Category Archives: Professional

Photo of Two clear teacups with tea

Lessons learned series: Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations

This is the second in a four-part series chronicling the four most memorable leadership lessons I learned in my career – the hard way. And by “the hard way” I mean – boy did I get it wrong sometimes when I first started out, at times painfully wrong, but over the years I’ve learned by trial and error.
I originally meant for this to be one “listicle” post, but it turned out to be a long one, so I’ve broken it into a series. We’re at lesson #2, stay tuned for the others:
1. Criticism doesn’t work
2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
3. People make their own choices
4. Great leaders are servants

(I have a mild cuss word in this post. You’re warned; I do swear sometimes.)

Focusing on what works (see post 1 in this series) doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and roses, and it doesn’t mean shying away from difficult conversations about performance. Very few leaders are given the chance to practice this deliberately, in a safe space. Most of us had to learn by trial and error, in real world situations.

The TL;DR on this is: formal performance reviews generally do NOT work. What works is to intentionally build a culture of trust that leaves space for frank, compassionate conversations that can include performance issues.

Preferably over a cup of tea. Tea solves everything.

Learning how to give feedback is a skill, and like any other skill it takes practice to master. Learning to have those candid, forthright conversations, especially when they’re about the most difficult subjects, can mean deeper and more trusting relationships with team members.

Every time I must have a tough conversation, I re-read the book Thanks for the Feedback by Stone and Teen. When I’m in the moment, I try to remember four things:

  1. be specific,
  2. be non-judgmental,
  3. focus on the impact, and
  4. be curious.

A sample script might be: “I’ve observed (specific example of behaviour) a couple of times, and it has affected me/the team in the following ways. Can we talk about it? Where’s that coming from?”

Ironically, being empathetic by nature does not serve well in situations where you need to give specific feedback and outline expectations of better performance. The danger of an overdeveloped sense of empathy is twofold:

  1. knowing you might hurt someone’s feelings can make you hold back and not get specific enough. Your message won’t get through. You’ll step back from saying what needs to be heard.
    And that “shit sandwich” thing where you couch “bad” feedback between two “good” pieces of feedback? Well, shit is shit. It doesn’t taste any better when you slap it between two slices of bread; you’re just confused as to what you were supposed to be eating.
    I have had supervisors do this to me, and it always leaves me guessing: do I need to do something better? What WAS that conversation was all about? Why couldn’t he just get to the point?
  2. on the other hand, turning off that highly-tuned empathy button to get through your prepared list of grievances can make you come across as a wooden, unfeeling automaton. In turn, that amplifies any hurt feelings that may arise, provoking a negative, panicked reaction from an employee or co-worker.

Both (1) and (2) are over-corrections, and I have been guilty of both in the past.

I knew I nailed the balance between trust, compassion and candidness when I had to have a frank conversation with an employee who was starting to drop the ball on several projects.

I had set up a meeting and, as usual, couldn’t sleep the night before. However, I had already established a good relationship with the employee. At the end of our hour-long meeting, we had an action plan for improvement, including ways I would help her through it, and she said “I’m so glad we had this talk. It was hard but – I trust you.”

Instead of leaving my direct report confused or upset, the conversation deepened our relationship and added to a high-performing team atmosphere. And her performance did improve.

Candid, compassionate feedback is a skill, but it’s also a gift that will return itself many times over.

Image: Tea for Two by Naama ym used under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Bookshelf with hardbound journals all with the title "Criticism"

Lessons Learned Series: Criticism Doesn’t Work

This is the first in a four-part series chronicling the four most memorable leadership lessons I learned in my career – the hard way. And by “the hard way” I mean – boy did I get it wrong sometimes when I first started out, at times painfully wrong, but over the years I’ve learned by trial and error.
I originally meant for this to be one “listicle” post, but it turned out to be a long one, so I’ve broken it into a series. We’re at lesson #1, stay tuned for the entire series:

  1. Criticism doesn’t work
  2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
  3. People make their own choices
  4. Great leaders are servants

What you focus on becomes your reality. If you don’t want mistakes and sloppy work, don’t pay attention to them. If you want more excellent performance, start paying attention to what that looks like on your team.

When I first heard this at a weekend coaching for performance workshop I was a brand new manager of half a dozen communication professionals.

I simply could not believe what I was hearing. How can you let grammar and spelling mistakes, or worse yet, factual errors, go by without pointing it out to the staff member responsible this is unacceptable?

Isn’t it my job to bring the staff in line and make sure the work gets done properly? What if something gets published and it brings embarrassment to the client or bosses?

Then, something happened at that workshop that started to change my mind: the facilitator practiced what he preached.

