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Sometimes I have to deal with people who openly stay silent or blatantly lie. For example, some manager will say A and then do B. When asked why, he/she will either stay silent or produce 'bs'.

If I try to be assertive, saying something like "I remember clearly that you said A, and now that you did B this creates a problem for me", the other person can either:

  1. lie again
  2. stay silent
  3. leave the room

Moreover, these are often managers at various levels of seniority, and they all work closely together. I think they are also trying to get each other fired. Is there a technique to handle such communication problems?

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    it is multiple managers, and they all work closely together. Bonus drama: they are also trying to get each other fired. – Monoandale Nov 14 '15 at 16:26
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    Ahh, now see, that is valuable information. I see two choices for you only. First is, keep your head down and require, not ask for but require, all decisions/directions from any manager other than your own supervisory direct chain to be in writing, or second, start looking for work elsewhere. You're in a poisonous environment to work. It can only end badly. Oh, and as for the first, I'd do my utmost to get your own manager to put everything in writing as well. – CGCampbell Nov 14 '15 at 17:02
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    Sheesh this sounds like an awful place. Start putting in your resume to anyone else you can. Ultimately you'll need to deal with some people like this no matter what the company, in those cases just make sure everything is documented (every meeting, formal or otherwise, needs a follow-up email with action items). They will inevitably break their promises/orders anyways and you'll have to deal with it, but this way you will have proof it's not your fault. – thanby Nov 14 '15 at 19:18
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    Are you sure the managers know the implications of what they are saying when they say A vs B? I have had this problem before when I thought a manager said one thing (and they perhaps had, technically) but they really meant something else. Had I asked a small clarification or "are you sure you want to do A?" they would have said "no, sorry! I meant B!" type of thing. – enderland Nov 14 '15 at 23:12
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    If just by presenting the facts you can get someone to actually walk out of the room rather than face your challenge, then you're pretty much 99% done. Anyone else present will realise what's going on, won't they? Once you've established someone has lied to the room, it doesn't usually matter whether they admit it or not (actually it might be better not to press the point). – Steve Jessop Nov 15 '15 at 11:28
24

Yes, the technique is called "keeping the minutes".

You write down the results of a formal or informal meeting and then send a copy to the participants, so they can comment or update it.

If there is a change, you again write it down with the consequences. The purpose of the protocol is not to blame people, but to make decisions and consequences visible and recoverable.

So, the first protocol can state:
"Decision manager A: We paint the wall blue."

The second protocol can state:
"The decision to paint the wall blue was changed by manager A to painting the wall red. The expected additional costs of 20 hours repainting the blue wall are accepted."

It is also not really your concern why manager A wants to have the wall red now, instead of blue. A manager who changes his/her opinion all the time and causes damage is a problem of his/her superior, not your problem.

  • 3
    or perhaps is a problem to be dealt with by his/her superior, not your problem. However if it affects you it can be a problem for you all the same. – Michael Durrant Nov 15 '15 at 12:12
  • @MichaelDurrant I think this is more often a misconception. If I waste 8 hours of work and my superior accepts this, it is not a problem, no matter how much I hate to start over. People will use the term "problem" when they really mean "inconvenience". – John Hammond Nov 15 '15 at 16:33
36

Remembering is one thing. Evidence is another. Everything spoken can be "remembered" differently. When things get written down, it's easier to remember exactly what was said.

If you really are dealing with deceitful people, you should find a better group of people to work for/with. But if this is a communication problem, read on...

When verbal decisions are made, or verbal instructions given, it is often helpful to follow up with a confirmation:

"Just to make sure I understand, we've agreed on X".

If the other party confirms your understanding, you at least have had a point where you both have clarified with each other. It helps the memory.

But, putting it in writing is even better... Follow up with an email, and CC anyone else who may be affected by the decision or instructions:

To: Manager

From: Me

Subject: Confirming instructions about X

Manager,

Just following up our conversation. We agreed that we would do X. Is there anything else we should consider?

Be careful not to get into "show-off" mode. You should be trying to practice good communication skills, not painting your boss (or anyone) into a corner.

Also understand that plans, decisions, and instructions can often change. Good communication skills will help these changes go more smoothly. You may have to train your colleagues in this new way of communicating. Good luck!

