By Anne Collier

You’re frustrated. And it’s not the first time. It’s also not just because of the pandemic-required remote working. Less extreme versions of this particular “problem” occurred prior to March of 2020. Your first thought is that your colleague is not accountable. But what does that really mean? At its most basic level, accountability is a metric: Did the job get done or not? A more nuanced interpretation of accountability is that the colleague takes on the responsibility for getting the work done and doing it well. The colleague “owns” the work. It’s fair to say that most people want to be accountable and strive to do so. Their careers depend on it. The real question, therefore, is when there is a problem, especially a recurring problem, “What went wrong?”

Note that the question is not “Who’s to blame?” Playing the blame game is a person-centric retort to a systemic problem. Blame is a survival-driven reaction just like flight, fight, freeze or appease. It is not the result of a considered analysis. Thus, when a project goes awry, it’s the system that isn’t working, not the people in the system. We need to eschew person-centric blame in favor of devising a better system for prioritizing, communicating, delegating, tracking or organizing. By transforming blame into an objective inquiry, we empower ourselves. We stop being at the mercy of systems that no longer serve us.

As human beings, we are social creatures, even the introverts among us, and thus rely on certain interactions. We’re habituated to communicate verbally, to being able to walk down the hall for a quick question or confirmation that, “Yes, I am on the right track.” It is our system.

Separated, we now feel intrusive when we pick up the phone for the “little things” that we should already know. Many people, especially the junior in an organization, don’t want to bother colleagues at home. These days, this begs the question, if not at home, where, and, more to the point, how does what’s necessary for effective collaboration occur? And don’t think these challenges are going to end with the pandemic. New hybrid work arrangements and changing life priorities mean that holding on until the old system is relevant again is wishful thinking.

Consider the need for a system upgrade. Team members are feeling overworked and stressed about delivering seamless client service, meeting deadlines and mentoring associates. When you worked a few feet from each other, it didn’t matter that you each tracked client matters using your own individual system because you could confirm and double-check in seconds with little effort. Now it does. Consider standardizing your tracking system, creating checklists and developing a manual for training. Sighs of relief will abound!

Understand that a system upgrade may not be easy. System upgrades take time and focus. You may also experience dread as you think about discussing what you and your associates perceive as poor performance. Therein lies the key. If you are thinking about this as a person-centered performance issue, you are stuck in a blame mindset. Changing the metrics by which blame is assigned is not the objective. The upgrade, therefore, is predicated on you truly letting go of blame in favor of working toward a system that guarantees success. The conversation comes more easily and is certainly more productive because you are improving the system, not the person.

If this resonates with you, and you’re game for a system upgrade, follow these steps.

  1. Analyze and articulate the opportunity for improvement. The last thing you want to do is start a conversation about your system with an ill-defined statement of the opportunity for improvement. Think about what didn’t work, what used to work (if it did), and what’s missing now. You’ll want to open the conversation by disarming your colleague with something like, “I’ve been thinking about how collaboration has changed since March 2020. I think it’s time we figure out how to make up for the fact that we’re not in the office together.” Note the neutral, blame-free, no-drama language?
  2. Consider the colleauge’s perspective. The colleauge experiences challenges in getting the work done; otherwise, you wouldn’t be considering a system upgrade. Ask yourself what those challenges might be, and be ready to acknowledge them. This will help you both empathize and focus on the necessary upgrades.
  3. Be prepared to deal with defensiveness. Especially if a problem surfaced during a recent assignment, be ready for your colleague to be defensive. It may be unpleasant, and you’ll likely have to put the colleague at ease with statements such as, “This isn’t anyone’s fault. We just need to figure out how to compensate for remote working. It’s not you. It’s not me. It’s our system.”
  4. Set aside enough time for the initial conversation. Don’t raise the issue with only 10 minutes to spare before your next call. Set aside 30 to 60 minutes. Expect that the colleague (or team) may need reflection time to shift thinking from reactive defensiveness to thoughtfully developing the upgraded system.
  5. Be collaborative and curious. Be sure to encourage participation in creating the new system by asking questions that start with “what,” “how,” “when” or “who.” Avoid “why” because its use often triggers defensiveness. Pause often. Wait for responses. Don’t be afraid to say, “Let’s think about it and talk again in a couple of days.” Stay curious so that you both better understand your colleague’s perspective and are more creative in generating solutions.

While the transition to a new system may sound time consuming, it’s more costly to continue as you are, avoiding the need for a system upgrade. You’re not using a home computer from the 1980s just because it still powers on. Your system, like the old computer, served its purpose in the past. Upgrades are the only way to assure a better work product and relieve the stress caused by an outdated system.

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