Observe, Don’t Explain

“Show, don’t tell.” That advice has been given to writers as often as laptops have been turned on. Robert McKee repeats the advice in Story, his classic text on writing screenplays. Following Aristotle’s advice in Poetics, he says, “Why a man does a thing is of little interest once we see the thing he does. . . . Once the deed is done his reasons why begin to dissolve into irrelevancy” (pp. 376-77).
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Not a Fire Drill

A couple of weeks ago the fire alarm went off in the office. Last year when we were doing some construction, the alarm went off frequently because of electrical work being done. But we were always given warning a day ahead of time. So this time when the alarm went off I tried to remember, Did someone alert us to this? After half a minute with the alarm still blaring, I went out in the hallway to see what was going on, as did others. Then way down the hall I saw someone gesturing wildly to get out of the building. So I said to those around me, “Let’s get out.” Some started for the front door–over a hundred feet away. I redirected them to the emergency exit fifteen feet away and went with them.
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To Pack Rat or Not to Pack Rat

I was looking through my files the other day to remind myself what I had written to a correspondent three years ago. I needed to write again on the same topic, but I obviously wanted to do so in light of the full exchange. I found the copy of my letter just where it should have been, in the corporate files. What I didn’t find was my correspondent’s response. round!
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Minimizing the Annual Review Fear Factor

It’s annual review time here. We operate on a July 1 to June 30 fiscal year, so this is the time each employee gets a performance review for the year. There’s always a certain amount of trepidation in anticipation of such a review–both for the employee and the supervisor. One of the best ways, I think, to minimize this on both sides is to make sure there are no surprises.

An employee should not hear about a problem or area of poor performance for the first time at an annual review. Supervisors doing their job should be giving continual feedback to employees throughout the year either at regularly scheduled meetings or on an as needed basis. As I’ve said here before, keep short accounts with folks. Don’t let something simmer and stew. Be timely. Problems that fester don’t go away. They just get worse. As Max De Pree says, a leader’s job is to define reality and say thank you. Clearly communicating problems is one way reality is defined. You don’t do any favors by being vague.

Another manager here also had a helpful suggestion when dealing with problems. He calls it making the charitable assumption. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Start by asking questions, not by making accusations. See what their perspective is first. People want to be judged by their intentions. After hearing their side, then it is appropriate that they hear your side.

Reality and charity–two good things to keep in mind together throughout the year so that the annual review is as constructive as possible for both parties.

Good News, Bad News

When Chris got the report back about the manuscript, he knew it wouldn’t be good news for the author. While there was much to commend, the end result was that the whole manuscript would have to be rewritten. It had simply been done from the wrong perspective and wouldn’t work for the intended audience. And it wasn’t just one report that came to this conclusion. It was three.

So as the editor, Chris knew what he had to do. He called the author and asked if they could meet and talk about the reports. A time and date were set. When they got together, Chris was able to smile warmly and genuinely express what he appreciated and then deliver the no doubt unwelcome news that a large amount of work yet remained. He closed with appreciation again for the author’s hard work already.

The editor was following a principle I heard many years ago that applies well beyond the realm of editing: The worse the news, the more personal the communication should be; the better the news, the more permanent the communication should be.

So if you’ve got bad news to deliver, do it in person or (if that is not possible) on the phone. If it is good news, do it in e-mail or (preferably and if time allows) a handwritten note.

The message of good news offered in writing allows the receiver to reread it and come back to the compliment, word of praise, comment of thanks or report of good results more than once. It has a lasting, tangible quality that makes it feel more permanent. If it is spoken, it can easily fade from memory. Certainly we often want to–and it is appropriate to–get good news to people quickly, and in person is often best for that. But following that up with a note is a good idea.

With bad news, it is tempting to fire off an e-mail or letter and not have to face the unhappy recipient so directly. That may help you not feel so bad, but it won’t help the person you are contacting. With the personal touch, people are more likely to be responsive to what you have to say. At the least, one hopes they will feel they were treated with some respect.

The personal meeting between Chris and the author made all the difference. Certainly, that was not what the author wanted to hear. But because it was delivered in a personal, human way, the message was palatable. Work on revising the book began very soon.

Hiring Haste Makes Workplace Waste

It’s always a challenge when an employee leaves unexpectedly. She finds another job. He moves because his spouse took a position out of state. But when that employee was especially excellent or in a particularly critical role, it makes things even tougher. There’s work that needs to be done–important work, work with crucial deadlines looming and no one else to fill in. The pressure to hire and hire quickly works on you, gnaws at you, weighs on you. The temptation is to find the first warm body you can and throw that person at the work. I have one word for you: Resist.

One of the easiest and most common hiring mistakes is to hire a candidate you have doubts about just because you are desperate to fill a position. I don’t think I have ever seen this work. As a manager, you are trading a seemingly short-term fix for a long-term problem.

It’s hard, but the best thing you can do is wait until you have found the right person. It will be hard on you and the rest of the team to be short-handed for a while. But it will be easier on you and on the team if you find someone who is able to pull his or her own weight in the long run.

Otherwise you’ll have team members who resent having to pick up the pieces for the new employee who just can’t seem to get the job done or get it done right. And you will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get the new employee up to speed, correcting the deficiencies and working through tensions in the team. As a result, the work might even be done as slowly as if the position were still vacant.

Ultimately, you will probably have to work through a way to help this person move on to another job, voluntarily or not. That is never a happy prospect, nor is it quick. Once again, you’ve lost time and effort on the important work that needs to be done.

Take the time to hire well the first time, and save yourself time, money and grief.
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The Joy of Interruptions

Yesterday I was asked

–what subtitle we should have on an upcoming book
–what title I’d recommend for a different book
–how to handle art costs for a book we are copublishing with a British publisher
–whether we are changing the retail price on a backlist book
–to consider suggestions for handling work flow in the editorial department
–if I saw any problem with an editor scheduling a business trip while I would also be gone to the Frankfurt Book Fair
–what price and print run we should recommend for a potential book
–if a particular author ever sent back a signed contract
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