Opposition is True Friendship

(c) Stéphanie Vé

There is a recent post making the rounds called “On Being a Bad Manager” reminding us that we are bad at most things by default and as a starting manager we are beginning again because the role draws little from the previous one as an analyst.  You need practice as a manager and when you practice you are already on stage.

Though many government workers will have experience in giving comments on written documents,  when I was promoted, I found I was really lacking in skills to review written work comprehensively.  I also lacked a clear path to training myself up and could see that the stakes were very high. I’ve taken the cue from other disciplines like editing, and ten years along as being a manager, I am now at the stage where giving feedback has been something I have been praised for and this has surprised me.

The surprise is not because this work is effortless but because this work is often enjoyable because my feedback from a place of genuine interest in the work people are doing.  I approach the exercise with the frame that I want to understand what the author is trying to express and to support them in crossing the finish line.  I chose the title of this post from a poem by William Blake which  I like it because it hints at the idea that a friend would invest in helping you improve a piece but would do it with an even hand.

The mindset is important given how feedback givers often come across:  Critics come onto the battle field after the battle is over and shoot the wounded.      Rather, you could come at truth and not as to conquer your opponent.   “You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too”.

I find specific feedback can often set at two uncomfortable extremes starting with people who believe they have nothing to say.  Sometimes when I delegate reviews, I am  met with the worrying reply “Looks good.”   Usually something gnaws at my stomach when I hear that and I dig deeper.  I am not the only one: “when editors breeze through I worry that they have not undergone the agonies requisite to launch one someone’s words into eternity.”

At the other end of the spectrum are people who have too much to say, believing the question “Any comments?” should be taken literally.  There is such a thing as adding too much value:

  • Using track changes to completely re-write a document without providing any cross-walks to higher level concepts that would help the writer understand what you are trying to do; or
  • Giving feedback to make a document “sound right” without asking yourself critically if you are just re-writing it into your own style (making the document different but not better).

There is also feedback given with such a devastating tone that it is difficult to receive in letter or in spirit. Too many times for comfort, reviewers at all levels do these things:

  • Use sarcasm (which is often mixed with hyperbole to devastating effect) to tear down people’s work if not people themselves; or
  • Frame feedback in a way that may feel like confrontation or accusation.

When I am delivering feedback, I have my feet in two very different spaces; one that I consider my essential work and the other that requires more nuancing. First, I am speaking from a subject matter area where I want (with my team) to fact check and support an accurate, well-reasoned product for the Department.  Second, I want to give feedback as a general reader from a gentle common sense perspective to advance a strong Departmental product.

What I am trying to do when I give feedback it is a tricky mix which starts with a huge gulp of humility before I embark, realizing that I am not the expert in this document (nor much else in my life on any given day including the answer to the sometimes vexing question “Where exactly is the can-opener?”):

  • I am generous in my assumptions and presume that people have worked hard and may have been limited by time or limited information.
  • I try to start with praising what is right with a document and what is worth protecting and preserving.  If you think that affirming what is working well is a waste of time, consider that letter carriers are more likely to get recognition than your colleagues. People who receive explicit thanks are more productive and expressing thanks makes you more relaxed and productive. Things that might be worth praising:
    • The facts are correct
    • The document is the appropriate length and tone for the audience
    • The options are credible
    • The document reads well and has a good flow
  • I approach with questions to support or replace direct feedback. I might say: “I don’t know if you realize that these two stats seem to contradict – you may with to clarify” “Did you mean X or Y when you used this technical term?” “I like this point. Do you think it merits more airtime with the audience?”  “All of the points in the background are valid but I think the key one is X and you might benefit from spending more time on the options than the other points in the background.”
  • I try to “show don’t tell” so that no one has to just guess what I am getting at.   I may suggest different phrasing or refer the authors to other documents to review or to true experts to get the information they need.
  • I look for elements that may confuse the reader and cloud the message understanding that:  Many good people write bad prose because: “Every human pastime […] devolves an argot to spare its enthusiasts from having to say or type a long winded explanation when they refer to a familiar concept in each others company.
  • If the document is an especially hard read (perhaps produced under tight time frames or perhaps hasn’t had sufficient circulation at the lower levels), I might give a few general comments and ask to see a next draft or offer to discuss further in a meeting.

