This cautionary tale tells the story of Dawn, who worked for a large customer service organisation. During one of those team building awaydays, they were asked to write some anonymous feedback for someone they worked with, who they wished didn’t behave the way they did.
Dawn wrote a lengthy letter, writing what she thought of Gemma, a younger manager she worked with. Dawn thought Gemma was too abrasive, and not considerate enough of others in the team. She didn’t hold back in the letter – after all, it was anonymous.
Only, it wasn’t. The trainers pulled a sneaky trick on the delegates. They were then asked to sit opposite the person for whom they had written this no holds barred feedback and read it out to them. My desktop won’t play along and let me post an emoji for this, but it would be the shocked one. I was horrified for Dawn.
I cannot see what is to be gained from this. I’m a big advocate of feedback. It is one of the best ways of learning and improving relationships with others. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to deliver it. This was definitely the wrong way. There are three obvious problems with the approach taken here.
What's the problem?
Is there a better way?
Yes. Yes there is.
On a day to day, informal basis, make sure the only uninvited feedback you give is positive. Make sure it is to help someone feel good. Make it as specific as you can. And genuine. And work related. As often as you can, not just ‘good job on that presentation’ but ‘I can see you were really thorough in your research for that presentation, I can see how hard you worked. I especially like the point about.....because.....’
If you’re invited to give feedback (by the actual person, not by a trainer who lies about it!) then you can give honest feedback about where they could improve. There’s still a sensitive way to do this though. We’ve all heard of the sandwich technique. Sometimes known as the shit sandwich; quite possibly because it’s often uninvited feedback, and done in a clumsy fashion. ‘I’m saying something nice about you as a cover for the criticism I really want to give you, then I suppose I have to say something else nice.’ The nice things somehow don’t seem sincere.
But if you are asked to give feedback, keep to the same rules of making it specific and genuine. And yes, you do need to find actual positives to share, even when you’re also delivering a point where someone can improve. You still need to ensure they feel good about your feedback, and you can only do this by being genuine about wanting to help them. The sandwich technique comes from a good place, and if you bear this in mind, that you want the person to feel good, then you can deliver feedback that will actually help.
What I think this trainer should have done is acknowledge that the delegates may not have had the skills, or be in the right place with a working relationship, to deliver effective feedback on 'areas for improvement'. The task then, was to help them gain the skills. Or alternatively, spend some time on looking at why relationships may not be as good as they could be at that workplace. Maybe both.
And if you’re ever in a position where you’re asked to do this, here’s my advice; call the trainer out on it. Ask them what the purpose is, what is the exercise meant to achieve? If they have an answer, but you don’t think the objective will be achieved, say so. And I'll be very surprised if they do have an effective answer. Lead a mutiny and refuse to just read out a letter that you didn’t intend the other party to hear. Although, seriously, I hope team building has progressed past this kind of nonsense. To be fair, this did happen some time ago, and we’ve learned so much more about how people learn, how the brain responds to threatening situations, and how to foster good working relationships since then.
As a counterpoint, I once went to a team building away day that did something like this far more effectively. We were split into small groups, and had to do a round robin type of exercise. We had puzzles to solve, one I remember was to build something in lego. There were other types of practical tasks too. After a given amount of time, we moved to the next table, and had to work on a different task. I remember being really confused about what we should be doing, should we undo the previous team’s work and start again, or carry on where they left off? The trainers refused to answer, telling us it was up to us. By the end of the exercise, I’d twigged. I realised the point was, we’re all supposed to be on the same team, we’re all working towards the same aims, our communication needed to improve so that we could build on what the previous group had done. Not undo it all and start again, destroying what they had achieved, wasting everyone’s time and the organisation's resources.
Many years later, this lesson remains imprinted on my brain. This was before I understood about purpose at work. Before I understood how fundamental it is to feel valued at work. At least before I understood it at an intellectual level, because those things had long been important to me on a visceral level. But this is a much better memory than being coerced into sharing some negative feedback to a antagonist at work.
