Minefield? Hardly.

The realm of human relationships in the workplace is supposedly just such a place.

But it isn’t. In a minefield you don’t know where the explosive devices are buried. You don’t even know any are buried there until someone steps on one.

In the workplace, though, if you don’t know where every mine is buried by now, you haven’t been paying attention. Just in case:

> Physical contact. A handshake is the limit. If you think your colleague really needs a hug, you might be right. Needing one from you, though, is another matter. Unless you’re absolutely certain a hug from you would be welcome, keep it verbal, not physical.

> Repeated, unwanted attention. It’s a myth that one employee can’t ask another employee out for a date because that might constitute unwanted attention. The fact of the matter is, nobody on the offering side of the equation can know if their attention is wanted until it’s offered. Have you asked and been turned down? Now you know. Don’t ask again.

> Any hint of romantic intentions in a power relationship. Power = compulsion whether intended or not, and it isn’t okay no matter what signals you think you’re receiving.

> Overt sexual attention: Don’t. If you find this surprising, or you disagree, you need more help than KJR can give you.

> Any hint of tribal disparagement. If you sincerely believe a racial, ethnic, political, or religious group has undesirable characteristics, you’re welcome to your belief. You aren’t welcome to express it. The same goes for your thoughts about human genders and what they’re like. You also aren’t allowed to express your thoughts in the form of a joke — no matter how funny you’re sure it is — or to use pejorative identifiers in conversation, or to use “Jew” as a verb.

> Don’t call grown women “girls.” If you’re a guy, it’s demeaning. If you’re a woman, you’re encouraging guys to call them girls.

> Anger mismanagement. We in the workforce are human beings, not robots … at least, not yet. Any of us, in a given circumstance, might find ourselves afflicted with TSD (tantrum spectrum disorder). People who suffer from TSD express their unhappiness on a scale that has rage at one end and annoyance or irritation at the other. Except that if the expression is anywhere beyond irritation it’s the people around us who suffer.

That’s about it. Except that it isn’t, because everything above this paragraph is about what you shouldn’t do. Which is fine and useful if you want to avoid running afoul of Human Resources, which surprisingly enough tends to get these about right in most organizations and circumstances.

But … and this is, if you’ll forgive the expression, a big but … while the above advice keeps you out of trouble and the company out of court, it has nothing to do with career success.

Quite the opposite, if you focus your attention on staying out of trouble you’ll ignore the factor that, more than any other, determines your professional success: how well you manage your interpersonal relationships.

If you’ve read the KJR Manifesto (Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, and if you haven’t … seriously? What’s wrong with you?) … if you’ve read it you understand the two ironclad relationship rules: Relationships Precede Process and Relationships Outlive Transactions. That is, no business process can survive distrust among those responsible for making it work. And very few battles are worth winning if they do serious damage to your working relationship with the people you’re battling with.

I know people who think “being professional” means keeping their personalities in abeyance, sharing nothing of themselves with their teammates, and in general doing their best impression of Commander Spock, only without the hand gesture and “live long and prosper” expression of goodwill.

If this is you … if you think you have to rein it in so far that nobody knows who you are and what you’re really thinking and feeling … it’s time for a re-think. There certainly are times and situations where Spockism is the best choice you have. In particular, when those around you are becoming increasingly excitable, the contrast alone will serve you in good stead.

Also, see TSD, above: If you find yourself sliding beyond irritation to exasperation and beyond, Vulcanizing yourself is just the ticket.

But for day-to-day interactions with your staff, managers, and peers, strong positive relationships are far superior to neutral ones.

So be a person. Not only will it make you more successful, it will make your days more pleasant as well.

We had company over the weekend. My youngest daughter and new son-in-law (a phrase I’m still getting used to) came to visit, which meant taking time out to write a new KJR just wasn’t going to happen.

So instead, enjoy this oldie but very, very goodie (in my not very humble opinion, at least). I’ll be back live next week.

– Bob


Dear Bob,

I know this is a rather odd question, but I need your help with ManagementSpeak. No, it’s not translating it, it’s me translating to it!

I’ve been told that although I speak very well to and/or with end-users, I need to work more on talking with upper management. Three different managers have suggested this, so for the sake of my career and IS survival, I’m taking them seriously.

I’m pretty sure the very thing my manager wants is what you lampoon in your columns. Do you have any suggestions on learning how to translate into ManagementSpeak instead of your normal practice of translating from it? Just as important, can you tell me how to not snicker while I’m doing it?

Dancing around issues and trying to put a positive spin on everything, even when they are potential issues that need to be addressed, seems rather hypocritical. However, in the interest of my career, I have to at least try to overcome this particular “weakness.” Any suggestions, thoughts, or comments would be greatly appreciated.

– Talkin’ Trash in Tennessee

Dear Talkin’,

Here are a few suggestions that may help out. They may sound cynical, but they’re intended to help you be more persuasive, not manipulative. Use them with restraint, or you’ll go home every day feeling like you need a shower.

Rule #1: Never say “no.” You can present alternatives and estimate costs. You can explain that you don’t have the authority to say “yes” on your own. You can “see what the committee thinks about it.” “No” wrecks your image.

Rule #2: Never argue. “I think you’re wrong” just entrenches your opponent. If possible, make your own idea sound like a simple modification to your opponent’s moronic notion. If that isn’t possible, you can usually get away with, “I used to think the exact same thing. Then I ran across a book by Irving Slobodkin, and it made an interesting point.” That way you aren’t arguing — it’s Slobodkin who’s arguing.

Rule #3: Never present an idea as new or original. “I’ve read that some other companies are doing this [this being your great idea] when they’ve found themselves in this situation,” is far better. Why? First, new ideas are risky; “others are doing it” reduces the hazard. Second, nobody inside your company is allowed to be an expert. Why? That would make them better than the rest of us — who do you think you are, anyway? By quoting the experts rather than presenting yourself as one, you maintain the appearance of humility.

Rule #4: Find the upside. There are, after all, no problems, only opportunities. To avoid the cliche, make it a question: “How can we turn this to our advantage?” Many problems really are opportunities in disguise. Most are solvable challenges when faced with the right attitude but disasters when faced with the wrong one. (Don’t be asinine, though. The atmosphere gets icky when managers say brainless things like, “Don’t think of it as being unemployed and unable to feed your family. Think of it as an opportunity to broaden your horizons.”)

Understanding why you should follow these rules should help you keep a straight face and stay inside the fine line that separates diplomacy from stupidity on the one side and simple deception on the other.

Management has a lot in common with chess strategy. Each move you make has more at stake than achieving a single objective. Each should help you build a strong position as well. That means your speech should enhance relationships and alliance while avoiding the creation of antagonism or antagonists.

If all you want is to be right all the time, fine — just forget about your management aspirations. Being right is for staff. Leadership roles require you to be effective as well. Among the many skills this requires is the ability to present intrinsically unpleasant notions in ways that make them seem palatable.

Think of it this way: Somebody once figured out how to make raw oysters sound like a delicacy, not a pile of slimy goo. Sometimes, when you’re leading people, you have to achieve the same, seemingly insurmountable goal or nothing good will ever happen.