A few years ago, I facilitated a company-wide training program for an 80-person organization. Early in the program, we were talking about career deal breakers and I asked someone in the group to share a deal breaker so I knew that everyone was clear on what is and is not a true deal-breaker. An employee spoke up. She said, “I’ve been here six weeks. I’m overwhelmed and exhausted. If I don’t get some help soon, I’m leaving.” People in the room gasped audibly. And everyone surely thought the same thing – “She’s done. She’ll be gone by Monday.”
I ran into the organization’s CEO at the Denver airport two weeks later and we had dinner together. Over dinner, I asked if I could give him some advice. I said, “That woman who spoke up during the training did you a huge favor. You spent time and money to become a more candid organization; she gave you the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not you really mean it. Make sure nothing (bad) happens to her.”
It can be really hard when people disagree with us. Leaders institute a new practice, employees resist. Employees say they agree with a policy in a meeting but managers hear otherwise informally.
It may feel easier to introduce a practice and ask employees to follow it without asking what they think. And sometimes it makes sense to do that. You shouldn’t involve employees in every decision. But in an organization, it has to be safe to offer a counter-point-of-view. It must be safe to disagree – publicly and privately.
Disagreement is hard. But silence and the fear of speaking up is dangerous. Organizations full of yes people don’t innovate. They don’t solve problems or find new ways to save costs. They don’t grow, develop, or change. Hearing the truth takes courage and persistence. Put your ego aside and ask – again and again and again.
Every time I work with a new organization, at least one employee pulls me aside and tells me about the organization’s “list”. Employees who speak up and say things the leadership team disagree with get put on the “list”. And employees who make the “list” disappear from the organization. Mind you, no one has ever seen this “list”, but employees everywhere are convinced it exists. And this is a challenge for leaders.
Even leaders who do all the right things regarding asking for and being open to all kinds of input are up against the belief that it isn’t safe to tell the truth at work. It may not even be true. There may be no consequences whatsoever for speaking up, but the perception of the negative consequence is what matters. And this perception is powerful and pervasive across organizations.
So what is to be done? How do leaders get the truth when employees are afraid, disbelieving and perhaps cynical?
Below are seven practices for leaders and managers to get more truth in their organization:
Put your ego aside. It hurts when people disagree with our beliefs or approach, and we’ll be fine. Let curiosity rather than your ego run the show.
Ask for input. Ask again and again and again. Employees may eventually believe that you really want their input.
Ask for input in different ways – in-person roundtable discussions, email, surveys (if you wish).
Ensure there are no negative consequences for speaking up. You can coach employees on how they spoke up and make suggestions for diplomacy, but reward the courage it took to speak up.
Share what you learn after gathering data. Give more information than you think you need to.
Tell employees the ideas you’re accepting and those you’re rejecting and why. It’s ok not to accept and act on all feedback. But close the loop and explain the rationale for decisions.
Be human. Admit failure, fear, worry, and wins. People trust leaders who are human and humans have feelings and make mistakes. I’ll follow a humble leader further than a polished and seemingly perfect one.
Several years ago, I was doing frequent training and consulting with a client and was in their offices weekly. One of their employees confided in me that she could see the train wreck coming on her team but wasn’t planning to say anything. She was going to watch the predicted mayhem happen without saying a word.
Why wasn’t she planning to speak up about the breakdowns she could see were coming? Did she care not care about her job or company? Was she not invested? The problem wasn’t any of those things. She simply didn’t believe that anyone wanted to hear what she had to say, the negative consequences for speaking up felt high, and quite simply, it was easier to say nothing.
When we were little our parents told us, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” As young professionals, when we did speak up and someone didn’t like what we had to say, we got ‘in trouble’. And no one wants to hurt people’s feelings, damage relationships, or get labeled as the person who complains. The odds are stacked against speaking candidly.
The problem is, when employees don’t speak up about concerns avoidable breakdowns happen, innovation is stifled, and dissatisfaction festers. We must find a way to speak up, even when we’re afraid or uncomfortable.
Many years ago, a fellow trainer said to me, “The truth is one ingredient in the recipe, it’s not the whole meal.” I can’t take credit for this bit of wisdom, but it stuck with me. You don’t have to say everything you’re thinking, you can just say a little.
If you want to speak up at work but are hesitant, test the waters. Provide a little bit of information and see what happens. Was the person receptive? Did you face negative consequences? Were you treated unfairly? If the person handled your message well, give a little more information. See how that goes. Be judicious in how much input you provide. Remember, every time you give someone negative feedback, you may bruise their ego and every person and organization has its own pace for change.
