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.
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.
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 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’ve enjoyed reading through a book of commencement speeches this week called “Way More Than Luck”. Most moving to me was the one given by Madeleine L’Engle to Wellesley College in 1991.
She recounted how she was placed in a school which valued sport participation and she wasn’t able to contribute due to having been born with legs of two different lengths. For some reason, her home room teacher equated this with a lack of intellect and completely gave up on her. Madeleine withdrew from her schoolwork and began to dedicate herself to her own writing in Grade three. She eventually switched schools and ended up with a first-year teacher who considered it part of her role find and affirm in each person, that which is intrinsically valuable. The teacher tasked her with writing a sequel to the Odyssey.
I liked this reminder that people can rise to challenges but that your attitude about whether you think they can is crucial.
A recent article from the Harvard Business Review, People won’t grow if you think they can’t change, elaborates the point drawing on the fixed mindset versus growth mindset work of Carol Dweck. Not only is a growth mindset important to see the potential for people to grow, a fixed mindset may prevent you from seeing the progress an employee has made (and may also well prevent an employee from seeing the progress you are making) thus calcifying a difficult relationship.
What was also poignant about reading L’Engle’s commencement speech was that L’Engle’s teacher acted as a force multiplier for her by taking a task that she was willing to do on her own and asking her to stretch and build on it. I dipped into a book called Multipliers earlier this year on this theme. While “diminishers” are apt to believe that work can’t get done without the help of a manager are more likely to shut people down with sharp remarks, “multiplier” managers can get two times more work from their people if they can build on their employee’s existing talents – things they can do with minimal effort, things they do without being asked and things that they’d do readily without being paid. What is perhaps most liberating about multipliers is that they generate pressure to create the best work (and create the space that this could occur) without creating stress. They rather generate the belief that the impossible is possible.
L’Engle admits that her sequel to the Odyssey likely wasn’t that great but the suggestion to attempt it seemed to help plant the seed for her momentous career in writing.
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.
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.
A very useful piece from the author of Just Listen – one of my favourite books for management reading of the past few years. Some helpful strategies here on what to do when you are struggling to listen to a venter or an over-explainer. Start from the premise that despite the lack of great communications skills, venters may have important things to tell you and that explainers may not be able to leave the belabouring space until they feel you have heard them. For over-explainers in particular, they may be having trouble feeling heard in other parts of their life and the impatience of the listener may actually cause them to delve even deeper into over-explaining.
The advice is essentially the same for both: override your instinct to shut down and ensure that you stay present for their words. The author even suggests that you focus on their left eye – which is connected to the right brain or the emotional brain.
Then when they are finished, say a variation of the following:
“I can see you’re really frustrated/had a lot to say. To make sure I don’t add to that, and to make sure I don’t miss something, what was the most important thing I need to do in the long term, what’s the critical thing I need to do in the short term, and what do I need to get done ASAP?”
After they respond, say to them, “What you just said is way too important for me to have misunderstood a word, so I’m going to say it back to you to make sure I am on the same page with you. Here’s what I heard.” Then repeat exactly, word for word, what they said to you. After you finish, say to them, “Did I get that right and if not, what did I miss?” Forcing them to listen to what you said they said, “because it was important,” will slow them down, will help you stay centered and in control, and will earn you their and your own respect.
Though this formula may not work for every setting, it’s a good starting off place – you clearly had something important to tell me, have I heard you?
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.”