Category Archives: communication

Feedback…Criticism or Opportunity?

Every once in a while, I like to get back to the basics.  The basics for me are always about people and how we relate to each other.  This post addresses giving and receiving feedback. I know, it is an old topic but I’ll stop talking about it when more of us get better at it. In the meantime, here it is…again.

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canstockphoto6447088“Feedback is the breakfast of Champions” or so says Ken Blanchard. But I’m wondering how many of us truly have an appetite for it.   After all, it has a way of feeling like bad news much of the time.

Why is that I wonder?  Well, first of all a very common view of feedback is this.  Feedback equals Criticism.

When I looked up the word criticism, here are some synonyms that greeted me…reprehend, censure, reprobate, condemn, denounce. Okay then, I can’t wait to get me some of that!

Often too, the experiences we have around performance management time can bring on an allergic reaction to feedback because, despite good intention, it is often delivered badly and received equally badly…a breakfast of champions complete with sour milk.

Perhaps, then, the task for all of us is to shift the perspective of feedback from one that equals criticism to one that equals opportunity.

So, where is the opportunity in both providing and receiving feedback?

For the Recipient there is opportunity:

For personal growth

We only see ourselves from the inside out.  The value of having others observe us and give us information about what they see helps us ‘round out’ our impression of ourselves.

To make positive change

Information about ourselves gives us a chance to make changes that have some personal meaning.  The hardest part about making change is the commitment it takes to sustain new behaviour.   Knowing why a change is important helps us to remain on course and raises the potential for experiencing positive results from our efforts.

For the Provider there is opportunity:

To build relationships that include trust

Feedback becomes a gift when it is presented sincerely and without judgment.  As well, when it is given as part of a conversation rather than a laundry list of things to fix, it is more palatable for the recipient and allows for deeper understanding on both sides.

To convey belief in the recipient’s capabilities & potential contribution

Giving feedback allows us to paint a picture of what we believe another is truly capable of and to shape our expectations around those beliefs.  If we simply demand a certain level of performance without inviting input or considering what people might need to make it possible, we will likely be met with resentment rather than interest.

Okay, so this might address some of the why for shifting a negative perspective of feedback to a more positive one (and there are doubtless more reasons for doing so as well) but it doesn’t speak to the how.  So here are a few thoughts on that:

As Providers of feedback, if we take the opportunity perspective we must:

Be clear about what we’re looking for

This means that if we are going to observe someone going about their work and then provide meaningful and useful information to them, both parties have to be focusing on the same things.  Feedback, after all, is comprised not of a single conversation but a series of conversations that lead to change and growth.

Make conversation and observation a daily habit

Sitting down with someone once a year to talk about performance and outcomes does not encourage an opportunity based perspective on feedback.  Instead, it becomes something one dreads.  Having daily conversations with people and making daily observations about their activities facilitates good and useful exchanges of information.

Avoid the “poop sandwich” approach

Who is not familiar with this?  Its starts with something positive; ends with something positive and then sandwiches the negative  you-know-what in between.  I personally don’t like this approach because it feels contrived.  And, by the way, no one is fooled by it.

As Recipients of feedback, in taking the opportunity perspective we must:

Participate in the conversation

In my experience, people who say nothing during a session that includes personal feedback can have plenty to say when the session is over, and to people who can only commiserate.  While this might feel good at the time, it really isn’t very helpful.  Participating in the conversation means asking questions.  It sometimes means disagreeing and challenging.  But it also means there is opportunity to understand as well as to be understood.  That alone has great value.

Take the view that feedback is as often positive as it is negative

Whenever someone says, “May I give you some feedback?”  It is tempting to say “Uh-Oh.  What have I done now?”

To be open to receiving feedback I think we must also do our best to wipe out the negative “tapes” that play between our ears about it.  In short, an open mind helps.

The truth is, these discussions are rarely easy.  They take thought, and work, by both parties.  And, because we have this tendency to equate feedback discussions with personal shortcoming, we avoid having them; wait to the last minute to have them; or rush through them in a way that does more harm than good.  I think shifting our perspective  away from criticism and toward opportunity might help

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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Filed under Coaching, communication, Human Resources, Performance Management

When the Grasshopper Teaches the Master

Little Man Business cut out 72dpi-resized-201.jpgThere is a lot to be said for learning from younger people. While we veterans can teach the invaluable lessons of the past, they can teach us the path to the future. And that is worth paying attention to.