Silence leads to stale ideas, employee turnover, and cultures where people don’t want to work. Speak up, just a little.
Frustrated by a control freak, micromanager, or a high-need-to-know type? Controlling behavior stems from a need that isn’t being met. Identify the need, meet it, and your life gets easier.
This is similar to what salespeople learn during good sales training. The customer wants to buy the car but doesn’t make a purchase. She visits the dealership three times, but just can’t pull the trigger. She has some sort of concern. If the salesperson can identify the concern, he can possibly resolve it, and sell the car. Working with control freaks is the same.
If someone wants more updates, information, or involvement than you’re comfortable with, he has a need that isn’t being met. When you meet the need, the person will likely back off.
I ask the people who work for me to never make me ask for something twice. Meaning, if I ask for an update the week before a speaking engagement, anticipate that I’ll want that information for all engagements. Confirm by asking me and then provide the data without being asked for all future engagements. Getting the information regularly without having to ask builds trust and credibility.
Here are six tips for working with control freaks:
If you don’t know, ask:
The person’s work-related goals. What are they working on this quarter and year?
What the person is concerned about at work? What are they worried about?
How does s/he like to communicate – in-person, email, phone, video, voicemail, or text.
How often does s/he want information, in what format, and with how much detail.
2. Provide more information than you think you need to, and then ensure the person wants that information in the future.
3. If you’re asked for information, ask why the person wants it, and if s/he wants it in the future. Then provide the information before you’re asked.
4. If someone is overly involved in your work and you feel you have no freedom, state your observation and ask for information. That could sound like, “You’ve been involved with each major decision with this project. I’m used to working with less oversight. Do you have a concern about my approach?” Then you negotiate. Everything is a negotiation.
5. This will put the other person on the defensive. A less confrontational approach is to discuss and agree upon levels of involvement and supervision when projects begin. That could sound something like, “What kind of involvement do you want to have in this project? What do you want to do? What do you want me to do? What kind of updates would you like, how often, and with how much detail?” It’s always easier to prevent a problem than to fix one.
6. Lastly, don’t take anything personally. Oversight and involvement may be a reflection of how someone feels about your performance, but it might not. When in doubt, ask.
If a friend asked you to do something, you did it, and she didn’t say thank you, you’d probably think twice the next time she asked you for something. The people you work with are not different.
If you don’t say thank you to employees, they too will stop doing things you think are important. Human beings thrive on recognition and relationships. We need both to survive. And when we don’t feel connected or appreciated, we find appreciation elsewhere.
If you think saying “thank you” to the people you work with is unnecessary, consider this example. An overwhelmed employee feels strapped for time. She produces a 30-page report every month that takes hours of her time. No one has ever talked with her about how the report is used and why it’s important. So when she is overwhelmed and decides that something needs to go, she stops doing work that appears not to add value—the 30-page report. It turns out the report reflects her department’s results and is reviewed by the CEO, CIO, CFO, and COO. Oops.
There are managers who think that a paycheck is enough of a thank you to employees (old school) and that any other thank you to employees is unnecessary (this doesn’t work). Human beings want to make a difference. We don’t like doing tasks we perceive as not being impactful. So tell the people you work with that their work matters by saying thank you, and how you say thank you matters. Saying, “Thanks for doing such a great job on that project” doesn’t go nearly as far as saying, “Thank you for taking over the Briggs proposal. You shepherded the proposal from beginning to end and made sure no detail was overlooked. You made all of us look good and we would not have won the business without you.” Like all feedback, specific feedback is meaningful and drives future behavior. Vague feedback feels inauthentic and doesn’t tell the recipient what to replicate in the future.
Onto why it’s important to say “I’m sorry.” Some people think that saying you’re sorry puts you in a weak position and that you will lose employees’ respect. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Strong people admit when they’re wrong. Weak people can’t admit mistakes. Admitting fault ingratiates you to other people. Refusing to take responsibility alienates you.
It’s very frustrating to work hard and never be told “thank you.” Likewise, it’s upsetting when people don’t apologize for dropping the ball and making mistakes. It’s so easy to say “thank you” and “I’m sorry,” and it costs nothing. The more you demonstrate appreciation for the people you work with and take responsibility for your mistakes, the harder people will work on your behalf.
Giving feedback upwards is hard. Giving feedback downward is hard. Giving feedback to peers can be the hardest of all. We work closely with our peers. They’re often our friends. And still, we need to be able to speak freely when our coworkers violate our expectations.
The key to being able to give peers feedback (to give anyone feedback) is to agree that doing so is not only acceptable but expected. Before agreeing to give and receive feedback, peers need to set clear expectations of how they’ll work together and treat each other.
