Wednesday, June 24, 2009

When you feel like you're working with a bunch of five year olds

Yesterday I had a hard time distinguishing between work and home, and not just because I was typing emails with my sick five year old on my lap. No, I was confused because I couldn’t tell where I was dealing with the whiny five year old—at work or at home.

As a business communicator, I’m responsible for sending all sorts of information to employees and customers about events, new tools, and actions they need to take to keep things running smoothly. The messages can run the gamut from tactical (remember to take training) to strategic (here’s how the actions you take affect the company’s bottom line). While the strategic work is more fun for me, I fully understand the need to send out operational/tactical notes. I mean, a business has gotta run, right? And often, I’m paid to just shut up and do what I’m told.

Today, though, I was asked to send a message that’s been sent a dozen different ways already. It’s a “nice to have” message and really doesn’t require a stand-alone email. So, thinking that I was a trusted advisor, I pushed back. One of the things I hear all the time is that people have information overload and that we need to cut down on the email clutter. I feel it’s my job to look at all this from the recipient’s point of view, and he doesn’t need another memo telling him something he’s been told five times before.

But that’s not my real complaint here (and, for the record, I am complaining!) My issue is that these people—highly paid, professional adults—are behaving just like my five year old.

When my five year old asks for a lollipop right before bed, I calmly say no, tell her that it’s not the time for it because she’s already had dessert and brushed her teeth, and send her away. It’s been decided, no? Well, no. Being a five year old, she turns and asks her father for a lollipop. When he says no, she tells him that all the other kids get lollipops before bed: “Rachel gets one. Madison gets one. Tyler gets one. Why can’t I have one?” And the two of us stand together and tell her no, no, no, she will not get the lollipop and we are not Rachel’s or Madison’s or Tyler’s parents. Usually, we win the fight.

However, if she asks me for something when I have a million other things going on—like when I’m cooking dinner and trying to finish up a work memo and talking on the phone to my mother—I say yes just to get her off my back. And then I’ve lost all my credibility so the next time she asks me for the lollipop before bed, she’s not going to accept “no” as an answer. She’s a smartie, that Thing Two.

In this particular work situation, I feel like I’m the mom again, but this time it’s not helping me. Even though I said no to the email, the requestor asked my boss. She said no. The requestor then went to the person who used to do this job before I came on board. She said no. Requestor said, “Well, I’ve been told to send this out by my boss.” So, we had a conference call with requestor, my boss, and her boss. We still said no. Then we got an email from the requestor, saying “all of these other groups have sent out the note, and everyone who got it thinks it’s great.” Still, no. Today, we got a note from requestor asking when we were sending the email.

I know what will happen: the note will go out. Requestor will keep asking and keep asking and keep asking and eventually, the phone will ring, someone else will want something and we’ll need to shut the requestor up. So we’ll send it. And we’ll set a precedent for sending these things again and again. The business will have wasted too many hours of productivity debating a stupid note that means nothing to the employees, but the requestor will get to cross something off her list. And we’ll keep the cycle going.

It’s not the end of the world. Even though it’s my opinion that the note is silly and doesn’t help the company, it won’t hurt the company any more than the occasional lollipop before bed will rot my daughter’s teeth. And, even though it's a bad precedent to set, I have to look at this the way I look at parenting. Sometimes I just have to pick my battles.

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