(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.
From an online course which I am following:
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.
Respect Employees: Be Tough on Them.
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.
This much I think I know. We need to stop redoing employees’ work and giving thoughtful effort to what feedback we provide to get the products where we need them. Time travel back to a time before track changes as a method of giving feedback – it’s too easy to lapse back into re-writing. Watch how seasoned senior leaders give feedback – some margin notes or a couple of bullets in a cover email. If the document is so off base that this can’t work, a regrouping meeting may be required and this will be an exercise in shared responsibility in how we failed to land in the right place.
We also need to let employees do their own learning.
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.
The opposite actually seems to be true – rather that our brains shut down when we feel we are under attack and reject feedback when we are feeling threatened.
“… 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.”
We also now know that the praise to criticism ratio is very high for high performing teams: for high performing teams it is over 5 to one. for negative teams it is three negative comments for every one. Does this ratio change over time? Yes most likely it does with more expert performers who will need more targeted feedback on things to improve as they reach mastery.
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.
(c) moyan brenn
The 30 Percent Rule and the Art of Early Feedback.
I’ve written before on the curse of waiting for a document to be “perfect” before submit it and the perils since perfection doesn’t exist and this is such a time-sucker in demanding environments.
In support, This is quite a good piece on why we should encourage people to seek early feedback (when they are 30% done is the suggested check in moment) and more importantly how we can support these requests as managers:
“To make it a habit on your team, you will need to go back and reevaluate your company culture; pay specific attention to how/when/whether you discourage your team members from presenting less than perfect work, at stages when their work should be less then perfect.”
Why you should unplug the GPS
Some of my favorite cross-discipline areas of reading in learning to be a stronger manager are learning and design. Imagine my joy to find a book called Design For How People Learn on a trip to my one of my favorite places on earth – Swipe Books in Toronto. The book is about instructional design and is a great introduction to the topic for newbies like me.
I was reviewing the chapter on “Design for Knowledge” recently and came across a really clear explanation of why we should be providing our teams with high level feedback over specific, detailed notes most of the time.
In the book, Julie Dirksen explains that if we are trying to design for knowledge, we shoot ourselves in the foot by providing detailed step-by-step instructions. Funny thing is, we will get to our destination, so it’ll look like success on some level. But, as she articulates perfectly, if all you have is line-by-line instructions on how to do something, but no big picture of what you are trying to do, what happens when a step is missing or you have to take a detour for some reason? How easy will it be to get back on the path on your own?
With the GPS versus map logic, by the time you have arrived at the destination with a GPS, you aren’t likely to have a solid idea of the city as a whole. The analogy in our work world is that you may be missing the big picture of what we are trying to do and why and how we might do it even if you have technically followed the steps given to improve a product.
Dirksen goes on to explain a key concept: that you need a bit of friction to create learning – this means that you have to let people engage with material and figure things out on their own for retention instead of GPS mapping their way to the finish line on things.
In our world, this applies to the front end and the back end of our work. At its worst, we pre-analyze work to be delegated complete with a detailed map of how to get the job done (who to speak to, which stat to pull from where etc.). By the same token, feedback after reviews of written work can be presented in incredibly detailed fashion that essentially completely GPS maps how to re-work a document. This is sometimes necessary – especially when you are in a crisis or severely time-limited situation or you have a brand new employee. That having been said, this should be the exception not the rule if you want learning to occur.
Bottom line, Dirken argues that we need to give learners less information not more to let them guide their own learning and problem solving and to ultimately cope with variations. The easier we make the path to the destination, the less learning occurs.
In Part I of this article, I explored some of the strategies I have used to try to stay firmly in the reviewer role and out of the “re-writing” role.
Notwithstanding that I have learned a few things, I still feel like I am missing out on some of the language I need to help analysts keep the ownership of their work and learn skills to make their work more adapted to audience rather than trying to extrapolate from my suggested changes.