Telling people how you want to work with them is always easier than asking someone to change their behavior. But it often just doesn’t occur to us to tell our peers what we want and need from them. We’re busy. They’re busy. And don’t they already know what courteous workplace behavior looks like? Return all emails within a day or two, tell people if you’re running behind on a project and will miss a deadline, and call into meetings on time from a quiet workspace. Aren’t all of these behaviors fairly obvious? Do I really need to tell people these are my expectations? Uh….yes, you do.
If you don’t want employees dumping these challenges on their managers, help employees talk to each other.
Here are seven steps to help people who work together set expectations and hold each other accountable:
Schedule a meeting during which people working together can discuss what they need from each other to be satisfied and productive. Then facilitate a discussion during which the group creates 5 – 7 behavior guidelines each person agrees to follow.
Put the list of agreed-upon behaviors in a shared folder. Leave the guidelines there indefinitely.
Give each person in the group permission to talk to individuals who violate the guidelines. This is very, very important. For the most part, employees won’t tell a peer s/he is missing deadlines, gossiping, or is distracted during meetings. People will suffer in silence and avoid the offender rather than speak up about the behaviors that frustrate them.
Ask the group to grant each other permission to speak up when guidelines are violated. Giving each other permission to speak up will make future conversations possible – difficult but possible. Without permission and these agreed-upon behaviors in place, people will suffer in silence or talk about each other, not to each other.
Ask everyone in the workgroup to take feedback graciously, responding with “thank you for telling me,” rather than with defensiveness.
Two weeks after making the list of guidelines, get the group together on a call to review the list, and make any necessary changes to it. Discuss behaviors that were omitted, aren’t realistic, and are realistic but aren’t being followed.
Then follow up by facilitating a monthly conversation during which group members give honest feedback about which guidelines are being followed and which are not, and problem solve as a group. These conversations aren’t a chance to embarrass or call people out in front of a large group. If one person is violating a guideline, that conversation should happen individually. Group conversations keep the lines of communication open – which is essential to making working with others work.
You will need a strong facilitator for the group discussions. The facilitator must tease out people’s thoughts while making sure no one gets blasted in front of the group. Don’t let concerns, that you know exist, be brushed under the rug. Group members must openly and regularly discuss what is and isn’t working about their work environment, or frustrations will build, and unhappiness and dissension will ensue.
It’s not too late to put these practices in place, even with a group that has been working together for a long time. Just schedule the conversation and explain why you’re having it. People will be relieved and grateful.
Want to know why people get defensive when you give feedback and why they often don’t change their behavior? Because what you’re giving them isn’t actually feedback.
“You’re awesome to work with” isn’t feedback. Neither is “You did a great job.” “Your work isn’t thorough” isn’t either. Neither is, “You were inappropriate.”
Most of what we consider feedback isn’t feedback at all. It’s vague, unhelpful language that leaves people wondering what they need to do more, better, or differently.
There are only two reasons to give feedback – to encourage someone to either change or replicate a behavior. Unfortunately, most of the ‘information’ we give is too vague to help people do either.
When you coach or give feedback, you serve as someone’s GPS. Like the GPS on your phone, you need to be so specific the person knows precisely what to change or replicate. If you were driving and your GPS said, “Good job” or “I think you’re off track,” you’d throw the GPS out the window and get a map.
If you give someone what you consider feedback and he says, “I don’t know what you mean, can I have an example?” you’ll know you weren’t helpful.
Here are six tips for giving helpful feedback:
Giving feedback tip one: Write down what you plan to say, then strip out half the words. Shorter feedback with fewer words is better.
Giving feedback tip two: Practice what you plan to say out loud. Have you noticed that what you ‘practice’ in your head is typically not what comes out of your mouth?
Giving feedback tip three: Before having the ‘real’ conversations, give the feedback to an independent, third-party and ask her to tell you what she heard. Ensure who you talk with will maintain confidentiality. Your organization doesn’t need more gossip.
Giving feedback tip four: Tell someone else about the conversation you need to have, and ask him what he would say. Anyone not emotionally involved in the situation will do a better job than you will. Again, ensure confidentiality.
Giving feedback tip five: Ask the feedback recipient what he heard you say. Asking, “Does that make sense?” is an ineffective question. “Do you have any questions?” isn’t any better.
Giving feedback tip six: Give one to three examples of what the person did or didn’t do, during the conversation. If you don’t have an example, you’re not ready to provide feedback, and anything you say will evoke defensiveness rather than behavior change.
Giving feedback doesn’t have to be so hard. Be so specific that your feedback could be used as driving directions. The purpose of feedback is to be helpful.