For instance, people of my generation often grapple with the wonders of technology with varying degrees of success. Some of us are totally immersed and intrigued by what can be accomplished in a wireless world, (including all the cool toys that come along with it). Others of us are hard pressed to know how to turn on our computers, if indeed we even own one. But, no matter where we are on the technology learning curve, the one thing we know for sure is that to learn it, we have to consult those who have the skill and it’s highly doubtful that we will find this expertise in people older than ourselves.

That’s why I like the idea of mentorships in organizations working both ways.

It should be pretty simple really.

Take Young Person A, who knows about something and put him or her together with Older Person B who doesn’t know much at all about that particular something. Then let the learning begin.

All right, so it’s not that simple.

People of the older generation… well, we have our pride. We like the idea of mentoring someone younger because it seems to us to flow with the accepted order of things… you know, the Master and Grasshopper type of relationship. However, when it is the Grasshopper doing the teaching, it can make us feel somehow redundant, even stupid and that’s not something one willingly puts a hand up for.

Alternately, people of a younger generation may not see the benefits of slowing down to help us older ones learn things that are, to them, elementary my dear Watson. They may also feel they are carrying a load for someone who might even make more money than they do and from whom they see no reciprocal reward. There’s not much fun in that either.

So to begin with, I think that a successful Young master/Old Grasshopper relationship needs to begin with an attitude check on both sides.

And you spell that R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Of course along with that has to come a certain measure of empathy that allows the older to appreciate the skills and knowledge of the younger; and the younger to give credence to the lessons that only an older generation can teach.

With that established, I can think of a few practical steps that might help the Young Master/ Old Grasshopper set off on the road to building a mutually rewarding relationship. Here they are:

Determine a skill base line

There is nothing more counterproductive, or annoying, than making assumptions about what a person knows or does not know. Spending a little time determining current skill levels within the context of the subject matter is a good use of time.

Take time to set some goals

Technology, for instance, encompasses a huge body of knowledge. To make some headway and avoid being overwhelmed, discuss what you want to be able to do and how it might benefit your work before you start tackling applications that may, or may not, move you in the right direction. Goals will also give you benchmarks against which you can monitor progress. There is something very satisfying about that for both parties in the relationship.

Establish good communication habits

For the most part this means speaking plainly; being truthful; and regularly checking for understanding.

Have Fun

Working with someone to learn something new and seeing that new thing being applied in real time is exciting! Enjoy the journey and the person with whom you are taking it and my hunch is, you will both profit from the experience.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

 

* Note: originally posted in January 2010

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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Learning

Leadership and Courage

courageCourage has many faces. It doesn’t always show up complete with epaulets and a shiny sword yelling “Charge!!” In fact, I would suggest it more often demands a much subtler approach. Either way, courage is not something we can buy or fake. It lives in the heart of our character. And, it is something we hope to have enough of when we need it most.

Brave leaders go first and inspire others to find their own courage. They defy convention. They admit their mistakes, apologize and make amends when they are wrong. Brave leaders explore unknown territory in service of something greater than themselves. They deliver bad news with clarity, determination and compassion. And, they stay the course when the going gets tough

Brave leaders, too, frequently look in their personal, and organizational mirrors to find something in themselves or in the systems they create that works against their potential for achieving their goals. This calls for a special kind of courage, one that can feel less noble than the others. But workplaces have little hope of thriving long if this work goes unattended or is swept under the rug in hopes that no one will notice.

Here’s a case in point. Some time ago, I met with a friend, a niche specialist in communication. She shared this story with me:

On being invited to meet with the CEO of a company to discuss business opportunities, she entered the premises and almost immediately detected a certain tension in the air. And, while people were impeccably polite to her, she noticed that throughout the office, no one was smiling.

The CEO, a clever and efficient woman, appeared to have all the hallmarks of a successful business leader. At some point in the conversation, she asked my friend if she did other communications work because she had noticed that the e-mails being passed among her staff and out to customers had a tone that seemed terse and unwelcoming. The CEO asked my friend if she could possibly fix that with some communications training.