Do we need feedback at all?
Let’s take the concept of negative feedback and examine it a little more closely. I was going to conclude that feedback is good, but negative feedback should be handled carefully. But then I remembered something I read just recently. In Nine Lies about Work, Buckingham and Goodall’s lie #5 is ‘people need feedback’. Should we even give negative feedback at all? Parenting guides talk about ignoring bad behaviour in your children and praise the good. (Easier said than done, I know!) Does this apply to the workplace too?
Looking back over workplace experiments and citing some research by Gallup, the engagement at work people, Buckingham and Goodall conclude that what people need is not feedback, but attention. The Gallup research found that the worst scenario for workplace engagement was where managers paid no attention whatsoever to their team. Even negative feedback is attention, and this achieved forty times more effectiveness in engaging the team. So it looks like a win. But as the point of engagement is to achieve more effective performance, is this still the best way to get this result? You might not be surprised to learn that positive feedback is more effective still, but you may be surprised to learn that it is thirty times more powerful again than negative feedback.
Buckingham and Goodall also borrow from the research on personal relationships; it has been found that a happy marriage has a positive to negative ratio of between three to one or five to one – so for each negative experience, you need to give positive attention three to five times. You can watch my review of Nine Lies about Work here. If you want to explore these ideas further, or if you still need convincing of the merits, I highly recommend a read of the book.
So what are the takeaways from this?
If you’re a manager and want to get the best out of your people, give them positive attention – catch them doing something right, and feed that back to them, help them see what was working.
If you’re a team member and wish you got on better with colleagues and managers, give them some positive feedback. As often as you can. It counts just as much whatever your place in the team.
If you’re a trainer, help your students to understand this concept.
If you'd like more ideas on how to be happier at work, you can get a free download here
What is your experience? Do you have any other tips for improving working relationships that have helped you? Let me know in the comments below.
Buckingham, Marcus and Goodall, Ashley, 2019 Nine Lies about Work, Harvard Business Review Press Boston, Massachusetts
Master your ego – there’s a day of the year dedicated to this; Ego Awareness Day. Saturday 11th May is the second ego awareness day, it began in 2018. Who decides on these days? I went to the website, and it’s a very earnest website, with no individuals credited on there. In fact, one of the descriptions almost made me feel it was a spoof day.
I’ll be honest, I first started getting interested in days of the year as a bit of a running joke with my brother and sister. My brother posted on facebook that it was Penguin Awareness Day, not to be confused with World Penguin Day or African Penguin Awareness Day. Amongst other things, I was staggered that there was even such a thing as African penguins, so clearly the awareness day thing works. Since then, we periodically highlight others that amuse us.
Ego awareness day
So, ego awareness day. As a blogger, we learn to connect to these days so we can hashtag them on social media, and I couldn’t let this one pass. I wondered if there was something in it.
The latest book I reviewed says, among other things, that the biggest obstacle to change in the workplace is the leader. He’s talking about you. The leader who wants to make the change, the reader of his book. His advice? Learn to master your ego.
‘Work to master your ego. Work to quiet your voice. Work to step out of the way. You must become a paragon of trying new things. Starting new loops. Asking big questions. Don’t stay stuck in the habit of evaluating and judging the work of others. Go find something to do.
‘Your new job is to ensure that the conditions for change are in place, not just now but in perpetuity. While you won’t be doing as much “leading” in the traditional sense, you’ll be doing something far more rewarding. You’ll be creating and holding space for change.’
Not sure if that’s an accurate version of the quote, I had to rely on Google, and there are a few variations. But you get the idea. And if it’s good enough for Einstein, I’m pretty sure it’s good enough for the rest of us.