I want each of my employees to be happy and to enjoy their jobs and enjoy working for me, every day. That can’t and won’t happen, especially right now. Some days are hard. Some are dull. Sometimes I’m fun and easy to work for. Lots of days I’m not.
I had a manager years ago who told me that my need to be liked by my employees would take me down. He was right. Unfortunately, I’m not the only manager with this challenge.
Lots of managers tell me they’re hesitant to give feedback because they’re afraid employees will quit. Other managers do work they know they shouldn’t be doing because they don’t want to burden their employees.
Not every day will be great. And that’s ok. Work is a roller coaster. Some days are awesome. Others are the pits. Your job isn’t to make people happy at every moment, it’s to create a supportive environment and ensure people have the tools to be successful.
My employees have all the tools they need to be successful. I work hard to set clear expectations and give timely positive and upgrade feedback. The rest is up to them. Some days I’m sure they’re happy. Most days, hopefully. And I’m sure there are days that other jobs sound appealing.
Here are five actions to create a positive culture at work:
Office culture tip #1: Set clear expectations at the beginning of every new project and task. The root of frustration and unhappiness is thwarted expectations.
Office culture tip #2: Ask for and be open to feedback from your employees and coworkers. Ask for feedback regularly and work to respond with, “Thank you for telling me that.”
Office culture tip #3: Respond to feedback by changing what it makes sense to change. Giving feedback that is never acted upon creates cynicism and distrust.
Office culture tip #4: Provide a rationale for your decisions. It’s fine to do things the way you want to do them, even if others disagree. Explain your rationale. You’ll get more buy-in.
Office culture tip #5: Don’t be afraid to make decisions that are unpopular. There is a reason that you want to do what you want to do, the way you want to do it. Vet your plans, when appropriate. Be open to others’ input. And then do what you think is right (within the scope of your role).
Your job isn’t to please everyone and trying to do so will likely produce lesser results and be exhausting.
People leave feedback training armed with new skills and
they unfortunately sometimes use those skills as a weapon. It goes something
like this, “I need to have a candid conversation with you.” And then the person
proceeds to dump, dump, dump. This couldn’t be more wrong, wrong, wrong.
When you give someone negative feedback you are essentially telling him that he did something wrong. And who likes to be wrong? The ego gets bruised and people often start to question themselves. This normal reaction doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give feedback, you just need to do it judiciously.
Ask yourself these four questions when deciding whether
or not to give someone feedback:
Do I have the relationship to provide feedback?
Does the recipient trust me and my motives?
Do I have permission to give feedback? If the recipient
doesn’t work for you, you need permission to give feedback.
Is this something the person can do something about?
If it’s not a change the recipient can make, keep your thoughts to yourself.
Is the feedback helpful? Ultimately the purpose
of all feedback is to be helpful.
Let’s say you’re on the receiving end of too much feedback.
What should you do? It’s ok to say “no
thank you” to feedback. Here’s what you could say:
“Thank you for taking the time to bring this to my
attention. I really appreciate it. You’ve given me a lot of feedback today. I’d
like something to focus on that I can impact right now. What’s the most
important thing I should do?” You’ve validated the other person and
demonstrated openness and interest. You’ve also set some boundaries and
expectations of what you will and won’t do.
“Thank you for taking the time to share your requests about…
We won’t be making any changes to that and here’s why.” It’s ok not to act on
all feedback, simply tell people why you won’t.
“I appreciate your concern. I’m not looking for feedback on
that right now.” Can you say that to someone? Yes. Should you? Sometimes. To
your boss – no. To someone who offers unsolicited advice that’s outside of
their lane, yes. They’ll get the message.
People can only act on and digest small amounts of feedback
at a time. Be judicious and assess your motives. The purpose of feedback is to
be helpful, when the feedback is requested and when you have the relationship
to give it.
If you receive too much feedback or unsolicited feedback, it’s
ok to decline. You’re not the 7-11, aka you’re not always open.
There was way too much guessing at work before most people began working from home. Without visual cues, figuring out how to work with people is even harder. You may find yourself thinking, “I’m going to miss this deadline. I wonder what the consequences will be?” Or perhaps, “She said she wanted input on this project. I wonder if she really meant that, and how much feedback is ok to provide?” Or maybe, “He asked for a proposal. Is he expecting something elaborate, or will a one-pager do?”
We often don’t know what others are expecting from us, so we guess. The problem with guessing is that we may do more work than we actually need to, and not in the way the other person wants it. Even worse, when we don’t work according to others’ expectations, they aren’t likely to tell us. Instead, they tell others and make decisions about us that aren’t positive.