 

 

 

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Radical Candor

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Though I read pretty widely in management literature, it is becoming more rare that I will jump into texts with much gusto.  I was therefore quite happy to be introduced by colleagues to the podcast related to the book Radical Candor about finding the right intersection between compassion and engaging employees with direct challenge.  Though some managers may naturally fall into the middle if this intersection, I’d reckon that most of us fall to one side of the equation and will benefit from strategies to help walk toward the other side of the equation a bit more.

I found the definition of challenging directly very useful: without calling into question your confidence that someone can do the job, leave little room for interpretation for how the work does not meet your expected standards.

The premise that we can find a happy medium between being obnoxiously candid and ruinously empathetic can seem simplistic but the author teases out the some key preconditions for success that I think are worthy of reflection.

The thing I found most useful is that we are able tap into the benefits of challenging people directly, only after we have taken the time to build a relationship with them.   As the author reminds us, the emotional labour of being a boss is often discounted.  The book offers good suggestions about how to do this which involve learning about each team member’s values and whether they see themselves on a slow growth trajectory (rock stars) or a superstar trajectory.

Rockstars love their work and have found their groove and unfortunately often don’t get fair ratings for being gurus.  It’s important not to take away their craft. In contrast, superstars who want to grow constantly.

Each team needs a mix of both types of employees and we should guard against building teams in which each team member mirrors our own outlook on career.  We should also be alert to employees who change their perspectives over time depending on their personal circumstances.  When kids are very young, you may want to be a rock star, as they age, you may be ready to move into a superstar role.

I also liked the amount of time spent on explaining why giving praise is a necessary part of the feedback loop. Specifically, praise is not about babysitting egos. It guides people in the right direction as to what they can continue to do and how to keep improving. I also really liked the passages suggesting that you should spend as much time getting your facts right when you praise as when you criticize. Think of the harm that is done when the wrong person is praised for the wrong thing or a single person is praised when an entire team carried a project across the line.

The book (especially the first half) and the podcasts are recommended.  I found them enjoyable given the stories (many cringe-worthy) that are used to illustrate  points.

There is enough to go around

credited to blackbrando on twitter

I like to be generous and am buoyed to be even more so as I read the research that supports that you can almost never be generous to a fault.  I don’t generally keep a mental scorecard on things I do, waiting for the return as a “matcher” might do and see more and more that being generous is truly generative and makes others more share and give more to you.

That said, I have work to do on overcoming some of my own remaining scarcity thinking as I reflect on why it persists in some areas and limit the growth and maintenance of a healthy work culture.

In a nutshell, scarcity thinking is the idea that there just isn’t enough to go around.  Not enough money, time, recognition.  The result is that anything you take, I lose.  Scarcity thinking can be especially damaging when paired with “downward spiral” thinking as discussed in “The Art of Possibility.”

Consider this scarcity thinking paired with downward spiral thinking.  I have a friend who is a creative, award-winning chef and is asked for her recipes and gives them freely.  I can hear some of your reactions to this.   That’s as bad as people stealing the recipes. They could then make the food and would stop coming to the restaurant.  They could open their own restaurant.  What if they do better than her restaurant and hers closes?  But what’s the reality? Having a recipe is nothing close to cooking the food yourself.  Once you see the ingredient list and the work involved, the odds of you cooking the dish may go down significantly.  You may realize that you are just curious as to how it’s done and grateful that someone with a well equipped kitchen bothered to think this up and create if for you.  What’s more, food tastes better when cooked by someone else. And there is no denying that a certain meal in a lovely restaurant with friends will not necessarily taste the same when you re-create the recipe at home.