Well, yes. If you view it as a reflection that none of us are perfect, we all need to continue to learn, develop and grow, then of course we need to master the ego. I know I’m guilty of believing I’m always right (ask my husband) and it generally takes proof for me to admit I’m wrong. I also discovered recently how I like to retain control, as I described here. It’s difficult to let go, and as leaders in the workplace it’s so tempting to think that we know best.
Dignan also says that the old practices of scientific management, embodied by Frederick Taylor, separated the thinking from the doing. And it’s disturbing how much this attitude still prevails, with managers telling their teams what to do, and sometimes even what to think. As autonomy is so important to our motivation, no wonder so many people are dissatisfied and disengaged at work.
What can you do to master the ego?
Let me know what you think. Will you work on mastering your ego? Will you try one of these suggestions?
Links here to the book reviews mentioned
What do we mean by positive intent? I was reminded this week of the importance of belonging, and feeling like people have your back. I said a few weeks back that the principles of improv include making sure your colleagues look good. It embraces looking after them, making sure they are ok. It was a perfect chance to see this in action, because we did our first live performance this week, a showcase in front of family and friends. Not a work situation, but I can see the parallels.
L'esprit de l'escalier
At times, I was a bit like a rabbit in the headlights. I’m a little slow to catch onto ideas, so often I didn’t know how to react. That French phrase, l’esprit de l’escalier, oh my goodness, how many of those have I had? When you think of the funny response on the way out. But actually, there were also some that I had there and then, but wasn’t quick enough to jump in, and someone moved the action on. I found myself frustrated that I’d got a potentially funny story line, but lost the chance to use it.
Audience members amongst my friends said that a couple of the performers dominated. There are some big personalities involved. I also heard that one of the performers was upset about this, though I was not witness to the discussion they had.
I just wanted to share some of my feelings about the experience, and to examine my responses a bit more closely.
There have been moments where I didn’t quite feel like I belonged. I’m older than everyone else, and that doesn’t usually bother me. Some friendships have been forged, meeting up at the weekend, sharing stories of dating and how that’s going. I’ve been married for donkey’s years and I’m a grandma, so obviously that social life is not for me. Some in jokes have developed amongst the lads, and I didn’t always feel included with those.
On the other hand, there were others who I really bonded with, and the tutor was always supportive and encouraging to those of us who were less confident in our ability to perform. I really liked a couple of the guys (I liked them all to be honest, even with the factors I just mentioned) and found them to be supportive too – I definitely felt that a couple of them went out of their way to help me. There was only one other woman on the course, aside from the tutor, so we three were outnumbered by seven men. Again, that wasn’t an issue, but I felt that the other woman also made an effort to include me, even though we are quite different personalities and she is much younger.
But then the actual performance brought up some issues. Like I said, I was a rabbit in the headlights for much of the time. My dominant feeling afterwards was to be annoyed at myself for missing opportunities. And then I felt bad too, because that meant I didn’t pick up on something someone else had said, even after he had taken a risk to say it. So in addition, I feel I let him down. I’m trying to be kind to myself and accept that this was the first time I’d done this live in front of an audience, but I’m still annoyed at myself.
Then others commented on the team dynamics, about people who dominated. At first, I agreed with their perception, that a couple of people had kind of taken over. There were times when someone rushed in, and I didn’t have the chance to take the direction I wanted to.
I could have been annoyed about this, resenting how they took over. But, using my developing empathy skills, let’s think about it from their point of view. They may have been worried that the performance would go wrong, the story would get stuck. They may have been worried that I would be stood on stage, in front of a live audience, and not know what to say, would freeze on stage. I’d certainly frozen enough times in the weeks leading up to the show.
So instead of resenting them for not letting me go ahead, if I view their actions as having a positive intent, they were working to save me (and possibly one or two of the other participants) from the embarrassment of ‘dying’ on stage. Maybe they were doing what they thought was right to look after me.