I’m a fan of asking lots and lots of questions, preferably at the beginning of anything new. Anticipate all that can happen, get in front of breakdowns, and set clear expectations by asking questions. The people who participate in virtual and in-person training with me get an entire box of questions to ask. And the homework is to go ask more questions of the people they work most closely with. Asking questions will always be easier than recovering from violated and often unstated expectations.
If you want fewer breakdowns and frustrations at work, ask the following questions of the people you work with:
What do you want to do, on this project, and what do you want me to do?
What does a good job look like?
What will be different in the organization when this project is finished?
How would I frustrate you and not even know it?
How often do you want to receive updates from me?
Do you want to receive all the details or just big picture information?
Do you want to receive the information in bullet form or paragraphs?
It’s never too late to ask questions like these. It’s ideal to ask the question at the beginning of a piece of work. But asking in the middle or even towards the end is fine too. People will appreciate that you asked, whenever you ask.
The days I’ve struggled to be with my young son during this
stay-at-home period are the days his behavior is other than I expect. Jumping, running,
and racing around at bedtime when I expect it to be a calm, quiet time. Eating
ice cream sandwiches before breakfast when I had already said no. Continuing to
play during clean-up time when we had agreed to clean up toys together.
Working with our coworkers, managers, employees, and customers is not different. “I tell people if I’m going to be late or not attend a meeting. Why can’t other people do that?” “I touch base with my employees weekly to see what they need. Why can’t my boss do that?” “I tell vendors if I don’t want to do business with them. Why can’t potential customers just tell me if they don’t want to work with us?”
All of these frustrations stem from violated expectations. I
expected you to do x. You did y. That’s – irritating, infuriating,
To be less frustrated and enjoy working with others more, change
I know bedtime is going to be wild, so I need to budget more time to allow for running and jumping before we settle into our bedtime routine. Or better yet, I need to accept that running and jumping are part of our bedtime routine. If someone has a history of not responding to emails or phone calls, I give them more lead time knowing I won’t hear back for a week. I work with the person instead of against them.
It’s easy to think that changing expectations is the same as
lowering expectations. It really isn’t. It’s altering the way we work with
people to reduce struggle. It’s working with versus working against. Altering
expectations is challenging. It takes a lot of patience and preparation.
Below are four ways to change your expectations with people who don’t do things as you think they should:
Remind yourself how this person engages, based on your past experiences with the person. Not to be cynical, but your coworker will likely do something today the same way she did it last week. Remembering how people typically work will help you set your expectations accordingly and you’re likely to be less frustrated when she takes a week to reply to an email.
Set clear expectations when you begin working with people. “I need to get back to my client with this information by Wednesday. I know that’s a quick turn-around. If I don’t hear back from you tomorrow, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?”
I need to tell my son that if he eats sweets when he isn’t supposed to, I won’t buy any more. When it’s clean-up time, any toy my son doesn’t help put away goes into storage for a while.
Follow through on the expectations you’ve set. If you told your coworker you’re going to call and text when you haven’t heard back from them, you need to do that. If the agreement is to escalate when something isn’t done or that you do it yourself and that person isn’t able to provide input, you need to do that.
Following through on expectations is
tricky. No one wants to be the ‘’bad or mean” person who holds others to
account. And sometimes holding people to established expectations results in anger
I’ll never forget the first time I
taught at the graduate level at a local university. I set the expectation that I
would deduct 10% from assignments that were turned in late. When I followed through
on that expectation my students were irate and complained to the Dean, telling
her I was unfair.
It was hard to reduce students’ grades. But if I didn’t follow through when expectations were violated, there was no point in setting expectations. It only undermines me and makes me seem like a person who doesn’t mean what she says.
Lastly, be real with people, not harsh or stringent, but real. If you’re struggling to work with someone or struggling to follow through on expectations, tell people that.
“I really need to get this information by Friday,
and I don’t know what to do. I’m feeling stuck.”
“I want us to have a good working relationship,
but I see that we’re struggling. Can we talk about it?” “I’m realizing I need more
contact with you. How can we find 15-minutes a week to connect live?”
No communication techniques supersede being
authentic and courageous. When you don’t know what to do or say, just be real. “I’m
realizing this isn’t working but I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to go around
you. What do you think we should do?” Working with other people and being a
powerful communicator takes courage.
People aren’t us. They won’t do things our way. To be less frustrated, alter your expectations. Be ready for others to do things their way and plan for that. And when you can, set clear expectations with everyone involved in how projects and work will be managed. And it’s ok to get upset and express frustration. Be real, be yourself, and plan ahead.