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.
We get better decisions (if we overfit for the past, this is a poor predictor of the future)
People can actually follow a small number of rules even under great stress.
The gist of the research:
Researchers examined product development teams to see who got the most done and overly rule driven and complicated processes resulted in the wrong products being produced very efficiently while teams with no rules had a great time getting nothing done.
Teams benefited from having a few rules that would guide work but leave flexibility for innovation.
The steps recommended to develop your rules:
Set your objective
Find the bottleneck (it may not be where you think it is – in the example given it was during the hiring process.)
Develop your rules by looking at your own data of when you have been successful and by talking to outside experts.
The hardest rules to follow are the ones telling you when to stop doing something – we are all great at starting something and very poor at stopping.
On some of my “I feel like a bad manager” days, I’ve struggled mightily with needing to give vague instructions to advance a product and feeling discomfort if not resistance, resentment, anger and panic as employees work through the process.
With experience, I am now much more careful to share that I am not withholding information (“I know everything you know”) and I take care to erase the concern that I am delegating so quickly that I have skimmed over details that could support the iteration process.
I also now understand some of the reasons behind the negative emotions I see in these situations and it is helpful: I don’t want to waste time, I don’t want to look stupid, and I think this is pointless because your instructions are so vague that it is impossible for me to hit the mark.
And in fairness, as this recent piece from Fast Company outlines well, our formal training may well not prepare us to deal with ambiguity which is basically an opportunity to be creative or innovative and think about solutions that we may only discover through the process itself.
In bureaucratic settings we are not necessary advancing our skills to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty. We are usually bounded by time, templates, page limits etc.
So how do we pull through when we know so little? The main thing is to advance something somehow so here are my tips:
I appreciate that the Fast Company piece focuses on the need to trust the effectiveness of your regular processes including your standard ways of researching problems and mining your existing networks for information.
Instead of focusing on the fact that limited boundaries could give rise to an infinite scope of products, focus on the fact that a good product can take many different forms. If someone comes back with “I was thinking of a chart not a narrative actually” you can add that to your stash of useful information.
I’d suspect that vague iterations may especially painful for perfectionists. This is a great moment to leave these tendencies at the door as best you can. My best response to vague instructions is usually to jump in with a couple of iterations much earlier in the game than I would normally to figure out if I am even in the ballpark.
I’d recommend to calibrate your normal reactions to feedback so that you are even less sensitive to anything negative or critical that comes your way in reaction to your iterations because you know that the instructions were vague.
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.”
A useful addition to the literature on communications at work.
The author suggests that there are three general reasons for crying at work:
– a “formidable manager”
Inspiring fear or even respect through expressing power doesn’t form any part of my conscious management style (in fact, quite the opposite) but, sadly, I am not overly patient by nature and moments extreme frustration have brought out my most strident behaviour as a manager making people cry and I feel dreadful about this.
I have also been told that people have cried off site because a disconnect in the direction I was giving and what they needed from me. In the latter case, I was able to eventually clarify that I had no further direction to give. A part of high level competency in our world is advancing projects on generalized direction and creating products that no one has ever seen before. Moving away from templates can make our otherwise often bureaucratic work invigorating though it can also be de-stablizing. But, I don’t want people to feel destabilized and unsupported. On this experience, I have now gotten better at saying, I given you all that I know, just put some ideas down and we’ll work through this together.
– the intersection between personal and professional
As I have written before, I will now solicit and give general information on the goings on in personal lives to help understand how emotions might modulate over time and better understand that a bumpy patch does not mean that someone is fundamentally unsuited for a certain work environment.
– organizational culture and differences.
This includes personal management style and meeting people where they are. I’ve just finished Bob Sutton’s book Good Boss, Bad Boss and he would counsel that it is OK to show flashes of anger to really get a point across. I prefer the “pick a face” approach. I find with high performing teams, their own desire to perform well will be sufficiently bruised by the most moderately presented feedback that there is no need for extreme emotion. That said, I think it is true that as elaborated in the Talent Code, having a boss you respect enough to want to please and feel a bit intimidated into doing so, doesn’t harm but help. You stay on your A-game and you work on being prepared to present.
Will we be able to utterly avoid ever crying at work as the author suggests, I doubt it. I was informed of the sudden death of my father at work and I did want to know this as soon as possible but falling apart at work was a consequence. People were lovely and supportive on that day and the days to follow.
I deeply admire Seth Godin’s ability to pump out blog posts daily on crucial topics.
This is a great treatise on how panic corrodes good work places. We don’t become better workers when we panic but worse ones.
Panic fuels the fight or flight reaction and actually makes us deaf.
“The answer to, “should we panic,” is always no. Always. Panic is expensive, panic compounds and panic doesn’t solve the problem.”
Panic also gives the message that we don’t have what it takes to overcome the hurdle or that we are headed for catastrophic outcomes.
My former coach Charles Lemieux created a teaching tool by taking the results of a survey on how the best companies do business and had simplified the key concepts into single words. For immediate supervisors, the word was “hope.” I think that panic, at least in the moment, erases hope and we abdicate our role as leaders when we give in to it.
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.
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.