You disagree with something someone above you said or did. How do you tell the person without actually telling him?
Lots of people think they can’t give direct feedback when talking to someone at a higher level. I’m here to tell you that that’s not true. The ability to speak freely has little to do with titles and more to do with the quality of your relationship. When you’re comfortable with people and have mutual trust, you can say (almost) anything, regardless of titles and levels. But that’s not the true purpose of today’s blog. So I’m going to stick to the topic at hand –what to say when you feel like you can’t say very much.
When you don’t have the relationship to say what you really think, manage up by asking a question instead. Engage the person in a conversation. At some point during the conversation, you’ll be able to say what you think.
For example, you question a decision but don’t want to overtly say you question the decision.
Here’s how the conversation could go:
“I wasn’t involved in the conversations to select our new payroll software. Can you give me a little history? What had us choose our current provider?”
“What software features were important when selecting the software?”
“What problem were we trying to solve that drove the need to make a change?”
“What do you like about the software we picked? What don’t you like?”
** Obviously this is meant to be a discussion, not an interrogation. Ask one question at a time and see where the conversation goes. You may ask all of these questions and you may ask only one.
The point is to gather more information. Manage up by seeking to understand before you express an opinion. As the conversation progresses, you might see opportunities to express your point of view.
Here are three suggestions if you’re going to practice the technique of asking questions as a way to manage up and eventually give feedback:
1. When you ask a question, come from a place of genuine curiosity. If you aren’t truly curious and asking questions is just a technique you found in some blog, it will show.
2. Watch your tone of voice. If you can safely add the words “you dummy” to a question, you have a tone issue.
3. Be patient. Asking questions may feel easier than giving direct feedback, but it also takes more patience and time.
As the conversation progresses, you might be asked for your opinion. Before saying what you think, remember, no one likes to be told that s/he is wrong. And the person you’re talking to likely had a hand in making the decision you’re questioning. Be careful not to judge.
Instead of overtly judging, consider saying something like:
“I think the new system has potential and also has some limitations. Do you want feedback as we use the system and get to know it better?”
“What specifically would you like feedback on? What are you not looking for feedback on?”
“What’s the best way to provide input and to whom?”
You can speak more freely when you have the relationship to do so and have permission. Until you have both, earn the right to give feedback by asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity. And only provide your point of view when you’re asked and are certain you have all the information to defend your position.
I think Instacart is a brilliant idea. I make a grocery list online, someone else goes shopping for me, and drops my groceries on my porch. What a great way to save time, unless I want a certain brand of canned tomatoes with no rosemary, and two green bananas, three that are almost ripe, and one that is ripe right now. Meaning, if I want my groceries a certain way, I need to go shopping myself. No one else will pick precisely what I will. And delegating work and managing people is the same.
No one will do something just like you will. They might do it better or worse, but either way, work won’t be done just as you would do it. If you want something done precisely your way, you’re likely going to need to do it yourself.
There is little more demoralizing than working hard on a document and having your manager red line it with edits that aren’t wrong, they’re just not her way. This kind of feedback makes employees wonder why they bothered doing the work in the first place. Employees find themselves thinking and possibly saying, “If you’re going to change my work to be more your way, you should just do it yourself.”
This isn’t to say that if you have a vision for how work should be done that you shouldn’t delegate. Managers need to delegate work or they will be focused on the wrong things, exhausted, and resentful, and employees won’t grow, develop, and be properly utilized.
Managers need to set clear expectations, follow up to review work, provide regular feedback as the work is in process, and then expect and accept that completed projects won’t look just like what they would have done. Even when employees produce great work, that work likely won’t be a mirror image of what the manager would have done herself.
If getting work that is slightly askew from what you would have done works for you, delegate the work. If work produced must be a certain way, you should likely do it yourself, or risk both you and your employees’ frustration.
