I wrote a repair person, who worked in my house, a two-page, single spaced list of all the things that needed addressing. Then I followed up with seven text messages. I don’t want people to have to guess what they have to do. I want to be thorough. It feels like the right and helpful thing to do.
The problem? The repair person didn’t read my list. It was too long. I would have been better off saving my time and saying nothing if he wasn’t going to read the list anyway.
When people send me an email with five paragraphs, my eyes glaze over. I close the email promising to read it later, but don’t until the sender asks if I received their email. People are busy and have to choose where to invest time. When it comes to communication, often, less is more. The question is, how to be succinct and still be thorough? How do you make sure people know what’s expected without providing so much information that nothing gets read?
I’m going to admit, I struggle with this.
I’ve decided to create some communication rules for myself. I’m hoping they’ll be helpful to you as well.
Draft communications and save them as a draft. Read them again a few minutes later and ask, “Can I say this in half as many words? Is all of this information necessary?”
Think communications through rather than communicating impulsively. I’m someone who operates with a high sense of urgency. I suspect my sense of urgency has helped me to be successful personally and professionally, but it also has me send messages before I’ve thought everything through, which leads to seven text messages, rather than one.
Limit yourself to one or two messages. When you know you can send only one email or text message, you’ll likely be more thoughtful about the communications.
Draft succinct instructions and then ask the person what they’re planning to do. This is a delegation technique. Require the person to whom you’ve delegated to tell you what they know or don’t know. Then you know how to help.
I suspect that providing the right amount of detail will be something I’ll struggle with forever. The key take aways are this:
People often don’t read long communications. If you can say it in fewer words, do so. Shorter is better. Be complete, but don’t go overboard. Make sure things are said only one time. If you’re not sure someone read or understood what you said or wrote, ask them what they heard or read. Don’t ask, “Do you have any questions?” Or “Does that make sense?” Both are waste-of-time, non-questions.
Think about all the people in your life who frustrate you. The employees who turn in work without checking for errors. The person who cancels meetings two minutes before meetings are scheduled to start. And in personal relationships, our friends who come late, cancel, or just aren’t in touch as often as we’d like.
These situations annoy us, but we often don’t say anything because giving feedback feels too hard. Why risk the person’s defensiveness? Or we don’t think addressing the situation will make a difference. Or perhaps we don’t feel we have the right to speak up.
Giving feedback can be hard. Asking for what you want is easier, but most of us aren’t clear about our requests and expectations.
The question is why? If making a request is easier than asking someone to change their behavior, why not ask for what you want upfront? Why wait until expectations are violated to make a request? The answer is simple.
We don’t think we should have to make requests. We assume our employees, coworkers, and friends will do things as we do. And most of these assumptions are unconscious. We don’t even think about it.
We would never turn in work without checking it for accuracy or come to a meeting late. We would never not send a thank you card after receiving a gift or miss a close friend’s birthday, so we (unconsciously) assume others won’t either. And when people violate our unstated expectations, it feels too hard to speak up, so we don’t.
I’m going to suggest you approach relationships differently –more proactively.
Ask for what you want at the beginning of a relationship, project, or meeting. Make requests at the onset of anything new. Set clear expectations. If you want to start and end meetings on time, tell people that during your first meeting. If it bothers you when people wear shoes in your house, tell visitors when they arrive, or even better, tell them before they arrive.
If you have an existing behavior you want to shift, simply say, “I realized I didn’t tell you that starting and ending meetings on time is really important to me. Going forward, we’re going to start and end all meetings on time. So please be ready for that.” Tell visitors to your home, “I realized that I forgot to tell you that we don’t wear shoes in our house.” It’s never too late. Don’t expect people to guess you’re frustrated and alter their behavior without you making a request. It’s not going to happen.
Consider all the things that annoy you. Then consider what you did or didn’t ask for. If you haven’t made your expectations clear, it’s not too late. Asking for what you want is easier than you think.
Most training programs about giving feedback focus on negative feedback, because giving negative feedback is hard and makes us uncomfortable. But most people aren’t any better at giving positive feedback.
Most of the positive feedback people get at work really isn’t feedback at all. It’s vague, fluffy, and unhelpful. Aka, Cap’n Crunch – sweet but useless.
“Great job.” “You’re awesome.” “You’re great to work with.” None of this qualifies as real feedback.
The purpose of positive feedback is to make people feel valued and appreciated and to get them to replicate a behavior. Telling someone, “great job” or “you’re doing great work” will make the person feel good (momentarily), but won’t tell them what to replicate. These phrases are vague, and vague positive comments come across as inauthentic at best and unhelpful at worst.