Of course, my friend, a smart and intuitive woman herself, knew all too well where this conversation was headed. Could she ‘fix’ the tone of the emails being sent from this office? Yes, she could do that. The bigger question…why people were writing snarky emails went unanswered. It could be that this CEO had no idea why but, when pressed, she also was not willing to ‘go there’

This is not an unfamiliar story. In fact, I would hazard to say that more companies than we’d like to think spend inordinate amounts of time and money addressing unpleasant symptoms if only to be able to say they are doing something to improve their employee, and by association, customer experience.

We know of course that underneath it all lurk many cans of worms and a few Pandora’s Boxes that need opening before anything can be truly resolved. This is where that special kind of courage comes in. It is the kind that asks us to face our imperfect selves; to find our humility and to lay ourselves open to closer examination.

When I think about courage in leadership, this quote comes to mind,

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear. “ ~ Ambrose Redmoon

Good leadership is about focusing on what’s really important among other things. Sometimes that means having the courage to relentlessly pursue truth, even at the cost of personal pride, in service of building something everyone can be proud of.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

 

Note: This post was originally published in August, 2012

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Filed under communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

Collaboration and the Value of the Dissenting Voice

dissent_SSAlthough the word collaboration can conjure up images of people working happily together, I rather think we would get closer to reality if we included a few arguments, some eye-rolling and some exasperated over-emoted sighs to round out the picture. Mostly this kind of friction happens because, as individuals, we differ from each other in culture, experience and skill. The perspectives we hold come from those things. And, as human beings, we can cling to them stubbornly, shutting out the possibility that there may be another way.

But, if we want to truly extract the best ideas and create the best outcomes, we must be prepared to include the likelihood that our view is not always going to be the best. That means making room for the friction and the dissenting voices of those who look at things through a different lens and have the courage to share what they see.

Here’s a quick and entertaining example from the great comedy team of Abbott and Costello:

I don’t know about you, but at times, I have discounted the opinions of others because their logic sounded wrong or what they were saying had, in my view, no bearing on the matter at hand. In those situations, I wonder what might have happened had I spent just a few more minutes listening and trying to understand. Of course, there was always the possibility that what was being said was complete drivel. But, it was equally possible there was something there of great value that was lost because I failed to take the time to really listen.

In a World where time is at a premium, I don’t suppose the behaviour I describe is unique. So many of us spend our days striving to get to the end, or accomplish a goal and yet sacrifice the quality of what we produce by ignoring the voices that don’t seem to have a place on our personal radar screens.

I think there are lessons here regardless of whether we need to make room for the dissenting voice or we are the dissenting voice.

For instance, to make room for the dissenting voice I think it helps to:

Develop a discipline of drawing out those who may be reluctant to speak

Some people can feel overpowered by the common opinion. In fact, they may believe their own view to be less important because it is different. And so they stay quiet so as not to rock the boat. Drawing them into the conversation can make it more real and provide the opportunity for a wider variety of ideas to be shared.

Provide enough time for reflection, curiosity and discussion

Of course if you make room for the dissenting voice, you also must make time for people to ask questions, explore, challenge and think about what is being said. It may take longer but the conversation will be enriched because of it.

Give the ‘Dissenting Voice’ a place at the table

That means, when you come together to discuss some aspect of your work together, assign a virtual place for the ‘Dissenting Voice’. Over the course of your discussion, stop from time to time, and invite people to place themselves in a perspective, they may not currently hold. Sometimes this will give rise to a new idea that may not have otherwise surfaced. And, It will encourage those who really do think differently to become part of the conversation.

Conversely, if you differ in experience, perspective or opinion from the rest, I think it helps to:

Find the courage to stand up and speak

While it can be nerve-wracking to stand up and share an opposing view, it can also be very liberating. Little is accomplished by waiting until a meeting is over to voice an adverse opinion, to no one in particular. If you want to be counted in, stand up and be counted. It matters.

Ask questions that provoke thought

Sometimes a well-placed question can slow the momentum of a meeting long enough to allow thoughts to take a much needed detour. Questions that begin with “what would happen if….?” Or “How might ‘X’ apply to this situation?” can spark ideas not yet explored.