Here are six steps on how to delegate, a skill I think most managers can strengthen:
How to delegate step one: Provide clear instructions to the person to whom you’re delegating. If you have an image of what something should look like, provide a sample document.
How to delegate step two: Ask the person to whom you delegated to tell you what you’re expecting. Don’t ask, “Do you have any questions?” The right answer to that question is, “No,” and gives you no insight about the person’s understanding of your expectations. Instead, ask, “So I know I’ve been clear, what am I asking you to do?” Or you could ask, “Based on what I’ve said, what do you think I’m looking for?” There are lots of ways to assess a person’s understanding. You simply need to get the person talking.
How to delegate step three: Don’t assume people know what to do. We have all left someone’s office with a new project thinking, “I have no idea where to start.” And then that project goes on the bottom of the pile.
Ask the person, “What are you going to do first?” If they give you an answer that tells you they know what to do, step back. They’ve earned some freedom. If they give you an answer that will not lead to the results you want, step in and offer help.
How to delegate step four: Ask to see work as the work is completed versus reviewing all of the work when the project is done. Giving a lot of upgrade feedback after work is completed is demoralizing to employees and wastes a lot of time. Tell employees, “I’d like to see your progress every Friday (or whatever interval is appropriate depending on the length and complexity of the project). This isn’t to micromanage you, it’s to ensure you don’t do a bunch of work that I will want changed. I don’t want you to waste your time.”
How to delegate step five: Give candid feedback when you review work. Don’t say something is fine if it’s not. Ask for changes while the work is in its early stages versus when it’s almost complete.
How to delegate step six: Resist the temptation to edit work or give feedback on work that is correct but wasn’t done your way. Remember, if you want something done your way, sometimes it makes sense to do it yourself.
When it makes sense to do something yourself: When you must have something a certain way and you’re the only person who can and will do it that way. If you’re ok with things not having the same words, formatting or flavor you’d put on them, delegate. If you need your bananas to look a certain way, go pick them up yourself. And both options are right answers. It’s ok to want what you want.
Unless you never interact with other people, there’s probably someone in your life who repeatedly engages in a behavior that annoys you. You’ve probably made requests about what you’d like the person to do differently, and hopefully you’ve given feedback. But the behavior hasn’t changed.
At some point, we have to accept that people are who and how they are. People can and will change certain behaviors, if their motivation is high enough. But other behaviors won’t change, and if you want to have the person in your personal or professional life, you have to accept the behavior and the person as they are. Accepting frustrating behaviors can be very difficult, at least it is for me. I admit, I often have this conversation myself, “Why won’t he…? I don’t get it. It’s not that hard. How many times do I have to ask?”
Here are five strategies for working with difficult people:
Working with difficult people strategy one: Decide on the behaviors you absolutely must have from others. We want certain things. We need other things. Get clear on what you need.
Working with difficult people strategy two: Make a request and ask the person to do what you want. It’s always easier to make a request than to offer negative feedback. Be sure you are being explicitly clear in your request. For example, “Please include me in meetings” is too vague. Instead, try, “Please invite me to all client meetings so I can stay connected to the clients and projects.”
Working with difficult people strategy three: Make requests at least three times. With each successive request (nicely) remind the person that you’ve made this request in the past and it still isn’t happening. For example, “We’ve talked about this in the past. Help me understand what’s happening.”
Working with difficult people strategy four: If you’ve made a request at least three times, give feedback as to what isn’t happening and why that causes challenges. For example, “We’ve talked about inviting me to client meetings a few times. It’s still not happening. I’m getting calls from clients with questions I can’t answer because I’m not included in the meetings. Can you help me understand why I’m not being invited to meetings?” Read chapters nine through eleven and chapter thirteen of How to Say Anything to Anyone to get more examples of how to give clear and specific feedback.
Working with difficult people strategy five: Know when to give up and accept the person and behavior as they are. If you’ve made a request and have given feedback three times, you likely aren’t going to get what you want. The person either can’t do what you’re asking or doesn’t want to. Now you have a decision to make.