Here are a few examples of what I refer to as real vs. fake feedback:
Example of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “Great job.”
Real feedback: “You researched three vendors when making a proposal of who we should choose to manage our payroll operations. You included all the necessary information for us to make a decision and presented the information in a one-page table that was easy to read. Your work made it really easy to make a decision. Great job!”
Example of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “You’re really reliable.”
Real feedback: “I know that whatever I give you to do will get done the first time I ask and will be accurate. I don’t have to ask again or check your work. You check your work for typos and mistakes before submitting it.”
Example of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “You make my job easy.”
Real feedback: “Last week you noticed an invoice that didn’t seem accurate. You researched the invoice and got the mistake corrected before I even knew there was a problem. You make my job easy.”
Example of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “You’re awesome.”
Real feedback: “You always do what’s right for the company. Last week you called a vendor whose service has been spotty. You provided them with feedback and asked for their plan to improve their service levels. This added a lot of value to our organization.”
The guidelines for giving positive feedback are the same as giving negative feedback:
Give an example.
Give feedback close to the time an event happens.
To give specific and meaningful positive comments, you will have to observe performance, and that takes time. But if you want someone to replicate a behavior, tell the person specifically what she did well.
Covid-19 has shown many of us our edge – working from home for many months, not traveling, missing people we’re used to seeing, and for me, being silent when I would normally speak up.
Earlier in the fall, a friend came to bring my son a birthday present. We hadn’t seen my friend for many months. We visited outside. He didn’t wear a mask, gave Grayson a high five, and then a hug. It seemed like terrible judgment and it happened so fast before I could say anything. Then he went into my house to get a glass of water without wearing a mask while we stayed outside.
I was shocked by all of this. It didn’t seem smart or respectful. And I didn’t say anything. I still haven’t said anything. I could give you ten similar examples of instances in these past months when I was uncomfortable but didn’t say anything – sometimes with people I know, sometimes with people I don’t know.
It feels risky to write this because wearing masks and physical distancing has been so politicized. This blog post isn’t about the coronavirus and anyone’s personal choices. It’s about when we don’t speak up and why.
I think the way to handle potentially tough situations is to anticipate the unexpected and have a setting-expectation conversation before a challenge occurs. What I could have said to my friend, before he visited, was, “We are excited to see you. Let’s stay outside and let’s all wear masks.” I should have set expectations before being confronted with a difficult and awkward situation. Setting expectations is always easier than addressing behavior after it has happened.
Sometimes you can’t anticipate another person’s behavior or how a situation might go. You can’t plan for everything. And telling someone you don’t know in a store, office, or elevator that you’re uncomfortable may feel risky.
Here are four practices for making harder conversations easier and for taking care of yourself when you don’t know what to say:
Anticipate everything that can happen.
Decide how you want to manage situations before they happen.
Set clear expectations before seeing people or going someplace. My son knows that if we go to a park and it’s crowded, we will leave. I tell him this before we go so, he isn’t surprised.
Set boundaries. It’s ok to ask people in line at the grocery store to back up a few feet. “I’m trying to keep a six feet distance. Would you mind stepping back a few feet?” Yes, this likely feels very hard in the moment.
I worry about what people will think of me. I want people to like me. I’m consumed by both of these thoughts way more than you would ever guess. But what’s more important – protecting ourselves and our family or not offending a person in line at the grocery store you’ll never see again?
It needs to be ok to respectfully and kindly speak up on our own behalf. And speaking up starts by opening our mouths and saying what makes us uncomfortable again and again and again.
You get an email that annoys you, hit reply, type up your thoughts, hit send, and feel instant regret. We’ve all done this. We’re frustrated and we let the other person know.
Feedback via email is always a bad idea. You don’t know how the recipient will read and interpret your message. You can’t manage the tone of the message or give the person a chance to respond. And more often than not, he’ll reply equally frustrated. And now the non-conversation begins –back and forth, back and forth.
I’m consistently surprised at how much feedback is delivered via email. And it’s only gotten worse with people working virtually. I’ll admit to occasionally being guilty of it too. I’m in a hurry and I want to get something done quickly. Or my emotions get the best of me and I feel compelled to respond to a situation quickly. So I send an email or a text message that I know I shouldn’t send. Then I regret it and spend the rest of the day apologizing and feeling badly for communicating impulsively.
If we want people to want to work with us and perform, we need to consider how our actions impact them. Yes, it’s easier to send a quick email or text. But it invariably annoys the other person and damages your relationship. People can work with you, around you, and against you. If people want to work with you, they’ll work harder and produce better work.
