Q: I work on a project with a person whose office is a paper shambles. Hence my question: How can I eliminate the redundancy of giving her the same information/papers when she misplaces them? She frequently loses memos and asks me for copies because she knows I have filed them.
I am quite sequential in my thought processes and organization of files. I realize it's my responsibility to make my thought processes and files even more organized and that it's not my responsibility to change her.
But her office is so disorganized that she comes into my office to find a place to work. I find this very frustrating.
A: It's a universal quandary: There's always a neatnik Felix and there's always a slobby Oscar, and watching them try to coexist gives everyone plenty of laughs.
It's not so funny if you are Felix or Oscar.
Stephanie Winston, author of the new book ''Getting Out From Under,'' as well as ''Getting Organized'' and ''The Organized Executive,'' said she frequently hears this lament. The downsizing of administrative and clerical staffs at many firms is leaving people with poor organizational skills floundering in the face of an onslaught of faxes, e-mails and voicemail inquiries, in addition to regular mail and telephone calls.
Organization is a learned skill for most people. Lack of organizational skills can fall into the ''nuisance'' level or the ''red alert'' range, she said. That's because organization requires the abilities to focus, make decisions and make predictions about what will be needed in the future. For some people, she said, it's like ''constant water torture''; for others, including those with mental or emotional problems, it can be impossible.
There's little the letter writer can do except learn to accept it, she said.
''She's clearly fairly resentful,'' Winston said. ''But she needs to learn to live with it. You can't force another adult to be organized.''
Winston offered these tips: Make multiple copies of documents that both workers will need, so backups are always available. Never, never permit her to have an original memo that can't be replaced. When asked to do projects together, keep track of what the coworker is expected to do. Remind her a day or so before her part of the work is due, as she will inevitably forget, jeopardizing joint assignments and causing the careful worker to be blamed.
And here's the hardest part: Never tell anyone, especially a manager, about how the coworker's disorganization is causing problems. ''It will come back on you negatively in the end,'' Winston said. ''It comes back as whining.''
But don't let her work in your office, she said. Close the door if possible; if there's no door, stop her at the entry.
''Say you're on a conference call -- and you're always on a conference call,'' Winston said.
Q: I'm an organizational specialist at a government agency that is trying to become a high-performance, inclusive workplace. In the past, employees who spoke out about problems suffered injury to their careers.
How do you move from the mentality of facing reprisals to a culture in which it's OK to be outspoken and this behavior will be rewarded? How do you help people let go of the past and look to the future? What strategies have been effective in making this kind of cultural shift?
A: Start at the top, said management consultant Kathleen Ryan, author of ''Driving Fear Out of the Workplace: Creating the High-Trust, High-Performance Organization.'' Make sure top managers understand the case for forging a new kind of work environment.
''Turn it into an eighth-grade story problem, a math problem,'' she said. For example, examine the process involved in buying an expensive new computer system. Power brokers within the organization will have personal preferences about what kind of system to buy or the vendor to choose. Some ambitious workers will seek to curry favor by vigorously agreeing with the boss. Technical experts on staff may have very different views of what is needed, and workers who will use the system most may have yet another perspective.
Choosing poorly can be a ''hugely expensive decision,'' Ryan said. The best chance for the most favorable result is a collegial discussion of the pros and cons of each choice. But some workers will place themselves at risk by speaking out unless ''the key leader is open-minded and collaborative,'' Ryan said.
''Ask managers to ask people for their input -- and, imagine this -- using it,'' she said. ''It's such a common-sense thing. It's all about building trust and confidence.''
Good organizational specialists train managers how to receive negative feedback from workers without getting angry, she said. Bosses must be taught to separate the message from the messenger and not get into the emotional debate that frequently accompanies comment about structural problems.
Define problems in neutral, factual terms, rather than hyperbole, she added.
Then, managers must be encouraged to respond fully to issues that workers have raised within a certain time period, such as two weeks, Ryan said. It's not always possible to make big changes quickly, but the discussion can begin.
''It needs to be done in the spirit of identifying problems to solve them, not to place blame,'' she said.
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