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    Requesting confirmation for every task will make you look like a moron, who doesn't get simple instructions. – John Hammond Nov 14 '15 at 15:28
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    @LarsFriedrich I'll also counter that people don't normally keep minutes in hallway conversations, and a follow up email is exactly what you recommend about informal meeting results. I think a combination of our two answers would be great. But if it is as bad as OP says, something over-the-top needs to be done until the things start to get better. The reality is, all of OP's questions relate to the same issue. Either he is the problem, or he works in an absolutely miserable place and should leave. – Kent A. Nov 14 '15 at 15:37
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    I worked for someone who did this before email was ubiquitous like it is now. She would instruct us to do something ill advised, we'd point out the flaws, and she'd insist on doing it her way. When it subsequently failed, she'd "remember" that what she'd told us was not what she'd told us. After a few instances of this, we held an informal meeting without her and agreed to make her write down her instructions to our engineering team. She quit a couple of months later. – delliottg Nov 14 '15 at 19:10
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    "When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War – corsiKa Nov 14 '15 at 22:37
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    The email doesn't necessarily need to request confirmation. It can be as simple as a meeting summary emailed to everyone with the date and who was there and the decisions made. I do this with all my clients and it works really well. – user5621 Nov 15 '15 at 14:51
2

Is there a technique to handle such communication problems?

As others have said, there are situations where documenting everything with emails, or enforced workflows and signatures (for example like is done with "ECO" processes) will help. Creating such protocols works for heavyweight "line-work" processes where multiple departments and money and management collide. If you don't have such controls in place for mission-critical stuff, you should.

BUT... the problem is that not everything can be done this way nor are such process controls intended to actually prevent "deceit" (which is what you seem to be complaining about). Regardless of what system you have in place, you're still going to have to deal with people saying they're going to do something and then not following through on it or failing to communicate.

What you really need to do first is find out WHY people are behaving as they are. If you don't understand why, you really can't address the root problem and you're left with clumsy process controls to handle it (or you just have to bully them through ham-fisted management channels).

The most important ingredient to get someone to openly communicate with you about why they're going back on their word is to create a high level of trust. That requires empathy on your part and it means you can't start out by putting them on the spot. If someone feels they're going to lose face, they're not going to admit it, they'll literally "walk out" of the interaction. And, in fact, this is precisely what you noticed as a result of being assertive rather than empathetic.

Instead of saying "you committed to A and now you're doing B and this is a big problem for me" try to soften your approach. This could be done in MANY ways, the best of which are pro-active. For example, that could mean being aware of what their problems are and communicating with them about what your needs are IN ADVANCE, and being open to changes before things become a crisis.

Keep in mind that no one wants to do a bad job "on purpose" or to frustrate you. There are reasons for the behavior you're talking about. If you can find out those reasons, that will put you in a position to solve the problem rather than just "police it" through documentation or indirect attempts at strong-arming accountability.

  • "Keep in mind that no one wants to do a bad job "on purpose" or to frustrate you" sorry but I cannot believe this. – Monoandale Nov 14 '15 at 23:16
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    @Monoandale, it is fairly pragmatic to assume that you don't have "arch-enemies" plotting against you. OK, perhaps someday you'll have one in your career. But if you're seeing them all over the place, the problem is actually with you. – teego1967 Nov 14 '15 at 23:41
  • I do not see enemies all over the place, and my work environment has many nice and talented people around. But there are a few managers pushing their own agenda, and I am trying to understand how to communicate with them. – Monoandale Nov 14 '15 at 23:46
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    @Monoandale: if their agenda is to frustrate you, then they need a better hobby. Maybe introduce them to golf? Almost certainly they're doing it for some benefit to themselves, not because their goal in life is to bring you down. teego1967 is saying that you should look for their real agenda, and not believe that they're doing it for the sole purpose of frustrating you. – Steve Jessop Nov 15 '15 at 11:35
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    So for example perhaps they want to frustrate you so that you'll leave, so that your replacement can do whatever it is they want. If a group of managers all want you get you out of the door as a goal, and you have no supporters, and you can't figure out a way for them to get what they really want (their ultimate goal) without you going, then you're going to go sooner or later – Steve Jessop Nov 15 '15 at 11:39

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