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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
I liked this piece on the importance of humility in leadership. I have posted here and here on this issue, but this one brought more practically to the subject which I appreciated.
The need for humility in leadership may not be obvious when you think of the stereotype of leaders who should be confident taking decisions and giving direction. To me the why of humility in leadership is a fusion of understanding that: you need a lot more information than you have to do your job, you may be your best version of a leader when you are in service to everyone, and that humility will help you build endurance for the journey.
From this piece, I particularly liked the test to ask yourself the question “How do you act when you are interrupted?” (and ask yourself how you’d react when you are busy and when it is someone below you on the org chart).
It’s a brilliantly simple question and it hits at an area of deliberate growth for me in the past few years. I work in an open concept office so there is no easy way to signal when I am trying to get through something and would prefer not be interrupted. Though I am sure that I have spent too long acting perturbed that I have been interrupted, I have now taken the decision to treat my entire work day (with rare, clearly announced exceptions) as if I am hosting office hours. This isn’t to say that I can give each conversation its due at the moment it is proposed – sometimes a sit down meeting is more appropriate and at times I am on my way somewhere. That said, as a default, I want to be as present as I can for what people are coming to say.
I have learned good habits on this from observing others. I used to marvel at senior leaders who acted as if they had all the time in the world to listen to you brief when I would be distracted at thinking about how busy they were and how I didn’t want to waste their time with a long briefing. I then resolved to also be calm and clearly in receiving mode when employees would come and talk to me since expressing irritation, anger or panic do not support receiving the information needed.
Humility may save you from a mindset that won’t serve you well when you hit unfamiliar terrain. The more you think you should (already) know how to be a good leader including from being told that you have inherent talent for the job, the less prepared you are to succeed when you reach an unfamiliar situation. Carol Dweck makes a great point in this piece on mindset and leadership – it is much easier to have humility at the beginning of your management career and this wanes over time. So the ultimate question is how to continue to show humility the longer you stay in a management role and no matter the stress you are feeling.
A piece with a lot of technical language (that I can’t entirely follow), that I think still has merit as it touches on a subject I’d like to see treated in greater depth – how to manage other managers. In this case a specialist has moved up the ranks and is reflecting on when to wade into the fray of her roots as an engineer. I like her prompts to ask herself: “What problems does my team need me to solve right now?”
“If I feel the itch to do engineering manager work, there have got to be good ways to do this that are absolutely not a) going to intrude on someone’s existing work, and b) not eliminating an opportunity for the manager who reports to you to learn.”
I’m enjoying the new series of short books (long essays really) put out by the TED group. These are single topic books that you can buy for your kindle for approx $10-$15 Canadian. I’ve enjoyed all that I’ve read including this first one called “Beyond Measure.” The book is a good and easy read but I’d welcome a longer treatment of the topic – it’s an important one.
The thesis on this one is that great teams are made by something difficult to measure and this is a strong work culture. The author calls it the secret sauce of organizational life. Culture is comprised of small actions and though often beyond our control as managers, it is happily non-linear in its spread.
You can create a strong work culture by building trust in an environment that generates the best ideas.
Unhelpfully. our brains like efficiency and search for matches including in hiring when we tend to hire mirrors of our selves not people who will help us be windows to the outside world. This means we don’t get the best ideas.
To generate a stronger team culture where new ideas are introduced including ones that will run against the grain, we need courageous leadership. This is a culture that will see people calmly raise issues and concerns. Unanimity is a sign that participation isn’t really whole-hearted. (She uses harrowing examples of plane crashes caused by bad work cultures and lack of communication, to illustrate this point).
She makes a good point there is often more give in most systems than we’d expect for raising new ideas. The challenge is to solicit discomforting data which will help us elaborate what we’d see if we were wrong. She uses a great example of US intelligence sniffing out the end of the cold war in her text. Basically, the top gun had been told that the cold war was in full force but when he stated probing if contrary data was available he found it. (meat being stolen from trains with no state recourse).
Hearteningly, she tells us what it takes to get collective intelligence in a team: ensuring each person speaks an equal amount of time, getting a group that is socially sensitive (to needs of others, group dynamics) and groups that include more women (this is thought to be linked to the second element).
The higher the social capital of a group, the better it can deal with conflict. The capital is created through a culture of trust and the ability to build on good ideas to make them even better.
Finally she cites “Project Oxygen” the study Google did on what makes a good manager. Subject matter expertise was found at the bottom of the list which was a surprise to many. At the top, good managers were ones who believe in and care about their staff and take an interest in their lives and allow employees to sort things out by asking them questions instead of giving direction.
A thoughtful piece written in light of the recent tragedy with the Germanwings flight.
I most appreciated the author explaining how her own career trajectory was marked by recognizing that her depression was brought on by high stress environments. She’s made trade offs and she misses some aspects of her former high flying life but she’s made choices that make sense.
The article also contains some good reminders of how risky it can be to disclose a mental illness and how costly it can be to get treatment.
Lastly, I appreciated the author laying out that formal accommodation is the base but what we really should strive for is a culture of understanding where we can express open support for employees with mental health issues.