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.
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.
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.
This article focuses on the ability to empower employees by shaking off the inclination to be a constant contributor to the ideas they bring and resisting the temptation to give step-by-step instructions for every task.
I especially liked the quote that when you give advice, the brain is essentially asleep versus when you ask questions it engages the listener.
We are in March madness for finishing our year end appraisals in the public service so this is timely. I don’t think that it would be a surprise that giving feedback that may not be well received is stressful for anyone – managers or clients or friends. It’s a skill I will be working on for the rest of my life. And though I have benefitted greatly from this book on Difficult Conversations which I consider a management bible, I have likely gotten as much benefit from cross-discipline study on empathy and compassion.
I was more disheartened to see here that the issue could be framed as widely as communicating writ large and that giving credit or recognition were sources of significant difficulty for so many managers.
That said, I am a very introverted person by nature and I would suspect that there are many other introverted managers out there learning new communication patterns to align with this role.
What has helped me most was likely deliberate practice for all types of communications. Something greater than “just do it” though that is half the battle.
A former coach asked me to put a post-it on my computer to remind me to initiate more phone calls over emails – it was a good move. I got so much more useful information at the margins of those conversations then I had ever planned that it became a habit.
For recognition, I have been influenced by this excellent book, and I now prepare so I can be very clear on why a person’s contribution is appreciated. I’ve watched train wrecks where someone freestyles it and the wrong person is congratulated for something and soaring moments where significant and long-standing contribution is paid meaningful tribute.
For difficult conversations, I (over) prepare to try and understand the issue, the effect on the team and what my role is in the situation. For these ones, the most difficult preparation is to remember to both stay on message and roll with the punches. You may want to jump in at the deep end and be aware of your own reactions to stress so you can have strategies to moderate in advance.
And for any communication that I’d find a challenge, I try to create my own feedback loop as to what went well and what I can do better in future. Lastly, I benefit from remembering while I am learning that learning to receive feedback is its own skill.
Perfectionism is the enemy of transformative leaders. No great leader spends three hours perfecting an email. Perfectionism is absolutely seductive and must be kept at bay.
I have explored perfectionism in earlier posts and got new insight in this lecture today. For every perfectionist who spends time agonizing over work only to see it come back rife with feedback, a difficult feedback loop can ensue. Not: “Well that this the failure of perfectionism” But rather: “I should have worked even harder on that.” What is useful as a reminder is that perfectionism as a mindset is seductive and well viewed as a process addiction. Yet to indulge, you deprive the world of your work.
The two examples are of a journalist breaking down during reports on the Paris attacks and a judge weeping during a trial. We are all emotional beings and it is normal that we will be affected by our work. That said, we may be in jobs where our expression of our own emotions about a situation might not be a helpful add-on to helping others understand what we are trying to convey. As I’ve discussed before, if someone is enraged with you, a fear reaction can actually cause you to go temporarily deaf – you’ll miss most of what they’ve said (though you’ll get that they were really mad).
I’m more and more convinced that as I work with top notch professionals who are putting out their best every day, it’s enough to say “this didn’t quite hit the mark” to make your point in most cases.
I liked that the exchange in this article made it clear that though expressions of emotions can occur involuntarily or justifiably in a work context the emotions don’t make the essential message any more true:
“…[W]hile a reporter’s emotions may pay testament to his humanity, they should not be mistaken for the path to a deeper truth.”
The crux of the advice is that as tempting as it is to vent (belittle, demean) and make yourself feel better in the guise of holding people accountable, it’d be better to focus on how to help the person perform better.
Where Bregman really hits the nail on the head for my money is the remind us that high performing employees already feel your disappointment acutely when you express that something hasn’t hit the mark. You don’t need to spend more time on the disappointment piece but rather on how to build confidence to hit the mark the next time out. This is through building trust that you can get across the finish line. Best piece of simple advice, take four deep breaths before you react in the moment to figure out how to recalibrate to give your employees what they need to get over the next hurdle.
A wonderful adjunct to a radio program I heard today on emotional intelligence. Part of the interview was with a poet who quoted a poem called The Emotions are Not Skilled Workers. Yes the emotions are blunt instruments and I am more and more a convert to buffering emotions in my role as a manager because of the disproportionate effect of negative emotions on team members.
This is great article from the Harvard Business Review on figuring out if you are weak emotional intelligence. I’ve had quite an evolution on my EI as a manager. I certainly was one to express frustration and impatience in the early days and when I realized that this didn’t help the situation I worked on moderating my responses. I also spent a fair bit of time examining how to be more empathetic and this work continues.
As a start, here is a list to help you assess if you aren’t high on emotional intelligence.
You often feel like others don’t get the point and it makes you impatient and frustrated.
You’re surprised when others are sensitive to your comments or jokes and you think they’re overreacting.
You think being liked at work is overrated.
You weigh in early with your assertions and defend them with rigor.
You hold others to the same high expectations you hold for yourself.
You find others are to blame for most of the issues on your team.
You find it annoying when others expect you to know how they feel.
I read many more articles than I post on this blog. One of my filters is that I generally post things with which I agree.
But, in this instance, I feel that this article missed enough nuances for me to want to mount a response.
The basic premise advanced here is that nasty work environments with lots of negative feedback, are better at advancing complex tasks and get better results. The prescription here is something less than a toxic work environment but somehow lands with a place where we’d allow employees to feel “anxious and depressed” in the name of achievement.
I agree wholeheartedly that we need to respect employees by giving them honest feedback about what’s working and what’s not working. Yes that’s the basic work we need to do. Are we hardwired to be good at this as managers? Not always. I know that I was terrible at this at the beginning of my management career for a variety of reasons. One of my greatest ongoing learnings is how to give meaningful feedback about how to get from here to there.
We also need to respect those who give us feedback enough to want to rise the the challenge of what they ask of us. I learned gobs from a phone coach who was helping me brush up my French skills. I felt like I was in the conjugation Olympics every Friday morning at 8:30. She kept me on my toes and yes I did want to please her. As is elaborated in the Talent Code, as Daniel Coyle kindly confirmed for me by email this week: you should avoid coaches who treat you like eager waiters and seek out coaches who scare you a little.
Can this cross the line into someone who belittles or humiliates? Absolutely not. Are environments where employees feel worn down and depressed ones that are also creative hotbeds? I find this hard to believe.
“… What this means at work and at home is that we have a very hard time listening to someone if we are angry with them, or if we feel they are treating us unfairly. And in fact, this is true. It’s almost impossible to take feedback from someone who you feel is treating you unfairly, even if the feedback makes perfect sense. And this turns out to be one of the primary reasons we reject even useful feedback.”
So in sum, yes, employees do need the straight goods on what is working or not working. What we also need is:
The ability to articulate what isn’t working while providing the tools to get from here to there.
Feedback that leaves the door open for a shared responsibility for how we got to where we are and along with the hope that we will get where we need to go, together.
Feedback from a source we respect – that won’t pander but won’t demean.
A work environment which spends more time affirming what is working than what is not working. To paraphrase a wise colleague, you can’t over do positive feedback. When you do have to show up with the news that things didn’t go so well, you will have the credibility to be heard.