The ball is in their court regarding how they choose to respond to your conversation. If a WIN-WIN agreement is not adhered to and the person lets you down, you need to talk with them again about it. If the situation remains unresolved, go WITH them to a supervisor and talk through the situation. This is better than “tattling” or “snitching” to a supervisor, talking about them behind their back, or letting the issue “boil up” to a bigger problem.

In many workplaces today, the “Chain of Command” approach is still in effect. For example, if something happens, I go to my direct supervisor who goes to their direct supervisor who may even have to go to the supervisor of another department who goes to someone else in the “chain of command”… and so on… and so on.  This not a time efficient or effective manner in which to conduct the business of resolving concerns among co-workers. The smartest thing leaders can do is empower the front line to work out issues and solve problems themselves so they stay fixed. If leaders are given a problem they will do something well intended, but usually will not find a permanent solution. When you get those closest to the problem involved in the problem solving, the problems have a much improved chance of staying resolved. Yes, the risk of empowerment is that people may make mistakes, so you need to be ready and willing to be a coach instead of taking back total control of the situation.

The next time someone approaches you to talk ABOUT someone else…the first words out of your mouth should be “What did SHE/HE say when you talked WITH her/him about that?”  You may get a “deer in the headlights” look and a comment about how they could “NEVER talk with this person” about this, or “isn’t that YOUR job?”  You can respond by saying “COME WITH ME, LET’S TALK WITH HER/HIM/THEM”. The reaction you get will be very interesting. Consistent application of the “come with me” approach will remind people to be very honest and does prevent escalation of some very minor or even non-existent issues.

If you are a supervisor, inform those you work with and supervise you will no longer take any more notes or conversations in any form that “snitch” on someone else regardless of the department.  Put a sign on your door that says, “Bring THEM with you when you come”.

Who would have thought Mom’s lessons about playing in the sandbox would be so profound?

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