In another recent experience of struggling with scarcity thinking, I was debating submitting my ideas in an exercise where we were asked to submit innovative ideas at work with the best/most popular ones getting resources allocated to see them realized (we don’t personally get money just help).   So I wanted to talk about the ideas and share the proposals to “kick the tires” but a nagging idea started in the back of my mind that maybe I shouldn’t share them because someone else would present the same idea but only better.  But, in end I knew I would need help to implement solid ideas so decided that the more people who considered these projects, the better.  And in government we don’t own ideas anyway.  So I shared my ideas with several colleagues and the ideas got more refined and I gave more strongly reasoned and more polished products as my final proposal (with a shout out to my brainy colleagues).

What about more objective things like time? That really is a scarce resource for most people so this should be an easier argument to make.  In the past few years I have challenged myself to really look at  how actual time unfolds to reality check my own hard-wired panic about lack of time and my hatred for being late for things.  While a certain percentage of the world wants to polish and perfect, I tend to continually stress about all the things I have to get done and would rather see progress and completion than break into a cold sweat because things are late.  I also hate being late because it disrupts the plans of others and seems to imply that my time is more important than the person left waiting.   That said, I have now concluded that, in general,  there is usually enough time if we wade in mindfully.

So how to embrace an abundance culture in the workplace?

Give more of what you need

I would start by saying, take a general leap of faith to believing that things often work out and prime yourself for that possibility. Some simple ideas that follow from this mindset: I like the idea from a recent piece which sounds counterintuitive but has the power to improve work cultures immensely – give more of what you need. You feel your work isn’t getting recognized enough? As an example of what I have experienced, I have tried to bend over backwards to be civilized/polite and friendly in many work emails and I can see language I used mirrored sometimes.  It costs no time to say “have a good evening” or “good morning” in an email though it sometimes appears that people have forgotten this is an option because they feel they don’t have time.

Remember to play the long game

Scarcity thinking has also be characterized as extreme short term thinking (with a focus only on the negative thing in the present moment). Though bumps and even significant losses can be devastating, avoiding risk and getting consumed when we get derailed can ignore the research that says that we are generally more resilient than we think we will be when confronted with bad events. The long term effects of most of our losses and worries are overblown in the present moment.

When researchers checked with both lottery winners and persons who had been through a catastrophic event (e.g. someone who lost both legs in an accident), they both returned to their original base levels of happiness with a year.

On a practical level, you might consider using the 10/10/10 rule.  Ask yourself if the issue you are fretting about will matter in ten minutes, ten months and ten years.  This has been a powerful one for me.  For a stretch I made a mental commitment to checking in with myself to really examine the long term outcomes after a period of great worry or actual loss either professionally or personally.  Leaving aside extremes (sudden deaths), I would be hard pressed to find more than a couple of examples of things that really really mattered even after the ten month period.

Be a “time stretcher”

One of the managerial styles that I most admire and have tried to emulate is “time stretching” bosses who have really do have limited time and may start meetings late but will make you feel as if they have time for you.  Result being that you are not rushed, you think clearly as you are making your points and the meeting actually takes less time than it would if you were getting cut off and panicked about your briefing.  Does that mean you won’t adapt ten minutes of presentation material to the five you have available? You absolutely will need to but you don’t need to have your words clipped to remind you that time is limited.

I apply this thinking when I am tutoring young kids to improve their reading. I have a deep interest and commitment to literacy but minimal training as a tutor.  And the greatest gift I can give a kid learning to master their letters or read better may just be time.  Puzzling out words is gruelling and though I can offer strategies, I probably offer more spaces to think and scan the page than actual talking.  I think that the quiet space may also function as a confidence giver to tell the seven year old that he already knows lots already to help puzzle this out without my continual commentary in the background.

And for the instances in my life when I really didn’t have enough time – sudden deaths in my immediate family would be the prime example – I still rely abundance thinking as my solace for these difficult passages.  I want to commit even more to reframing my mind to think abundance in the moment and be present for the time I have with people I care about including the people I love to work with.

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Find the Reverse Leaders in Your Midst – Scott Edinger – Harvard Business Review

Find the Reverse Leaders in Your Midst – Scott Edinger – Harvard Business Review.