Decide how important the behavior is. Is it a deal breaker? If it’s not a deal breaker, stop expecting the behavior to happen and accept that it won’t. When you accept that you won’t get what you want from someone you’ll suffer less.
Strategy five is really the crux of this blog. Knowing when to stop expecting something and coming to peace with that decision will give you great freedom. In order to let go of the expectation you have to decide that it’s really ok for you not to get what you want. Ask yourself, “Can I live with this behavior as it is?” If you can’t, you have a hard decision to make. If you can, then stop expecting and asking for the behavior. You’ll feel better.
When my son started pre-school, I attended new parent orientation. I had never sent my son to school and I had lots of questions. I asked my questions at the orientation; I was the only parent who asked questions. The mom sitting next to me wasn’t even sure she qualified for the program. Her child was enrolled in a parent-tot program; parents had to attend with their child and couldn’t send a caregiver. The mom worked full-time and couldn’t attend herself. Even though she wasn’t sure her child could participate in the program, she didn’t ask any questions. It was just me asking all the questions. By the end if the evening, I could feel the other parents’ eyes on me, wishing I’d shut up so they could go home and relieve their babysitter.
One of managers’ and employers’ biggest complaints is the inability to hire critical thinkers – employees who question. I hear this complaint all the time. Yet we often find the people who ask questions irritating and bothersome. “Why do they have to look for what’s wrong? Why do they have to question?”
Questioners are often seen as boat rockers, challenging the status quo. They are ‘difficult’.
We can’t have it both ways. We can’t hire people who think critically, who don’t question.
I’m not talking about people who can’t make a decision and are constantly asking managers to validate their solutions or employees who use managers as google rather than doing their own research. I’m talking about squelching the counter-point-of-view.
If you want employees who identify and solve problems and create new products and ways of working, then you need to reward those who question.
One of the reasons employees may not ask questions is the fear of appearing as if they don’t know. Who likes to admit they don’t know something at work? Not knowing makes us appear less valuable, less reliable. It takes strength to admit, “I don’t know.” Managers and leaders need to model the behaviors they want to see. We need to ask our own questions visibly and regularly. We need to admit when we don’t know. We need to be willing to be wrong and to let others see it.
There is an old workplace adage, you get what you reward. Does your organization have an award for the employee who asks the most questions? If not, create one. Do you recognize employees publicly who are willing to point out inefficient processes and costly systems? Do you have a reward system in place for employees who fail trying to fix a problem or create something new? If we get what we reward, what are we rewarding?
Our company got a shipment of products this week that were partially defective. When I called our vendor to tell him about the defective products, he sighed knowingly. He knew part of our order was imperfect and waited for me to find the problems versus telling me himself.
I love surprise gifts, trips, and discounts. But I don’t like surprise errors and your internal and external customers don’t either.
Everyone makes mistakes at work. Making a mistake is not necessarily a problem. It’s how you deal with the error that matters more. Letting those who are impacted by a mistake be surprised damages your reputation and working relationships much more than coming clean as soon as you realize the error. Rather than waiting to get caught, tell your customers about mistakes and work together to make things right.
Here are a few ways to tell people you made a mistake, while saving face:
Fessing up to making mistakes at work tip #1: When you realize you’ve made a mistake, pick up the phone and tell the person live, as soon as you know. Don’t wait.
Fessing up to making mistakes at work tip #2: Apologize and work with your customer to develop a solution. Be part of the process. Don’t leave your internal or external customer holding the bag.
Fessing up to making mistakes at work tip #3: Don’t give a bunch of reasons or justifications for what happened. It sounds like excuse management and no one cares. Your customers just want to know how you’re going to solve the problem.
Fessing up to making mistakes at work tip #4: Say something like, “I realized we sent you a report with incorrect information. I’m so sorry. I’d like to work with you to make this right. Here are a couple of ideas of what we can do… Would any of these suggestions work for you?”
