Collaboration Communication Issues
July 24, 2012 4:25 AM   Subscribe

Looking for communication strategies in a tricky management situation, as well as general management resources.

I’m stuck in a tricky management situation with an inter-institution collaboration. I’m working with employees at another institution (no hiring/evaluation privileges) who have a very different communication style that’s causing some problems. Two of the people in this collaboration have a much more emotional communication style than I do—their emails and phone calls focus on how they feel about what they’re being asked to do. This is problematic because they’re carrying out their portion of this project with occasional disregard for protocol, as well as demonstrating some jaw-droppingly unprofessional behavior (attempting to kick collaborators out of a shared training session, for one).

Email chains between our site and theirs might go like this:

Us: I understand that you’re having some issues with Project X.
Them: Yeah this is all so dumb this is a total moving target we were told [patently untrue thing] and now you’re telling us [true thing].
Us: I hear your concern; in the future you should [follow protocol].
Them: Well we’ll do what we’re told but we won’t change midstream just because you feel like it.

Us: Can you please correct this problem with Project X?
Person 1 at Site 1: This is not my fault.
Us: Can you please see that someone at your site corrects the following issues with Project X? (These are clerical errors that should have been caught several weeks ago)
Person 1 at Site 1: You are KILLING ME.

I need to communicate to them that they must follow our protocol and collaborate in good faith. I’d like them to feel heard and like their feelings have been addressed—we’re never going to get anywhere if they resent us. I do not have the ultimate power to really get firm with them, although I can go over their heads to their project manager if necessary. Any suggestions? Any general suggestions for reading for management communication?
posted by House of Leaves of Grass to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I know that this sounds horrible, but do you want to get it done or worry about feelings? (Someone who says "You are KILLING ME" knows the drill).

So I would:

-Put everything in email at the end of meetings, etc., send it to them and ask if you captured everything (it should include things like "You should follow protocol X." Then when they respond "we never heard this" a month later, you respond to them and forward the previous message with an "as discussed on x/x/2012.

-For the "you are KILLING ME"me stuff, cc everyone, including higher ups on both sides. It's more to have the person think they are being watched and step up the work.

If you are truly worried about their feelings, you could have monthly meetings and get their feedback, too.

I don't know how much including the project manager will help (some pay attention to details, some do not), but you could include directions and emails to everyone, including the project manager in the hopes that someone remembers this.
posted by Wolfster at 5:08 AM on July 24, 2012

Unless the unprofessional emails are hurting the project itself (ruining relationships with other collaborators or reflecting badly on you), then the real problem is the actual quality/consistency of the work. Luckily, it's much easier to establish shared expectations around quality than around the tone of someone's emails. So I'd focus on the quality issue.

What is the worst thing that could happen from their perspective? If they really have nothing to lose, then you are in a tight spot. But if there is *something* they value about the partnership, you need to very respectfully go to them and their superior, and put that thing on the line.

"I called this meeting because I'm concerned: the protocol is not being followed. [insert data]. Unfortunately, if the quality control doesn't improve, [we will have to move the project to another collaborator/we will have to withold payment/ etc.]. I know we both don't want that to happen, so I want to hear from you what more I can do to help make the protocol clear and feasible. [brainstorm actual ways to help. Then agree on what an acceptable level of deviation is, and be sure they are clear on how you are measuring their adherence.]"

Approaching this from a helping standpoint, even if you are not causing the problem, helps keep them off the defensive. But you've also made clear that there is a specific consequence if their behavior continues.
posted by Ausamor at 5:57 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The level of unprofessional displayed here does, unfortunately, reflect poorly on us. Because of this I'd like to address the feelings, or at least not ignore them, in the hopes of this improving.

Great suggestions so far--I sent an email similar to what Ausamor recommended yesterday with no response yet. I am in a position to withhold payment if necessary.
posted by House of Leaves of Grass at 6:05 AM on July 24, 2012

Sending an email verification of what was agreed to goes a long way to reduce confusion and misunderstanding. There is a danger to relying on email instead of using face time, so use it sparingly.

Also, since you really have no authority over these people, by all means work with their project manager to come up with a solution.