At the beginning of the workshop he asked that everyone give plenty of time for fellow participants to comment and ask questions. He also let us know he’d be watching the time vigilantly to ensure we got through our full agenda.

But, there’s always THAT GUY. You know the one. He (or she, but in this case it was a he) can’t shut up, he just has to give his opinion or anecdote for every single item up for discussion. He has to debate every point.

“When is the facilitator going to remind that guy to shut up and let someone else talk?” I wondered when Mr. Talker made himself known only an hour into the session.

But the facilitator never did remind us of the expectations. After the first incident, he simply ignored Mr. Talker when he went on too long, and called upon others to speak, or went on with the agenda when it was time.

The effect was subtle, but profound, over the afternoon and second day of the workshop. Mr. Talker became more subdued. Everyone was engaged, the discussions were fulsome (even Mr. Talker made some good points, but didn’t dominate the discussion), and it was one of the best professional development activities I’ve ever taken part in.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I was fully able to integrate this lesson into my own leadership style .

I did say these were leadership lessons learned the hard way.

I see too many managers and supervisors using criticism and even browbeating in an attempt to get more out of their direct reports. I was guilty of this too, in that first leadership position many years ago, but it wasn’t that workshop that drove the lesson home.

A colleague gently but firmly pointed out to me that my style was counterproductive. That was hard to hear. But I had the good sense to listen and to amend my ways, and since then I’ve kept learning and growing that particular leadership muscle.

Turns out criticism pretty much never works. Pointing out all the things team members do wrong takes precious time and energy away from everything that’s going right, and moreover it makes people feel crappy and pretty soon they’ll hate coming to work.

The good news is, people change. I changed. Bringing out the best in people is a skill: practice makes – well, not perfect, but better. Really good even.

No one’s perfect.

I’ve had a lot of great bosses and mentors over the years, and the best of them focused on the positive, on the work that needed to get done, on how best to get it right, how much it matters to the core mission of the team. The worst of them pounced on everything I was doing wrong.

Guess which bosses I admire most and still keep in touch with to this day? Guess which teams were most fun to be in; the most productive?

That’s right: the ones that turn their time, energy, and attention to the great work that shows results.

Image credit: “criticism” by Paul Hermanson used under CC-BY-NC-2.0 license.


Co-creating your organization’s future

Here’s something daring for a Change Management professional to say: change can’t be managed.

You can (and must) lead your organization through a project, a re-organization, or a set of circumstances that changes your operation in fundamental ways. But in the end, “management” doesn’t work.

You may think you can control the process, and if so you may be in for a surprise. I won’t say an “unpleasant” surprise, because there’s always some good that comes out of “failure.” At the very least, you’ve gained valuable insights. At most, you and our organization have grown in ways you hadn’t anticipated.

You may be surprised that your team doesn’t see change the same way you do. You may see that some positions will need to be eliminated and you want to downplay that reality. You may not be contemplating a change in personnel at all – you only see the upside to change. You may be surprised that immediate cost savings are not apparent when you finally implement a change.

You will ask someone like me “How do I get my team to see this change as a great thing for our organization?”

And I will screw up my courage to be quite candid and say: “You can’t.”

You cannot decree how people in your organization are going to perceive the changes you are planning. You cannot manage disruption caused by the need to retrain for new processes and systems, or hide (for long) the fact that change may mean some people lose their jobs. You may not be anticipating job losses at all, and you can follow the best practices in change management, yet you will still get “resistance” and a drop in productivity.

Why? Because people are complicated, because your organization is complex, because most elements of an organization’s culture are hidden under the surface, and because people adapt to change in unexpected ways.

And then you will say to me: “Well if change can’t be managed, why should I hire you?”

And I will say: “Because your job as a leadership team is to create the conditions where you and your employees and stakeholders are co-creating your future together, and that’s what I can help you with, if you’re up for it. It’s never as straightforward as you think it is, but co-creating a resilient and healthy organization has rewards beyond a single project.”

No one gets to choose how another person will react to change. But you do get to choose how you structure your organization. As a leader, you are uniquely positioned to create conditions where change means progress and productivity, not fear and loathing. Do you encourage resilience? Is every part of your workplace aligned to a shared purpose? Do you empower your employees and stakeholders to act and think for themselves towards that shared purpose

Creating the conditions for employees and teams to take responsibility for their own success is quite frankly a scary proposition. That’s the paradox of leadership: letting go of the outcome makes for better outcomes.

If you’re prepared to be surprised, and to learn along with your team, then you’re prepared to lead through change, and I’m prepared to facilitate the process.