Boundaries – Professional, Part 2: Addendum!

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In a rush to bring a close to an already overly long post last week, I paid short shrift to the Interpersonal aspect of Professional Boundaries. I wrote a bit about establishing and maintaining clarity on the difference between purely social/personal relationships and those of the professional type, but I left out two essential pieces. I will boil them down in this (relatively!) brief addendum: it all comes down to statements and questions.

In my first real job out of grad school, I quickly found myself in a supervisory position where I interviewed, hired, trained, managed and, yes, fired people. Accountability (another staple of the BASE model) was becoming an ever-expanding part of my professional world. One day (a “casual” Friday at that), in our three-person office, my boss was working from home. That left me and my fellow teacher supervisor to our own devices. A re-hire candidate was coming in for a pared-down interview to determine if she would come in to teach again for us that summer. We had it on our shared calendar and thought that meant that our boss was aware and was fine with it.

Later on, when back-briefing him on what we had accomplished that day, we found out that we had been mistaken. The long and short of it was that our boss would have never approved of us bringing any prospective employee in for an interview if he thought we were going to be dressed casually (Friday or not). He was not pleased, and I realized later that it had more to do with the assumptions that had been made (more by my co-worker and me than by him) and the resulting communication breakdown, than with the actual situation of an employee seeing her supervisors in casual clothes. My boss made me keep “Challenge Your Assumptions” as my computer screensaver for the ensuing 12 months. The phrase, and the lesson it was meant to teach, has unsurprisingly stuck with me.

What it has to do with today’s post is simple. We often make not-so-good assumptions about the importance of differentiating between our statements and our questions in interpersonal interactions in the workspace. The other day, I heard about an employee who will soon be leaving a workplace, and as such is having some responsibilities transferred to other colleagues. When one of those colleagues got together with this person to discuss the details, the soon-to-depart employee at one point exclaimed, “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!” Their interaction went downhill from there.

As soon as I heard this story, an empathetic smile came to my face. This person has a question, whether they realize it or not. What happened? A statement was made, and to the wrong person at that. This employee, somewhat understandably given the stress associated with leaving a job, failed to challenge assumptions about how the transition would be handled, and as such made a statement to a colleague when a question directed to the supervisor or manager was what was most needed to clarify things. So, to keep this as short as I can, here’s the upshot: do your best to have clear Professional Interpersonal Boundaries around your statements and your questions in the workplace. This is likely to require active challenging of many of your favorite assumptions, but that’s almost never a bad thing. At worst, you come to the conclusion that your assumptions were good. At best, you save yourself (and your co-workers) some embarrassment and grief.

This leads me to the second thing: questions. Everyone knows how to ask them, right? But, how many of us can claim a high level of clarity and confidence that we most often ask the best kinds of questions in the most important work conversations? Count me as one of the people who can’t always make that claim. But, maybe you’re reading this and aren’t even sure what the heck I’m talking about. Let me try to clarify.

In his 2013 book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling,” celebrated Organizational Culture/Behavior/Psychology expert Edgar Schein lays out exactly why questions, and being very clear on when to they are superior to statements, matter so much. He writes:

“How can we do better? The answer is simple, but its implementation is not. We would have to do three things: 1) do less telling; 2) learn to do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry; and 3) do a better job of listening and acknowledging.”

Simple, right? No, of course not. Schein already told us it isn’t simple at all. So what does it mean? He says we should “do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry.” But what is that? Well, to paraphrase Schein, it’s finding the opportunity in any given interaction or conversation to be genuinely curious about something that is being said or communicated, and then asking a good question (i.e. NOT one whose answer we think we already know) about that something in which we are truly interested in learning more. Still not simple, I know, but at I hope least somewhat clearer.

So, what now? Well, for this week (and well beyond, if you like), perhaps just try paying more attention to the frequency and type of statements and questions you notice in your workspace, both yours and those of others. If you are a formal authority figure, let me suggest you REALLY pay more attention to this, but I advocate strongly for it no matter your position.

As you pay more attention, look for opportunities to turn a statement (one of your own or one you notice) into a question. Once you have a handle on that, try to turn it into a Humble Inquiry-type question. Want an example? Let’s go back to the situation I outlined earlier: “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!”

What kind of question can that become? In the moment, talking with a co-worker, perhaps something like “Did (our supervisor) say that you were to take this over effective immediately, and would it be alright with you if we went and asked (our supervisor) for clarification?”

Either or both of those might work, no? I am confident that the interaction would have been less likely to go south (as it did in reality) had either or both of those questions been asked in place of the statement that was made. Especially if they had been asked with an authentic tone of curiosity and interest. I wonder (genuinely) what you think.

Remember, comments are welcome on this blog. Feel free to post a reaction, a question, or an anecdote of your own. Mat and I will be happy to read them and respond whenever we can!

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