Explain the relevance of your view to the subject at hand

If your view represents a big departure from the prevailing thinking, you stand a better chance of having it heard if you explain how it connects with the subject under discussion and the value it brings to realizing a successful outcome.

Abraham Lincoln has been quoted as saying, “ It is the man who does not want to express an opinion whose opinion I want”

From that I surmise that Mr. Lincoln was keen to be informed on many levels, to solve the right problems and to make good decisions more often than bad ones.

When it comes to working collaboratively, I expect that’s what we all want.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

 

* Please note the Clip shown from Abbott and Costello is for learning purposes only and not meant as an infringement on copyright.

** This post was originally published in July, 2012

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Filed under communication, diversity, Leadership, Leadership Development

Leadership and the Importance of Observation

observe-look-magnifying-glassIn Western Society, we’re big on jumping into action. Sometimes it leads to big things too. At other times though, chaos is our only reward for leaping into busy work before spending any time at all finding out what’s actually going on.

Here’s an example:

Many moons ago I was part of a team-building course in Toronto. At one point, we were divided into groups and marched outside to tackle a project that involved climbing poles and traversing from one pole to the other with only the aid of ropes and some safety tackle. Our goal was to successfully overcome the obstacles put in our way and complete the course in the best possible time.

We failed miserably. Not only did we not complete the course, we failed to overcome most of the obstacles as well.

With booby prize shamefully in hand, we reviewed what we might have done differently. And, in thinking about it now, apart from doing just about everything wrong, we simply didn’t spend enough time in “O”.

“O” stands for observation. It is part of a mental process that Edgar Schein refers to as O.R.J.I. in his book Process Consultation- Lessons for Managers and Consultants.

Here’s how it works.

Typically, when faced with a predicament, the human psyche follows a pattern.

We Observe and get a picture of what is going on.

We React emotionally to our understanding of what’s happening.

We Judge, and draw conclusions based on our understanding and how it makes us feel and then:

We Intervene, making decisions and taking action based on what we see, feel and conclude.

In the case of my deplorable “team” experience, we spent perhaps a nano second really looking at the challenge before us or trying to understand it. We asked no questions of either the coordinators or each other. We did not inspect the obstacle course or make any kind of effort to evaluate the resources available to us, human or otherwise. The loudest voice took the lead. The action oriented ones chomped at the bit to get out in the field and DO something. And, the reflectors, being completely overwhelmed by the noise and confusion registered what can only be described as insipid protests about making a plan first, an offering that, not surprisingly, fell on completely deaf ears

So, instead of looking like this: “ORJI” our process looked more like this: “oRJI”

Not surprisingly though, staying in Observation is hard. When problems are pressing, emotions can work in opposition to rational thought, often wanting to take over at the most inadvisable and inconvenient times.

So, here are a few thoughts about how to delay a move to action long enough to establish that the information you are working from is accurate.

Gather facts about the nature and scope of the problem

This means suspending, at least initially, feelings about what’s going on long enough to get some solid data.

Take time to determine the resources and skills available to you

In the case of our team exercise, we spent no time at all determining who knew what or who could do what. As a result, a number of individual egos launched themselves into the project without knowing anything about the skills they had at their disposal or how they could best be used.

Determine what you might be assuming about the situation and the people involved in it.

Giving some time to validating assumptions is never a waste. Assumptions almost always hinder the process of getting at the true nature of a problem.

Make room for many questions and a variety of voices.

This is simply about listening to every voice, be it soft or loud. And, sometimes it is the dissenting voice that holds the clue to a solution.

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The bottom line here is, great teamwork relies on giving time to observation and critical thinking. Launching into action without thought might look good initially but will most certainly require more backtracking and remedial work than you likely have time for. And sometimes, it makes the difference between success and failure.

That’s what I think anyway? What do you think?

Note: Originally published in August, 2012

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Filed under building awareness, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Teams

Message to Leaders: Speak with Conviction…Listen With Intention

2-ears-1-mouthEvery now and then, I like to write about communication. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that the language we use has a lot to do with how others regard us. And, in leadership, how we are regarded has a lot to do with the decisions people make about trusting us…or not.

The second reason is that the ease at which things get done in any organization often comes down to our ability to send and receive clear messages.

Like leadership, communication is a complex subject so I’m not going to try and simplify it. Nor do I have a list of do’s and don’ts that will cure our respective communication ills.