So, I am exploring the language and skills of editors to improve my written review skills. While the jobs aren’t perfectly analogous, I find value in how editors approach their work. Based on a few key texts and a workshop that I attended on editing by the Editors Association of Canada, here is what I have gleaned which relates to the types of reviewing that editors do which may also support managers.
Editors have a few different review matrixes that may support feedback language instead of grouping all feedback into “edits or changes.”
Developmental editing – most often when an editor brings the idea to the author believing that they are best for the job. In this case the process is iterative at an early stage of the process and the author would likely present early texts for the editors to see if they are on the right track. I link this analogy in the policy setting – executives often “pitch” the idea back to analysts for them to develop. Analysts would then take the idea and run with it supporting the collaborative process with an outline or early draft as needed. Where this process can break down, is that analysts reluctantly give an early draft that is hacked to bits. This is breaking the bargain. An early draft should beget commensurate early feedback – along the lines that this is generally going in the right direction just make you hit “X” and “Y” under considerations etc.
Structural editing: Suggestions that support the smooth flow of the document. This seems an easy one to co-opt for other types of written review. For example, I often mark when I need to see similar ideas grouped together. I have also been known to conduct a very brief “reverse outline” on a separate piece of paper to suggest a flow for the document that may help the reader with an explanation of why it might work.
Stylistic editing: Adapting the style of the document for the audience. Many first cut documents are too long and technical and need to be crunched down and simplified to the essential elements for a more generalist audience.
In Part III, I’ll explore some overarching ideas on how to stay in the reviewer role.
Photo credit: Dread Pirate Jeff / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Let the Author be the Hero: What Managers could Learn from Editors
In my job, I spend a lot of time reviewing written work. I think that this skill has been one of the hardest to learn and despite being blessed by by lots of classroom training and colleagues with many strengths, it remains a skill in need of improvement.
Most of what I know has been picked up through trial and error, observation and extrapolation from experience. I know that I want to lean toward giving direction and away from redoing the work of my team members. Generally, if I give specific suggestions for redoing work (crossing out sentences or paragraphs and writing new ones) members of the team will just input the change without necessarily a lot of insight into why the changes are being made and, more importantly, how to extrapolate the changes requested into strategies for improving their work over time. As well, I consider the rewrite lazy on my own part – it’s easier to write it a new way than to coach someone into figuring out their own way to redo something. In the earliest days, explaining what you want instead of doing it the way you want, will likely take more time. However, in the long haul, I think it takes less time and promotes more and lasting development.
Still, I have struggled to construct a language to explain how to improve written work.
A few strategies have worked except when I falter (usually) because we are out of time:
- I try to group my comments into the general including what is working and less so, and the more detailed line-by-line suggestions. Sometimes this is supported by multiple reads of a document – the first macro read and the second and perhaps third, micro-read.
- I have placed a ban on my use of track changes because that tool makes it too easy for me to lapse back into the role of the writer. This is a role that I loved and I am easily seduced back into it. But, alas, it is like the frog in the slowly warming pot. It all seems good until I am well and truly cooked and I have rewritten the whole document.
- I also tend to make clear what elements of my feedback are for consideration/suggestion (tending to be stylistic – can you flip this into active voice, remove the negative, this needs to be shorter and here are some suggestions to start) and which need to be discussed before they are discarded (these tend to be substantive – this doesn’t make sense, I don’t think this is accurate, this strategic consideration is missing, can we update these numbers? Etc.). From the book “On Writing Well” the level of edits could be put into an even finer gradation: necessary (mistakes or omission), felicitous (smoother phrasing) and meticulous. Bottom line, consider if all suggestions hold equal weight and how to communicate this.
- I give general direction on do’s and don’ts for certain documents:
- For presentations/decks: aim for more white space than less, full sentences are not mandatory.
- Products for the Minister should use “may” over “should”
- Emails to senior managers need to get to the point early (within one blackberry screen is best) including the use of clear titles (Media lines for review by 3pm)
In Part II, I’ll explore the types of editing and how they might provide more language for managers to review written work.