Never underestimate the human ego, which is easily bruised. You are ALWAYS dealing with someone’s ego. When someone (anyone) calls our competence into question, we get defensive. Becoming defensive when receiving negative feedback or when someone questions us is a gut reaction. Not becoming defensive takes a great deal of self-management and is unusual.
Slow down. When you need to give feedback, ask yourself what you want the other person to do. Then ask yourself, how do I need to communicate to get the result I want? Then pause, breathe, and pick up the phone.
Sometimes people take credit for our work. It happens, sometimes purposefully, sometimes not. The key is what we do when things like this take place.
I’m going to suggest that you use the lowest level of intervention possible to resolve challenges.
When a coworker takes credit for your work, you could say:
1) “I noticed that when talking about project X during last week’s department-wide meeting, my name wasn’t mentioned in conjunction with the project. Why is that?”
Or you could say:
2) “Thanks for highlighting the X project during last week’s department-wide meeting. I’m glad the project got some exposure. I noticed that my name wasn’t mentioned in conjunction with the project. I want people to know they can come to me with questions about this project. In the future, will you tell people that I wrote the plan?”
Feedback can be given directly, “You did X and it frustrated me.” Or feedback can be given by asking a question and making requests, “Will you be sure to mention my name when you talk about X project?”
Some might call option one passive and even disingenuous. Both methods produce the desired result – the other person knows that you know what happened, and you’ve requested different behavior. One method may incite conflict, one most likely won’t.
Be as direct as your relationship will allow. There are people with whom you can be very direct, without consequence. And there are some relationships that can’t withstand direct feedback.
Most of the people I talk with in organizations believe they can’t give feedback without negative consequences. The only way to know how direct you can be is by trial and error. Give a little feedback, see how it goes. Give some more, see how it goes. You might be surprised at how honest you can be. And when there is backlash for giving direct feedback, next time, give less. Ask a question or make a request instead. Asking questions is another form of feedback. It’s just less direct and thus less confrontational.
We train people to treat us as they treat us. You will get both what you ask for and what you allow. What are you allowing?
We are living in a weird, crazy time. It may feel scary to go into a restaurant or a store, let alone to work. People are wondering if it’s safe to fly, return to their offices, or visit family and friends. There is so much uncertainty and so many unknowns. People are anxious and stressed.
I can see and feel the stress when I go to the grocery store. My neighborhood store didn’t feel particularly friendly before Covid. Fellow shoppers would run you over with their cart if it appeared you were going to beat them to the last bag of organic, gluten-free, paleo-friendly, vegan, sustainably-sourced chips. But now it’s much worse. People shopping in the store understandably want to get in and out as soon as possible. Other people are obstacles, like moving, orange cones pushing carts. Long lines are stressful. You can’t tell if a masked person smiles or silently growls at you.
During these uncertain, scary, and unpredictable times I think we need to go out of our way to demonstrate kindness.
I’ll admit that I am the person always in a rush, often on the phone at the checkout counter (I hate when people do that, even though I do it too), sometimes not making meaningful eye contact. But lately I’m making more of an effort – saying hello to strangers I pass, when I normally wouldn’t, making it obvious I’m smiling at a person under my mask, even telling people, “I know you can’t tell, but I’m smiling at you.” I’m asking hospitality workers how they’re doing, what it’s like to be working in a coffee shop or a grocery store, and what makes a customer respectful during this scary and uncertain time. And I’m listening more closely to their answers.
It’s harder to see kindness right now because a mask conceals so much. It also allows me not to wear makeup, which I’m grateful for. But people can’t interpret my intentions behind my mask. They can’t see if I’m friendly, happy, or irritated. I have to go out of my way to demonstrate how I feel and what I mean in ways I never have before.
Here are five ways you can demonstrate kindness:
Tell people you appreciate that they’re working (in an environment that may feel risky from a health perspective).
Ensure your tone is friendly and patient.
Tell people overtly how you feel. “I’m not irritated, this mask just makes me look cranky.” “I’m smiling at you. Thank you for the good service.”
Wait patiently, versus sighing and rolling your eyes, if there is a long wait for customer service or an answer to a question.
Follow the posted rules for distancing and masks. Following the posted guidelines makes everyone feel more at ease.
Be overt. Make your positive feelings known. Put someone else at ease. And this ‘thing’ will feel better.
Coming next week: You asked. We answered. Next week’s tip and blog: How to work well with others virtually.
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.
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.