I have just two thoughts to share today.

One is: If you want people to believe in you and in what you say, speaking clearly and with conviction is a good place to start.

Language has always been littered with jargon. As English is the only language in which I have any facility, I’m going to say that English is probably one of the worst offenders. Over the past several years though, we have become even sloppier about how we choose to express ourselves. We punctuate our sentences with a series of ‘likes’ and ‘okays’ that muddy our messages. And, we have developed an annoying habit of turning statements into questions. This latter habit is particularly troublesome and serves to invite uncertainty where conviction ought to be.

Some people might think that speaking with conviction requires us to use a certain voice, maybe one that is stronger, or louder than our own. However, I assert that conviction does not have to shout to be heard. It just has to come from a sincere and real place.

The American poet and teacher, Taylor Mali addresses the importance of speaking clearly and with conviction here. It is short, powerful and will make you smile.

My second thought is: If you want to learn something, discover something or build something, you must also listen with intention.

If speaking with conviction gets people’s attention and earns their confidence, Listening with intention will help us to keep it. This is the kind of listening that demands our total presence. Our intention must be to suspend judgment; to resist the temptation to interrupt; to fight our tendency to build arguments in our heads while someone is talking. It requires us to explore; to question and to rephrase. This kind of listening comes from a conscious decision to truly understand what is being said. It does not require us to agree but it provides the opportunity for meaningful discussion that can lead to breakthrough thinking and effective collaboration.

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When it comes to speaking with conviction and listening with intention, neither is easy. For me, at least, it is an ongoing challenge. But then, things worth pursuing usually are, aren’t they?

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: Originally posted in April, 2012

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Filed under communication, Leadership, Leadership Development

Four Reasons for Insisting on Civility at Work

While we all  decry bullying, some may believe that civility is a minor consideration at work, especially when we are constantly plagued by looming deadlines and demands. Who has time to be polite? Who has time to say please and thank you or stop to consider the effect our behaviour is having on those around us? And, why should we care as long as we’re getting the job done?

Well, I think we have to care and we have to make time. In fact, to me, good manners and consideration for others should be embedded in the culture of every organization. Here are at least four reasons why:

Successful collaboration is not possible without it.

Collaboration is a key word in today’s workplace. When we work together to achieve a common, mutually beneficial goal, it is often the case that impatience will raise its’ ugly head and start goading us into saying things we might not otherwise entertain. It is at these times when a good dose of civility is required. Rude and self-indulgent remarks simply get in the way of achieving a satisfactory outcome. In this context, I like what Wikipedia has to say about civility. “Civility gives us the means to disagree without being disagreeable” That kind of says it all doesn’t it?

How people treat each other inside the organization will reflect, for good or ill, outside the organization

This just makes good sense. Those who work in an atmosphere where good manners are the norm will, for the most part respond to their customers and others, in kind. There’s nothing complicated about that. And, for some reason it is my guess that customers are more willing to part with their money if they feel they are being treated with respect.

People make their best effort when they feel acknowledged and important

I started my work life in the mailroom of a bank. My job was to open mail and deliver it to its intended recipients in a department of approximately three hundred people. Many department managers either completely ignored me or made me the unfortunate recipient of rude, bad tempered remarks. A few however, received their mail with good grace, responding with a well-placed thank you and a smile. When this happened, I actually felt I was doing something of value. It was a small gesture but always with a big result and a willingness on my part to do more for those managers who had taken the time to acknowledge my existence, despite my lowly placement on the hierarchical ladder.

Civility is key to building relationships and reputations through Social Media

Today, workplaces extend beyond our walls and borders through technology. Every day, we send e-mails, text messages and tweets to people, some of whom we have never met face-to-face. To me, civility is an important part of communicating through this media. After all, when we say something on e-mail, Facebook or Twitter it is captured forever. We can’t take it back. And, it shapes the image we create of ourselves which can either reflect who we really are or cast a shadow over us that is difficult to overcome

Some people might pride themselves in their ability to rattle others with rude behaviour. They say things like, “This is who I am. Get used to it”.

But civility is not about who we are. It is about how we choose to behave. And, insisting on good manners simply makes sense. It matters.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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Filed under communication, Leadership, Leadership Values, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness