5 min read

The Hard Word

The Hard Word
Honesty, I'm surprised I haven't used The Office in a blog post until now. All credit to BBC Two

I've said it before, and I'll say it again.

As a manager, one of your most important responsibilities is to grow the people that you're responsible for. To ensure that are more awesome as a result of having worked with you.

You can engineer opportunities for them, give them the space to forge their own path or challenge their perceptions and opinions, but you can't do any of that without being able to give them feedback.

And giving feedback is hard.

A Funny Man Or A Great Boss?

As a manager, you spend a lot of your time observing things and forming opinions. Sometimes those opinions manifest as concerns.

When that happens, it is critical that you share your thoughts as soon as possible with the people involved.

If you hold back, if you don't clarify expectations and establish a shared understanding of the situation, then you risk letting things diverge.

It might not sound so bad, but once things start diverging, differences accumulate quickly and before you know it you're at the end of a journey and the people involved think they did an amazing job and you have to tell them, actually, no, this is not the outcome that we wanted.

And those conversations suck. For everyone involved.

So, you need to be comfortable sharing your thoughts quickly and efficiently.

Not only is it an investment in avoiding future pain, but it's also critical to helping to encourage growth.

Let's Agree To Disagree

It's hard to identify your own growth areas. You may think that you're reflective, capable of synthesizing your experiences and identifying gaps or areas for improvement, but because you are the one putting that information together, it's vulnerable to biases and misperceptions.

One of the best ways around this natural limitation of the human mind is to get other perspectives. To find out how other people see you and use that information to create a more accurate worldview.

Extrapolating from there, if you recognise there value of seeking other perspectives, then you must also recognise the value in giving your perspective as a manager, in the form of feedback.

It's for their own good.

Even if it's negative.

Especially if it's negative.

That doesn't mean it's easy though, because giving feedback to people can be confrontational and even a small number of negative reactions can quickly taint the experience and create hesitation for later.

Not everyone is good at taking feedback. Some people get very defensive when you question their behaviours or actions, and it can make an already difficult conversation much harder than it needs to be.

I'm certainly not perfect here either. When I get feedback that I don't agree with or that challenges my worldview, I have to mentally force myself to take a step back and then look at the information objectively, taking emotion out of the equation.

But this blog post isn't for the people getting the feedback, it's for the people who have to give it.

I've found there are really only two ways to approach the situation when things get hard.

The first is to be resolute in your feedback. Say what you need to say and let the reaction happen. Acknowledge the recipients feelings, but don't engage with them. Just let it run its course and give the person time to mull over what you're saying.

The second is to be tactful with the way that you deliver the feedback. Instead of saying something like "Hey, in this situation, when you did this thing, it had this impact" you can start the conversation by asking a question, like "What do you think about situation X". Get the person to start reflecting on the thing you noticed first, and then participate in their reflections instead of driving the conversation.

And with that advice all the challenge is gone!

No. Let's Agree That You Agree With Me

Ha ha ha ha no.

I'm a pretty non-confrontational person by nature. I don't enjoy the emotional cost of having hard conversations with someone.

That's not a good trait to have when you're in a position of leadership.

On reflection, I think that desire to avoid conflict might come from a couple of different sources.

The first is that I just don't want to make people feel bad. Getting negative feedback can really take the wind out of your sails, especially when you think you're doing a good job. It's been a while since I read Radical Candor, but I think the book calls that tendency Ruinous Empathy.

It is almost never a good idea to hold back just because you think the person can't handle what you're going to say. If you do, it's very likely they won't know that something is wrong and will just continue obliviously along the same path. Not only that, but I know that if the people around me saw something they disagreed with, I'd want to know ASAP, regardless of how I was feeling.

The second is that I often don't have the emotional energy for an extended confrontation, especially if giving feedback to the person has become a drawn-out affair in the past. I'm not an extrovert, I don't get energy from interacting with people, so I hesitate to go into a situation that I know will wear me out.

I try to mitigate this by storing up some energy beforehand, so that I know I have enough in the tank in order to have the full conversation if it turns into something more than just "Oh hey, thanks for the feedback". Ironically, this can also lead to agonising over the confrontation, so sometimes just getting in there and getting it done can be valuable too.

The final source of hesitation is that I want to approach any confrontational situation from an unassailable position. That is, I don't want to say something and then have to back down because I don't have the authority or proof or whatever it is that would convince the person of my point of view.

I suspect it probably comes about as a result of me thinking that if I'm going to do this hard thing, I want to do it right. I don't want to have to do it again and I don't want to have geared myself up for nothing.

This is the hardest one for me to mitigate, and the only thing I've been able to do is emotionally disconnect myself from what I'm saying (i.e. be comfortable being challenged about the feedback) and to make it clear that my feedback is my opinion, and while important, does not necessarily line up with reality.

Some Days You're The Statue

Effectively giving feedback, especially confrontational feedback, is something that I struggle with.

I recognise the importance of being able to do it and recognise it as a growth area for myself, so it's something that I'm actively working on, but I would say it's a risk to my ability to effectively grow the people I'm responsible for.

But, it also makes me think.

How much of the challenge is due to my own inherent personality traits?

How much of those traits can I actually change?

Do I really want to change those traits?

The cost of rewriting yourself in order to be more effective at a role needs to be weighed up against the cost of just walking away and doing something else.

And that's a hard thought to sit with, but it's a good one all the same.

It helps that I'm stubborn, so I'm not giving up just yet.