+Scott Watson

Thursday, 25 June 2009

What's the Point of Feedback Like This?

Why do well-meaning bosses initiate 360 degree and other feedback processes? Well, there are many reasons from protecting their territory and standing in a company - when the person or people on the receiving end of feedback are enemies, or at the very least, not trusted or respected, right through to genuinely wanting to help individuals and groups of people work together as effectively as they possibly can. Succession Planning programmes often have a full circle feedback mechanism in place so that the assessor/s can take a quick snapshot about how the subject of the feedback is doing in their day to day work.

But there are several key problems with well-intended feedback processes.

Firstly, even in this, the 21st century, some company bosses wish to impose the point that all feedback elicited from employees should remain anonymous, supposedly to protect the individual providing the feedback. What's the use of this? Well, apart from scaring the heck out of the subject of the process, there is little if any use to it - but it still happens this way. Let me share a true story which I do have permission to mention.

A middle manager in public service had been invited to participate in an assessment centre to identify their readiness (or unreadiness) to be promoted in to a higher ranking and higher salary role. A 360 degree feedback mechanism formed part of the assessment process. Ten immediate colleagues of higher, same and more junior ranks were invited to provide specific feedback via a computer system. They did. And while 80% of the feedback provided was deemed by the subject to be valuable in terms of learning and enhanced self-awareness - and this includes the non complimentary comments (harsh but perhaps accurate comments), the remaining 20% was felt to be wholly inaccurate and without foundation. One comment provided reflected that the subject was 'An autocratic, self-centred dictator'. Perhaps true for the person writing the feedback? The trouble started when, after listening to and understanding the whole feedback, he asked if he could find out more about the comment mentioned above, plus another comment from another colleague which is too sensitive to mention. The facilitator quickly stated that as the feedback was anonymous, he would have to accept the comments for what they were - OPINIONS!

The Problem?
The key problems were these. The subject was advised that he should not approach any of his colleagues to find out who made the rather severe comments. Indeed, wishing to undertake such an activity did not reflect 'leadership'. Catch 22 situation is now in place.

Neither was he able to learn more about what the intent was of the two individuals who felt it appropriate and relevant to write such damning comments. And despite his initial shock and a little upset, he really wanted to know what was behind such comments. In short, he was not allowed the opportunity to resolve any perceived problem or restore any trust that had been damaged. Clearly the other parties were in a low or no trust relationship with the subject, at least from their perspective.

Toxic Waste

During the days and weeks following completion of the feedback process, unwittingly, and perhaps not aware of the toxic comments, the other 8 colleagues who provided feedback formally started joking with the subject as to whether they had made him look great and when he got promoted he would owe them a beer or two. See what's happening? The 2 individuals who wrote the toxic comments are being identified without any effort? And no, the subject didn't start asking questions of them. What did happen though was that the relationships became strained, frustrating and then toxic. Defending their territory, watching their backs came very much in to play. And why? Largely because the feedback was anonymous and the subject was not given an opportunity to understand why such comments had been made or what he could learn from them. Ridiculous for an organisation to endorse such an approach? I think so.

Are these people working at or near their best together? Not a chance? Will they trust each other in the future? Probably not - because mud sticks even more when things aren't discussed. While tough talks can be very tough, even when what we want to say comes out wrong, if our intention is honourable rather than toxic, they often, not always, but often get worked out in the end for everyone's benefit.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

It's Only Words - So Be Very Careful

Have you ever considered the impact that our language has on ourselves and also on other people? OK, you have probably had one or two occasions when you have said something in the heat of the moment that you've later regretted. Ouch! But what about everyday language, phrases that don't sound like they are harmful, but really can be.

Think about these little nuggets:

'I've spoken to him til I'm blue in the face'
...No you haven't. A blue face usually means you're either choking or your body is freezing. Nothing more. Have you ever seen someone's face go blue just because they're a little peeved at someone?

'He's too long in the tooth to learn anything new'
. What have long teeth got to do with someone's ability and/or willingness to learn?

