Tag Archives: Professional

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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

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Appreciating change

To be quite candid, I did not know what I was in for when I signed up for the graduate certification in Organization Design program at Royal Roads University. Nevertheless, I opened my mind, did the work, and now I can safely say studying at RRU was indeed a “life changing” experience. I am now a proud OD practitioner with a Graduate Certificate in Organization Design and Development from Royal Roads University.

I rekindled my interest in how organizations work last year while on a nine-month assignment at Vancouver Island University filling in for a leader who was on leave. During that time I grappled with the usual things administrators face: changing technologies, shrinking budgets, increasing demands. I took a week-long change management course, which turned out to be a catalyst for a turning point in my career.

One thing I have learned, often with shocking clarity, time and again, is that people are resilient, and the more solid and trusting their relationships with their team and their coworkers, the more they can leverage their resiliency into effective and productive organizational change.
I wanted my leadership and change management skills to be intentional, consistent, and grounded in theory and practice.

I was intrigued by the RRU program, but I was expecting more “traditional” management/business program. During my first residency, I realized Organization Design (or OD) is much richer and more complex than I first imagined. I consider myself fortunate to have, in essence, stumbled upon this area of practice.

At first, I thought this “touchy-feely” stuff would be a waste of my time, to be quite honest. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. OD, expertly implemented, is good for morale, it fosters productivity, it enhances the bottom line.

It works.

Foundational to OD is what SFU professor and author Gervase Bush calls “the secret sauce”: a dialogic, rather than a diagnostic, mindset that uses methods like Appreciative Inquiry to tap into the strengths of people and groups.

Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to human systems: strategic planning, “change management,” community engagement, organization design, leadership, business, etc. It focuses on strengths rather than deficiencies. Appreciative Inquiry seeks out what works well and avoids dwelling on what’s wrong; it’s comprised of “interactions designed to bring out the best in people so that they can imagine a preferred future together that is more hopeful, boundless, and inherently good .. about socially constructing a shared future … through the questions asked” (from the Appreciative Inquiry Handbook).

The field of OD is based on the premise that the command-and-control management model that focuses on problems to be solved is a holdover from an industrial past. In a complex, creative, knowledge-based economy where change is a given, leadership in a resilient, healthy organization means being in continual relationship-building mode. It means increasing the capacity of the entire organization to engage in continuous learning, adaptation, engagement, and innovation. It means choosing leadership qualities like emotional intelligence, honesty, openness, trust, and empowerment rather than directive, hierarchical, task-oriented, and transactional management styles.

In the communications profession, we’ve realized for a long time that “broadcast” (one-to-many) methods don’t work anymore. Effective communication is many-to-many; it’s a dialogue. It’s widely distributed and it can’t be tightly controlled any more. So too is leadership and organization development.

I didn’t realize until I put it onto practice for myself that to consistently ask, per Appreciative Inquiry, “Where is the good here?” is the most productive question anyone in a leadership position could ask. In my latest leadership position, I deliberately and consciously switched from a “diagnostic” to a “dialogic” mindset and immediately saw how taking an appreciative, strengths-based approach raised morale, and thus could enhance organizational health and effectiveness. People have an enormous resilience and capacity for change; when they resist, it is an opportunity to listen to the reasons why and engage in charting a new course together.

In many ways, my taking the Organization Design program was an extension of the question that sparked my interest in sociology and politics twenty years ago: people spend their lives working and have a thirst for meaning. What can we do to make their working life more meaningful? How can we enlist the wisdom of our stakeholders: clients, employees, vendors, rivals, community – to weather the changes we need to make to thrive in an uncertain time?

Very few of us who are chosen for management positions deliberately hone our leadership skills, or are prepared to shepherd our departments through an ever-changing landscape. We get promoted because of our technical expertise. That’s important, but in the 21st century it’s not enough. OD shows how everyone, regardless of job title or position, can be encouraged to take a leading role in their organization, and can be aligned to organizational goals and purpose.

I am excited for the journey ahead – and I’m available for more assignments to use design thinking to help create a culture of learning and change in your organization.

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Week 3: most satisfied

When have you been most satisfied?

Confidential human resource and issues management concerns dominated my days last week. Among many other tasks, we interviewed candidates for a strategic marketing manager position in my department.

One of the questions I put on the list was “When have you been most satisfied in your life?” I thought it would be one of those questions that would reach into the core motivations of the person being interviewed, and give an insight into their character. I was right; there were some interesting and inspiring answers. As we listened to the varied responses, I was reminded of something I read a year or so ago, and I thought of how I might answer that question if it were asked of me.

The gist of the article I remembered reading was: the past is behind you, the future is not yet here. They’re not really – real, are they? The only real moment is – right now. I can think of many moments when the world was so perfect and so wonderful, I wanted to capture it and hold it forever: watching my babies sleep, playing with my children and being amazed at how they processed everything as new, writing a kick-ass speech for my boss for a large audience of influential business people, crossing the finish line of my first marathon, the first time I kissed my life partner.

Then I remembered where I read the article – it was that very same, very wise, life partner Ken’s blog post called “The best present moment is right now” in which he admits he earnestly declares every class of students the best he’s ever taught, and his friend Danny earnestly declares every meal to be the best one he’s ever had. “Sitting at a dinner table with good friends, some wine, laughter, eating a meat pie, or a salad, or whatever it happens to be, is infinitely enjoyable. Without comparison to the past, we are able to enjoy the moment. Right then. The future hasn’t arrived, and the past is done. We only have the ‘eternal now’.”

Pretty zen, right? Of course I wasn’t expecting that answer from any of the candidates last week. However, if I am ever asked that question, I would like to be able to answer as follows: “This may seem odd, but the most satisfied I have ever been is right here, right now, having this conversation with you. I have had so many good and bad moments in my life; I realize they are here and gone so quickly, it’s useless to hold onto a moment in the past as better than the one I’m experiencing this very moment. I’ve been given a chance during this interview to have a conversation to see if my skills and experience are a fit for your organization, and if you folks are the kind of people I’d like to work with in the future. I’m grateful for the opportunity, because you thought highly enough of my work to spend some time getting to know me better. What could be more satisfying than that right now?”

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