A good piece on identifying (growing) the leaders from any chair. Some of the elements to be nurtured in employees (who can also be groomed as future leaders) are encouraging those who:

  • Understand that they can influence through good interpersonal skills instead of waiting for a certain position.
  • Are results oriented and display high levels of integrity; and
  • Are well versed in an area important to the business.

 

Now for a completely different job…

This is a great piece on how you would go about securing a job in a completely different field. 

I am not a skilled career counsellor by any means but I do meet a fair number of people who are discouraged about where they have landed in their career and feel that they are too old or too poor or have too many responsibilities to significantly change their career paths for the better.

Though I have appreciated books that have helped me shift my perspective to one of seeing possibilities  and on the interplay between your identity of your search for meaningful work these are not for everyone.

In contrast, this piece is a practical, step-by-step analysis of how you might go about finding work in a field very different than the one you have trained in or worked in.  It is about seeing possibilities and looking at job posters as “resumes in reverse.”

The article gives clear tips on how to use LinkedIn to find experts who may be willing to grant you information interviews and how you can learn the basics of many jobs on your own steam. I like the explicit instruction that you’ll need to create time and keep yourself accountable to stay on track.  I often see people get discouraged after their efforts to land a job or make a change don’t bear fruit after a few months or a few interactions.

It’s a slog and I don’t have any metrics to help you understand how much and how long it is required but it is usually a longer journey than you’d initially hope.

If you really want to make a radical job move this piece is a good reminder that it could happen mostly on your own steam.

Getting the air right

Though I have heard of the Mayo Clinic I would not have taken the time to learn management lessons from it’s success without this piece.

There are a number of elements that, on their face, might not work to attract world class talent – the clinic is not located in a major centre and doctors are salaried. That said, the level of the talent attracted to the clinic creates its own momentum and contributes to a successful culture.

Give a group of high performers an amazing atmosphere in which to do their work, and eventually they will simply be attracted by each other. This can go on a long time.

The article is also worth a read to better understand the client-driven benefits of the “one stop shopping” model for health care concerns – the clinic is basically a medical city.

First, trust the instructions

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The pop-up dental clinic is being set up in a high school in Memphis. Tarp laid and chairs set up.

One of my foodie friends enjoys reading the comment threads on recipes to read the responses from the recipe haters who swap out this for that and sub out a few more things they didn’t have on hand and angrily give a one star review to a recipe that bears no resemblance to the the one posted. A wiser person than me finally handed me the clear rule that I have now adopted, the first time you make something, just follow the instructions to have some idea of how it is supposed to go down.  Even respecting the instructions so much can change your outcome.  Using baking as an example, how hot is your oven really? How much moisture is in that flour that has been sitting in your dry as bone mid-winter house? You get the picture.

This was one of many lessons I had re-enforced when I went down to Memphis recently to fulfil a long held curiosity to help at a pop-up medical clinic put on by Remote Area Medical. I was in turn, fascinated and pushed to exhaustion by my minimal contribution to this clinic.

One of my firmly reenforced mantras was to first, seek to trust the instructions. What abetted this trust was understanding the reason behind the instructions and hearing it from such credible sources.

I was trained on-the-spot for a number of tasks in a clear, step-by-step fashion. These instructions might include things like the number of parts I was looking for and what order I would have to do them in. Perhaps most importantly, they would usually include the why behind the instructions. The job accurately billed as the worst of the day was to set-up 60 folding dental chairs. They were heavy and not entirely cooperative but could be made to stand just fine if you followed all the instructions. In one case we had to move the position of a central rod using a crank before we started other parts of the set up. If you did this in the wrong order, you’d have to redo the set up to correct. Horrors. In other cases we would sanitize an item and then leave some object in a particular place as a symbol that we had done all the required steps.

I generally follow rules and instructions so it wasn’t a hard sell to follow along and given that you have the background motivation that you want vulnerable people well served. That said, there were motivations to cut corners.  This work was exhausting with a small crew that had mostly been recruited to do actual medical work and it wasn’t the patient-facing work which many volunteers were likely hoping to do when they signed up.