Or you could say, “I realized parts of your order are imperfect. I’m so sorry. Here’s how we’d like to make things right. Are these solutions satisfactory to you?”
Or consider saying something like, “I’ve realized we can’t fulfill your order by the date we promised. I’m so sorry. Here’s what I suggest we do to get you what you need in a timely way. Does this work for you?”
We all make mistakes. How you handle mistakes determines how your internal and external customers view you and how much they trust you. Come clean quickly. Take responsibility. Don’t provide a bunch of reasons for a mistake. Help make things right. And you’ll likely preserve your reputation and business relationships.
It’s been eleven months that many people are working from home who would ordinarily go into an office. Some people are content with the fancy-on-the-top, jammies on the bottom video-work life, others are feeling lonely and isolated. Some employees have a private, uninterrupted work setting, others are trying to find a quiet place to participate in meetings while a partner and kids are also at home. Working from home amid distractions and loneliness is tricky and we need to be able to talk about it.
Managers, your employees don’t want to tell you they’re struggling, lonely, distracted, or can’t make certain meetings or deadlines. They want you to think everything is fine, that they’re fine. Who likes to admit to their boss that they can’t keep up or are unhappy at work?
If a manager loves working from home and has a quiet, uninterrupted work environment, it may be easy to miss employees’ challenges. Managers need to cross the line and ask questions they otherwise wouldn’t.
Don’t assume employees are fine. Don’t assume employees will tell you if they’re not. They likely won’t. You need to ask and make it easy and safe to tell you the truth.
Managers, ask employees these questions:
What’s your work environment like?
What constraints are you under?
What’s a realistic work schedule right now?
What do you want me to know?
What do you need?
It may seem like it’s too late to ask. It’s not. It’s never too late. Simply be honest. It could sound something like, “I wanted to check in and see how you’re doing working from home. I want to ask some questions so I can support you. I wish I’d asked before. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
Managers who are willing to tell employees they wish they’d done something differently earn loyalty and trust for showing vulnerability and humanity. Strong managers admit mistakes.
If you’re nervous that employees will delve into arenas that are too personal, set parameters for the conversation. It’s ok to set boundaries when asking questions. You could say, “I want to talk about some of the constraints you may be under working from home. I’m sorry I didn’t ask before. Let’s focus on things I can support you with and stay away from items I can’t help with like finances and personal relationships.”
Then be prepared to help employees problem solve. Maybe employees need a different work schedule or different deadlines or deliverables. Maybe employees need help setting expectations with peers and clients around when they can and can’t attend meetings.
Make it safe to talk about how employees are really doing and what they need to be successful in today’s circumstances. Tell employees that you really want to know, you’re sorry you didn’t ask before, and that it’s safe to tell the truth. Then problem solve with employees. And ask the same questions periodically. Make talking about work environment, schedule, and expectations a regular conversation.
Most people hoard feedback. We wait for the right time, aka when we’re comfortable. That time will never come. The right time to give feedback is when something happens or shortly thereafter. Practice the 24-hour rule and the one-week guideline. Give feedback when you’re not upset, but soon after the event occurs, so people remember what you’re talking about.
Most employees feel as if they’re treated unfairly during some portion of a performance appraisal. Employees receive feedback they’ve not previously heard or receive feedback that is unbalanced – overly positive or negative, or the feedback is so vague, employees aren’t sure what to do more, better, or differently.
Meet regularly with your employees. If you never meet one-on-one with employees, start meeting monthly. If you meet monthly, meet twice a month. If you meet twice a month, consider meeting weekly for 10 to 30 minutes.
Below is a one-on-one meeting agenda, which the direct report leads:
What is the employee working on that’s going well?
What is the employee working on that is not going great, but she doesn’t want your help?
What is the employee working on this isn’t going great and she wants your help?
** Give and receive feedback on the work and on your relationship. This will be hard the first few times you do it but will become easier with each successive conversation.