I haven’t had the chance to debrief the show with them, so I have no idea what the other participants thought. I would really love to have the opportunity to talk to the guy who was upset about how it had gone. I hope I’d be able to help him see that it wasn’t done deliberately to thwart him, but that the other person had their own concerns and was trying to help in the best way they knew how.
But if we continue with a work analogy, if someone behaves in a way that annoys you, can you reframe it, and think what their positive intent may have been? Maybe they have anxieties of their own causing them to act in that way? We’re going our separate ways now, but if it’s an ongoing working relationship, it’s worth the effort to look for the positive intent. The choice is yours. If you assume they’re out to get you, you’re building up negative feelings. This obviously has a negative impact on you, but research consistently shows that negativity breeds negativity. No-one likes sharing office space with a complainer. If you assume they were trying to help you, you’ll be positively disposed towards them. In return, they’ll like being around you, and continue to support you.
I get that I’ve not really made a central point here, probably because my own feelings are so entangled and it’s recent events, so I’m still trying to work it out. We were effectively like a new team, so the relationships are also at the early stages. It’s natural that we would get along more easily with some than others, and unavoidable I guess that there would be more than one grouping amongst us.
Annie McKee, in ‘How to be happy at work’ talks about how important friendships are at work, and how organisations can foster a spirit of openness and trust that allows friendships to develop. The improv course did everything it could to facilitate this. How does your workplace do?
You can see my review of ‘How to be happy at work’ here.
Last time, I said that working relationships will be smoother if you stop and consider someone else’s position before reacting. Easier said than done. Have you ever wanted to react angrily at work to something someone said or did? Have you given in to that temptation? How did it work out if you did?
What happens without empathy?
My natural reaction can be a little hot headed in some situations. I remember losing my temper with an employee when I was chair of trustees for a small charity. She provoked me, but that’s not really a legitimate reason. It was in front of other staff too, which made it an even worse mistake. If I’d tried harder to see things from her perspective – loss of funding meant the future of the charity, and with it her job, were at risk, she’d worked there for about 20 years, who was I to come in and start telling her what to do, what did I know? – maybe we wouldn’t have been in a position where she continually provoked me. And maybe, even if she had, I’d have found it easier to remain calm.
Going back even further, I had a manager who bullied me for a long time. I used to fantasise about standing in the doorway of her office gunning her down with a machine gun. Someone said that was too fast an end to her, but for me it captured the explosive nature of my anger. And I’m not a violent person. This work situation took away my confidence for a long time, and I harboured ill feelings towards her for a long time too. But as I’ve grown, learned more about what makes us happy, what makes us confident and powerful, I eventually started to see things from her point of view. She was a manager of an office of 50 staff, responsible for reaching financial targets for law enforcement. She was probably under pressure herself from senior management to achieve those targets. Who knows what stress she was feeling, but I never considered this back then.
A rebellious team leader, arguing with her over changes, backing the team against her, she reacted inappropriately by using intimidating tactics to get me to fall into line. They didn’t work, resulting in a breakdown of our working relationship. If I’d stopped to consider what she needed to achieve in running the office, shown some empathy for the pressures she was under, perhaps we’d have been an awesome team. I think she had some things to learn about managing people, but I can’t escape responsibility for this situation.
I first came across empathy as an important skill in the workplace in Daniel Goleman’s article for the Harvard Business Review. Originally published in 1996, it features in their 10 must reads published in 2011. Goleman’s article is aimed at leaders, but I believe we can all benefit from nurturing this critical life skill.
Back when he first wrote this, Goleman pointed out that empathy wasn’t seen as businesslike. Now however, we see articles in Inc - Why Empathy Is the Most Important Skill You'll Ever Need to Succeed and Forbes - Think Empathy is a Soft Skill? Think Again. Why You Need Empathy For Success. We get whole books devoted to helping us improve our emotional intelligence (EQ).
