The other day a group of workplace peers met, and the conversation turned to the giant waste of time they endured on a daily basis from handling a single operational problem, over and over again. One person's estimate was that he had to troubleshoot it as much as fifty times - that's 5-0 - in a single shift. And the whole group was frustrated that, although they brought it up to their leadership, nothing has been done to correct it. This is a problem with the fundamentals that has direct customer impact, and these employees have been taking a lot of flak because of it.
In addition, the employees were quick to answer when asked what they would do with their found time once the issue was resolved, and to a person they responded with the answer that their manager would love to hear - and she wasn't even in the room. This persistent operational issue is standing between them and a key growth strategy of the company, and nothing is being done about it.
So the conversation shifted to theories of why they hadn't been heard by management, or why management has not chosen to prioritize the issue for resolution. And ultimately the group came to the conclusion that the message has not been conveyed in a manner that motivates the powers that be. In fact, the message-bearer has been cast as a Negative Nellie for continually calling attention to the issue.
In the process of being persuasive, authenticity comes through, and typically works to your advantage. Being real works better than over-dramatizing or stretching the truth, because when you are being authentic you bear no risk of being uncovered as inaccurate and thereby losing your credibility. Just like honesty is not the same as full disclosure though, directness is not the same as "the sledgehammer." Put yourself in the other person's shoes. You like to know what another person's concern is, but you typically don't like being hit over the head with it. And neither do the people that you need to help you get things done. Realistically speaking, if you are using the sledgehammer, you are increasing the odds that you are being pegged as a troublemaker. And that results in your concerns going to the bottom of the pile, even when they have merit.
So how can you, the problem-identifying party, become more effective in leading upward, convincing management that they need to be on this issue right away? Don't use a communication sledgehammer. Instead, follow these guidelines.
- Gather data. You need to know the facts about the size of the issue and its impact on the company. How many incidents have you had? How much time or money did it cost to handle it each time it arose? Is it trending up (worsening), staying at a consistent level, or trending down (resolving itself)?
- Convert your data to a picture. Graphs are quite articulate in telling the trend story - it's obvious regardless of the raw numbers involved when the line is going up or the bars are going down.
- Start by sharing your data privately to the lowest level that can resolve the problem. Typically this means going to your immediate boss if you do not have the latitude to solve it on your own. (And frankly, if you can solve it on your own, why are you sending it upstream??) If you instead choose to unveil your work in a meeting or other public setting, you run the risk of embarrassing your boss and thereby placing him or her on the defensive. This is a sledgehammer moment, and it isn't good if the goal of all this is that you want your boss to go to work on this issue on your behalf. Nobody works well with a giant lump on their head.
- Describe the action you have taken so far, and the outcomes of that action as part of your communication. If you have already been proactive to resolve the problem within your authority level you are more likely to be heard. Your value to the company increases when it becomes apparent that you are not just adding things to your boss's plate of work because you're too lazy to figure it out yourself or because you want to show off your problem-finding prowess.
- Consider your communication channel carefully. Verbal, in-person communication is the least formal and allows you to be in the moment to field questions, etc. Oral communication, though, can be open to more misinterpretation, and because there is no record of it, can cause your message to be forgotten, even remembered incorrectly. If you document in writing, your audience literally can "get the picture" and has it to refer to later. Written communication becomes a permanent record and can be passed all around your company, so check your grammar and spelling. Also check your tone - no personal attacks in writing. That's a sledgehammer popping out from around a hidden corner.
- Think about the decision influencers and stakeholders. Nobody likes to feel like they are in the dark about their job. In addition, there are times when you need a bit of additional (ahem) leverage to obtain action. Putting key people on your cc list can help to get action even if the main recipient of the communication is being unresponsive. Tread carefully here, because this could be another sledgehammer moment. You could cause somebody important to lose face (figuratively speaking, of course), and that won't work in your favor in the long run.
- Choose your battles. You expend political capital when you point out problems, and you don't want your input to be discounted on account of volume. Prioritize based upon customer impact, cost to the company, etc.