Ask your employee to create a meeting agenda. Take notes during the meeting and keep your notes. The summary of these meetings becomes your annual performance appraisal.
Regardless of whether or not you’re meeting regularly throughout the year, you can only give small pieces of feedback during the appraisal meeting. Discuss three SPECIFIC things the employee did well during the year and three things she should do next year. People can’t focus on more.
Consider how each of your employees should impact your department and your organization’s annual goals. In that context, determine the most important things each employee did to contribute to those goals this past year and what she should have done more, better, or differently? That’s your appraisal. Not more and not less.
During performance appraisals, force yourself to focus on and present ONLY the most important behaviors and outcomes, and your employees will bring the same focus to the ensuing year.
One of the hardest things I ever did was to hire someone to care for my infant son. “Here is the person most important to me in the world. Keep him alive.” I had no idea how difficult it would be to trust a relative stranger so implicitly. And as a result, let’s just say I was not the easiest parent to work for.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I wrote sixteen-pages of instructions on how to take care of my kid. And I gave that ‘booklet’ to a nanny with much more childcare experience than I had. When I heard my son crying, I would tell myself not to walk into the room and check on him, knowing it undermined the nanny, but I did it anyway. When the nanny sent me an update of when my son last ate, I replied telling her when he should eat again, even though I knew she already knew that. Yes, I really did these things.
Each time I over instructed, monitored, and advised, I regretted it. I knew micromanaging our nanny made me difficult to work with, which is not how I wanted to be. It reminds me of a comment an old boss said to me after we interviewed a candidate for a job together. He said, “Shari, your job as the interviewer is to make the candidate feel comfortable and ensure she leaves feeling good, regardless of how well or poorly she interviewed.” During the interview, my face must have said anything but, “I want you to feel comfortable and you’re doing a great job.” His words stuck with me and I was reminded of them each time I over managed our nanny.
Many people attend training on how to manage others. I’d suggest we also look at how we manage ourselves. How does working with you make people feel? Do your questions, requests, and interactions make people feel more self-confident and valued, or do people feel questioned and undermined? Do you pick your battles? Do you give just enough direction but not so much as to squelch the other person’s ideas, initiative, and spirit, especially when the stakes are high?
As you know, I’m evaluating how I do these things too. We are always a work in progress.
Here are four ways to build confidence in the people you work with:
Build Confidence 1: Ask people for their ideas and implement those ideas whenever possible. And if you aren’t open to others’ ideas, don’t ask for them. It’s better not to ask for ideas than to ask when you’re really not interested.
It’s not easy to admit when we’re overwhelmed and need help. In fact, it’s such a hard thing to say that instead of asking for help, most of us either work harder or longer or job hunt. Admitting work overload isn’t a weakness and it isn’t bad. It’s all in how you handle it.
If you find yourself with work overload and you aren’t sure what to do, consider taking these four steps.
Eliminate work overload step one: Every time you find yourself doing something that someone else could and should do, write it down, including how much time the task took. Doing this will create awareness of how much time you spend doing things that may not be the best use of your skills and experience. Then work with whomever you need to in your organization to align that work where it belongs. This practice isn’t to make you sound like an entitled prima donna. It’s an entrepreneurial way to approach your work.
The business owner’s mantra is, “If I can pay someone less than I get paid to do something, I should do that.” Consider how you can apply that practice to your workplace, without appearing to be someone who won’t ‘wash windows.’ Meaning, you don’t want to be or appear to be someone who isn’t willing to do grunt work. Every job has it. But those tasks shouldn’t be where you spend most of your time unless your job description and annual goals say so.
Eliminate work overload step two: Watch out for and eliminate time suckers. This includes people, problems, and processes. If you find yourself in meetings all day long, consider which meetings you don’t really need to attend or send someone else on your team. If someone in your organization calls you daily to have personal conversations, tell the person, “I’d love to talk with you and I’m working under a deadline. Can we catch up later?”