One way is to use a test, such as that in Bradberry and Greaves’ book, reference below. Another is to ask people you trust to be honest with you. If your working relationships are such that you cannot ask this question of anyone at work, or you believe that your team won’t feel safe enough to tell you, then you have a significant amount of learning to do. But even if you do have trusted advisers, be prepared for surprises. It can be difficult to know how we’re perceived by others unless we make the effort to find out, and it can be difficult to hear the answers.
And a third option – look inside yourself. Do you feel you have empathy? Do you feel you could improve? On the whole, people would describe me as empathetic, but there are some situations where I don’t put myself effectively in the other person’s shoes. I described a couple above, but they are ancient history now. Last week at the improv course, I was acting as a mother pleading with her child to come home. I missed a couple of things, and if that had been a real conversation, could have had serious implications. (I know it’s only pretend, but empathy and listening skills are central to good improv, as I said here.) I’m also pretty sure my husband would say I don’t see things from his point of view often enough.
So it’s situational. But good self awareness (one of the other components of EQ) will ensure that you know where your strengths and weaknesses are, and where you want to improve.
Like all of the components of emotional intelligence, we can learn empathy, but it takes commitment and reflective practice. Goleman himself says the process is not easy. The rewards, however, are worth the effort. Not just better working relationships, but less stress and better personal relationships too. So what can you do? Practice, is the short answer.
Develop your listening skills
The pretend situation I mentioned above, where I was pleading with a child to come home – humour me while I use that as an example. The situation was that my daughter (played by a thirty-ish guy from Barbados) had run away from home because Daddy didn’t love her because he wanted her to be a boy. I’m not sure what age she was meant to be, but in my head, around five years old. I totally missed the point about Daddy wanting her to be a boy, and didn’t address this in my responses. How tragic would this be if a parent missed such a comment from their daughter, whatever age she was? While we were playing this for laughs I’m sure this will have happened in reality, and was a stark reminder to me about picking up on things, even if they’re said in passing. Often people reveal their true feelings subtly, or inadvertently. (I’m not suggesting my improv colleague was on that occasion though )
Take some time out to consider an interaction that didn’t go how you wanted it to go. Think about what that felt like for the other person. Do you think they felt heard? Years ago, when I was in the civil service, and much was done in a bureaucratic way, I often said the managers I respected were those who let me put my point of view. They didn’t have to accept it – if they acknowledged my point, but said they wanted something done differently regardless of my points, I would accept that – they were the boss, and I was happy to accept that sometimes they would make a decision I didn’t agree with. And this was before I understood, or had even heard of, emotional intelligence. The managers I rebelled against were the ones I felt didn’t listen. It’s important to acknowledge another viewpoint, even if you have reasons for not changing your stance. If you can explain those reasons, so much the better. For empathy to be effective, the other party has to feel your empathy. It’s no good if you didn’t communicate it effectively.
Watch for hidden cues
Sometimes people say one thing, but don’t really feel it. Learn to watch for incongruence, saying yes and shaking the head no, for example. It may not be in the gestures or facial expressions, it may be in the tone of voice. Agreeing to something in a tone of voice that’s not very convincing, shows no enthusiasm. Pick up on these – ask what’s holding them back, what misgivings do they have? Be prepared though, for people still not to give you the full information. Sometimes they might not be fully aware themselves what the problem is, and sometimes they may not be ready to share it, or want to share it with you. It’s all a work in progress though, as you develop your skill in communicating your empathy, others will grow to trust you more and be more ready to be honest with you.
Get a tailored report from Talent Smart
If you buy the Bradberry and Greaves book, it includes a code for an online assessment, which gives you resources and advice for the skills you need to improve. (I have no affiliation to Talent Smart, just think it's a useful book.)
Get a coach
Whilst you can ask a trusted friend or colleague to mentor you or give you honest feedback, and possibly even help you by picking up on times you could do better, there is no subsititute for coaching.
Let me know in the comments below - stating it gives it substance, and we can hold you accountable.