As for books, you might want to check out one of Daniel Goleman's works on Emotional Intelligence.
posted by Sir Cholmondeley at 6:06 AM on July 24, 2012

Unless you have a big stick, you cannot tell other people at a different organization what to do.

If no stick exists (eg, removing funding), then...

It seems to me like you're making direct requests and directing these folks about what they should do.

Start using your own "I" statements, avoid "you" statements, and start talking about how you "feel". Ask for help.

"I feel like we're not following the protocol. I need some help. Can you help me?"

Preference is for using a big stick though, or perhaps the project manager.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:13 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Depends on your position in the company. Does the company culture back your "stick to protocol" position, or are you going to be going against the grain? If you have the support of the company, can you bring in some bigger guns to scare them into compliance? I wouldn't normally advocate fighting political battles at work, but if it's stopping you from getting your work done, maybe you need to appeal to a higher authority.
posted by deathpanels at 6:24 AM on July 24, 2012

I'm confused. They have a project manager but you are the one ensuring that they do their work correctly and on time? Their PM needs to step up and be a part of this process. I think you need to go directly to their PM and potentially higher without the problem employees involved. Have an illustrative sample of the problem communications and work to show everyone. State in explicit terms: "This is unacceptable. We need you to ensure that your people are doing their work correctly and communicating in a professional manner. As it stands we have concerns about the prospects for satisfactorily finishing the project."

You don't need to explicitly threaten to withhold payment yet (that's the nuclear option) but the possibility of such is certainly implied by the last line.
posted by rocketpup at 7:25 AM on July 24, 2012

Do you work with me? We have similar difficulties with our partners. I absolutely empathize that they do not get clear communication from their side and they are understaffed. I don't actually want to know why they aren't able to do what I ask, I just want them to do it. However, the only way that has been fruitful in my situation, is to actually help them improve their processes. If you have more sway with your or their direct supervisors or with the project manager, maybe you can avoid it and do things more traditionally as rocketpup suggests.
posted by Gor-ella at 7:31 AM on July 24, 2012

I worked at the Phone Company in a matrix management scenario. I frequently had to address problematic orders and patently stupid requests from customers. I approached it as a team member. The culture at the Phone Company was, "fix the blame fast" so no one would take responsibility for anything if they could avoid it.

I fell on my sword regularly, but I got shit done.

I'd commiserate, "I know, it seems like this changes at the drop of a hat. What can I do? It's the customer. I promise, when this is all over, I'll treat you to a dozen donuts. Just for you!"

Did I schmooze a bit? Sure. Did my stuff get done and done well? Yes.

Can you feel these folk's pain?

"I know, it's a PITA, but we have to stick with straight up protocol here. I'm getting my ass handed to me on a regular basis. Can you help me out here?"

I've found that being honest, really understanding what the other side is going through, and working together to attain the goal has served me well.

Being hilarious hasn't hurt anything either.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:19 AM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I once saw an email discussion go completely to hell when the man followed the actual list rules and thereby just pissed all the women off all the more. I was able to stop the train wreck on list because I recognized the pattern from my marriage. I am very emotional. The more upset I got, the more expressive I got. My ex wanted to keep things "calm", which felt too cold for me. The more he tried to be cold and logical, the screechier I got because I did not feel heard. The "hotter" I got, the colder he got. And it was a disaster.

It is likely counterintuitive for you, but they might calm down if you warm up a smidgeon and acknowledge some of the emotional expression. Don't give an inch on the actual requirements, but pat them on the head and acknowledge it's a pain. Very likely the emotional escalation ("You are KILLING ME") is them raising their voice at a deaf person. Make them feel heard, earlier in the conversation. Then if they escalate, let them know that's inappropriate and unprofessional. Don't reward that with pats on the head. But when they say you told them something else earlier and are changing midstream, take that very seriously as a communication problem. Stop. Without blaming them, work on clarifying that somewhere communication went very awry because you have not changed anything, so there must be a disconnect somewhere. Find out where and fix it. Stop making them feel unprofessional and disrespected. It will just escalate the emotionalism.
posted by Michele in California at 8:46 AM on July 24, 2012

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