Eliminate work overload step three: Sometimes doing 110% percent isn’t important. Notice when you’re doing more than you need to and when that additional work doesn’t add significant value. I.e., you put together an elaborate PowerPoint presentation and then spent five more hours printing and stuffing folders to mail to coworkers’ homes. Next time, focus on the content and worry less about the aesthetics.
Eliminate work overload step four: Lastly, know when and how to ask for help. The last organization where I worked, before starting Candid Culture, was very fast-paced and lean. I worked all the time and consistently felt overwhelmed. I eventually went to my boss to ask for help. I made a list of everything I was working on and asked him to rate each item based on how important he saw the project/task. He put an “A” next to the things that needed to get done first, a “B” next to the things that came next, and a “C” next to the things that were the least important. He told me to do the A’s first, then the B’s, and if I got to the C’s, great, if not, no problem.
The meeting was eye-opening for me. I assumed he thought everything on my list was an “A” and that left me stressed with an inability to prioritize. Hearing how he perceived my workload reduced my anxiety and gave me permission to ease up on projects I’d previously considered timely.
Don’t suffer in silence. But do approach reducing work overload in a positive way. Rather than whining to your boss and coworkers, end conversations that you know are a time drain, limit work that doesn’t add significant value, and ask for help prioritizing when you can’t do it for yourself.
I’ve heard lots of people say they just want 2020 to be over and that 2020 has been a bad year. It’s definitely been a very different and difficult year. I’m right there with you – virtual school, no childcare, not seeing family or friends, and doing three jobs because everyone in our office is working virtually. And part of being powerful is creating fun and choosing happiness regardless of the circumstances.
Here are some ideas for creating fun and happiness, regardless of the circumstances. If you read last week’s blog, some of this will sound familiar.
Connect with people you haven’t talked to in a while. Call, texting isn’t the same.
Friends from high school, college, and graduate school
Cousins and siblings
Here are a few ways to take care of yourself during the workday:
Listen to music.
Eat breakfast or lunch instead of skipping a meal.
Text a friend when you have down time.
Walk outside to take a break.
Catch the last of your city’s holiday activities. Do things five-year-old’s think are fun. They’re fun for adults too.
Is your city’s Zoo lit up for the holidays? Bring hot chocolate and go.
Are your city’s botanic gardens or downtown lit up? Are there drive-through light shows?
Find a place to toast marsh mellows and make s’mores. Hotels are often lit up and have outdoor fire pits.
Drive or walk and see your neighbor’s lights.
Decorate cookies, cupcakes and gingerbread houses. Seriously, it’s fun! If you email me, I’ll send you photos of our masterpieces. If you have kids, give up what the gingerbread house is ‘supposed to look like’ and let the kids do their thing (this is challenging for me).
Do something you enjoy every day. Keep it simple and cheap. Here are a few from my life:
Listen to music. Maybe go crazy and have a spontaneous dance party.
Order food from a favorite restaurant. I’ll admit that sometimes we have breakfast delivered.
Go for a walk or hike.
Do something you’ve never done. We’re trying snowmobiling this week.
Drive someplace beautiful.
Watch a movie you haven’t seen.
Lastly, what’s a bad habit you can stop doing, for one day. Don’t over commit. Mine are below:
Opening emails, promising I’ll reply, only to have the email get buried and forgotten.
Surfing Facebook and the internet at night.
Eating whatever my kid doesn’t finish.
Checking my phone (way more than necessary).
There are lots of ways to have fun regardless of the circumstances – from seeing lights, to reconnecting with old friends, to taking care of ourselves, and stopping a bad habit, just for one day.
Have a wonderful rest of the year! We are grateful for the many organizations that invested in virtual training and keynote speaking this year. We’ve loved working with all of you and hope to see you virtually or in person next year.
We wish you a Happy New Year and powerful start to 2021!