What also helped was that I could fully and completely trust the source of the instructions.  My admiration for the RAM folks was very deep because it was evident that they had hammered out the design of the clinic thoughtfully and deliberately over time (they have done over 800 clinics).  Things are put away in a specific way so that they can be carried or hauled and so that it is clear what is in each bin. They tie off plastic bins to show that they are full with three complete settings for dental stations. No need to count, we can trust this.  Carrying cases are colour coded so they are directed to the right vehicles.

As a last observation, I can see now that I was also motivated to follow the instructions because I was continually surrounded by people who would help keep me on track if I was unsure as to how to go ahead- not choking micro-management but supportive access to supervision.  There was no need to wildly freelance to fill in the gaps.

Learn more about Remote Area Medical here.

See a 60 Minutes story on RAM here.

Embracing What’s Wrong to Get to What’s Right – Tony Schwartz – Harvard Business Review

Tony Schwartz describes CEOs as Chief Energy Officers and writes here about his experience of re-orienting a meeting where he was feeding the group many new ideas with enthusiasm, and not receiving the warm welcome he had hoped for.  Instead he was hearing about people’s stress and lack of recognition for the work done so far.

My two favourite points in his response:

“Because human beings have a strong “negativity bias,” we pay more attention to our bad feelings than to our good ones. It once clearly served our survival to be vigilant about what might go wrong and that instinct persists. Today, it may serve to buffer us from disappointment, but it also promotes disproportionate and destructive discontent. The simple question “What’s going right?” provides ballast in tough times.”

and

“The highest skill — whatever your role — is the willingness to embrace opposite feelings without choosing up sides. Acknowledging bad feelings is key to being able to address what’s causing them. Recognizing they’re only one part of the story frees us to notice what we feel good about and grateful for, which helps us to feel positive even in the face of ongoing challenges.”

I’d add a third observation from the first rate materials and training that I have received from the National Managers’ Community in the Government of Canada: Behind every complaint is a commitment.  Whereas in my early days as a manager my instincts might lead me to wonder why people were “just being oppositional” when work needed to get done,  when now I take the space for explorations of the values that people are indirectly expressing when they are  complaining, I have found important information that may provide a jumping off point to a better working relationship. The number one reason that people are complaining:  they want sufficient time and space to submit a good product.

via Embracing What’s Wrong to Get to What’s Right – Tony Schwartz – Harvard Business Review.

Taking Longer to Reach the Top Has Its Benefits

The rewards of patience.

Source: Taking Longer to Reach the Top Has Its Benefits

This is a great article on why taking some time to ascend in your career has  benefits.

The article lists many good reasons to take a measured approach to promotions including avoiding burnout and gaining the skills you’ll need to succeed.  And my favourite of all:

“Following a “deliberate” path may prevent the problem experienced by any number of hard-charging executives: getting to the top of the career ladder only to realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall.”

Getting comfortable with uncertainty

I’ve read two pieces recently on the need the need to manage discomfort with uncertainty.  Though there is a a good evolutionary reason for discomfort with things that don’t fit regular patterns, many types of work require a certain comfort with uncertainty. They’ve suggested that the MCAT add questions on dealing with ambiguity.

Seth Godin argues that you have to keep “levelling up” and not assume you are ever fully baked and that your knowledge stash would be complete.

And, in this interview in The Atlantic on the “Benefits of Comfort with Uncertainty”  the normal human desire for closure and certainty is discussed.

Using some extreme examples such as the Waco hostage taking and the rise of the Nazis. author Jamie Holmes talks about the benefits of holding space for grey areas to advance thinking. What I appreciated most was the need to keep alternative perspectives on the table as long as possible because they might present solutions.  I also appreciated the reminder that divergent approaches may be seeking the same end game – I tend to crave closure on big ideas and fact checking whereas others crave more perfectly presented documents – same craving with different stripes – closure and certainty.