Keeping Vacation Time Stress-Free: The Art of Crucial Conversations

With the joy of vacation time comes a fair amount of stress at work. The wheel of the learning and development machine and the needs of the enterprise workforce don’t stop turning while you’re out.

With the joy of vacation time comes a fair amount of stress at work. The wheel of the learning and development machine and the needs of the enterprise workforce don’t stop turning while you’re out.

Kerry Patterson, chief development officer at VitalSmarts, a training and organizational development research company, said that we often withhold comments on feelings that play out as a result of work and life situations for fear of hurting someone or suffering career repercussions if the person at the head of the situation is in a position of power. Working during the holiday-and-vacation season, with its element of uncertainty around how assignments will be completed and when, creates even more stress. Eliminating that stress, easing it and ensuring that work continues to be cranked out is often a matter of effective, elegantly coached communication and advance planning—not simply giving in and taking on extra work when someone drops the ball. There are four character types who turn on the stress when it comes to vacation and holiday time: the Dumper, the Missing, the Dawdler and the Flake.

The Dumper drops big projects or jobs on his co-workers with little notice, yet applies lots of year-end deadline pressure. “It could be anyone from a boss to a colleague, and in this case they’re being insensitive to the fact that you’re probably on a half time frame, and may be taking four or five days off. You’re not comfortable saying, ‘This can’t be done.’ The reason you’re not comfortable is because in a learning and development environment where there’s a lot of stress—particularly at the executive level due to high expectations—if you say things like ‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to get around to this,’ or ‘I’m certain I can’t finish it,’ they’ll label you as not being a team player. There are negative consequences associated with speaking your mind,” Patterson said. “You need to be able to step up and say, ‘Let me explain to you what my current workload is,’ and ‘Let me talk to you about what my schedule will be.’ A lot of people feel they have to apologize for the fact that they’ve scheduled vacation periods. The issue is saying, ‘Let me talk about days available that I’ll be here. Here’s my current workload. I can’t do X and the current assignment. What would you like to see me rearrange?’ The assumption is you’re not going to work through your holiday, nor stay up until midnight four days in a row. The assumption is, ‘I’m going to readjust my priorities. Would you help me do that?’ Clarify your availability, reiterate your work load and if they are your superior, ask how they would like you to reprioritize.”

The Missing takes unscheduled leave without finishing her work and leaves things hanging with no warning. “This person leaves you and the rest of the team to pick up the slack,” Patterson said. “This is more delicate and depends on what position you’re operating from. If you’re the boss and its unplanned leave, the person can be written up for violating their work contract. If it’s a peer, you’re sort of catching someone who’s skipping out. In this case I would not open the door to say, ‘OK, I’ll do it for you.’ Be very firm and say, ‘It’s not going to work. This has to be done. This is the part I’m going to do, and this is the part you’re going to do. Given your schedule, what are you going to do to see that it gets finished?’ Ask them to finish the work and develop a plan. Don’t roll over and pick up the slack. Brainstorm with them to figure out how they can make it happen. Explain the consequences—what it will mean to the workers around you. If you’re a supervisor, clarify expectations and explain the consequences if they continue in their actions.”

The Dawdler shows up late and leaves early, requiring colleagues to compensate and cover for his absence. “They’re probably doing this because they have so many other things, and you’ll have sympathy for the busy person, but they require others to compensate and cover,” Patterson explained. “I’d sit down and say, ‘It looks to me like you’re not going to have as much time available during the season, and I can understand that. Can we plan around that so we’re not caught by surprise? If you’re struggling in some way, let us know so we can work around this.’”

The Flake misses her deadlines, which are usually part of a group assignment. Not only does she screw herself up, but she messes things up for the rest of the team as well. Patterson said this specialist/team scenario is part of the reason crucial conversations are so important in our increasingly interdependent, team-oriented workplace. Workers have specialties—designated tasks in phases of work that often link to other pieces in a bigger pie. If one person fails to meet a deadline, the entire group suffers, as does the enterprise at large. “I’ve got code writers, Flash writers, video people and whatnot,” Patterson said. “We’re a production team, and each of them brings a specialty that I can’t achieve on my own. I sit down and identify the vision. If they don’t deliver, we’re all without a training product. If one individual lets you down and you all fail and you’re in charge of the project, you may end up looking like the one who can’t be counted on. The consequences are much more severe than under normal circumstances. In that conversation, you step it up a level. You need to be able to talk about why they’re not achieving it, what really needs to be done and how will we get this done under time constraints, fully understanding that their failure is everyone’s failure.”