'You can't teach an old dog new tricks'. Well, unless you work in a zoo or for the RSPCA, there's unlikely to be any dogs or tricks. Yet again, a few carefully selected words can cause problems.

During my very early years in executive and management development, some one to one coaching sessions could become rather heated. The key reason was the client had something on his or her mind and this forum was the only or safest place to be really open and genuine - which is always a nice experience. One such instance which I do have permission to share with you is when a very demanding boss who felt he was CONSTANTLY being LET DOWN by his 4 direct reports had reached THE END OF THE LINE (what line?) and was intent on taking these individuals OFF LINE (nice way of saying a real rollocking) and a PIECE OF MY MIND. He had been KICKED IN THE TEETH and STABBED IN THE BACK so many times that enough was enough.

This client was usually very assertive in his approach but not aggressive. Thankfully, our brief relationship had developed in to a high level trust relationship and we had permission to question, challenge and disagree with each other, but only on the condition that such behaviour would help him develop and grow. So here's what happened. After listening to a full 7 minutes of profanities mixed in with a table leg being kicked, profuse perspiring and my ears losing their feeling, I politely asked 'May I see your teeth?'. 'What?' he replied, somewhat shocked by my unusual request. 'May I see your teeth, just for a moment. I'd really like to see your gnashers', posturing with a big smile and clattering my teeth for full effect. His anger turned to shock, his shock turned to confusion, all in a matter of seconds. I continued, 'OK, you won't show me your teeth, I understand....so please take off your shirt.' This was a risky step. What reaction would I receive? Well, if you've been watching the tv series 'Ashes to Ashes' and picture the chief cop, Gene Hunt, the response wouldn't have looked out of place coming from his mouth. 'PROFANITY, no way pal', was followed a second or two later with a smile and a laugh when he pointed to me and said 'I know what you're up to Scott. You want to see all of the knife scars on my back don't you?'. 'Absolutely, and I'm sure there are many, aren't there?' I replied.

From this moment on, the coaching session returned to a calm, thinking environment where the things that mattered most to him and his company were thought through, talked through and solutions to each of the problems generated. And all in less than 2 hours. During the following 3 months, 3 of his managers began to perform better than they had ever done, while 1 other left the organisation by mutual agreement.

Just think what the possible outcome could have been if this really decent, hard-working and caring man had handled the situation in the manner he initially had intended. Managers could have been the walking wounded (oh, there I go, I'm doing it now), and their brains would have counted this latest verbal assault as the norm.

So remember, be very careful about the language you use and also, check understanding of what other people actually mean when they use old cliches to express how they are feeling at any given moment. It could save you many headaches and a few heartaches too.

Hear My Voice- Time To Take A Stand and Be Heard?

Many people I meet want to say something to their boss but daren't. The main reason why they choose not to speak up? Self Preservation! They don't want to 'rock the boat - not that there is a boat usually. The possibility of appearing to be awkward or perceived as a trouble-maker also score highly on the reasons for keeping quiet.

And there are times of course that we should keep quiet and say little if anything at all. It would be simply inappropriate to say something to intentionally inflict emotional harm on another person, even though some people take this as their norm rather than the exception. I guess that we have all encountered these people who prefer to attack, attack and attack again to impose their will on those around them.

The Superiority Complex

But there is a far more positive and human side to this too. Are you aware of Rosa Parks? Rosa, who died recently was the quiet lady who some may say actually started the human rights and equal rights movement in the USA. During the days when whites were perceived (by themselves of course) to be a superior race, Ms Parks was sat on a bus in her home town of Birmingham, Alabama. When instructed to vacate her seat so that a white person could use it, Ms Parks quietly declined to follow the instruction. She was promptly arrested, some reports stated that she was physically assaulted and she then became a 'criminal'. In short, Ms Parks didn't so much 'stand up' for her human rights, she actually 'sat down' for them. And a good thing she did too.

The Boss Doesn't Hold The Power

Many people believe that their boss, and then their bosses boss, hold the power within their organisation. The kind of organisation is not important, but people tend to comply with those in authority, whether they agree with them or not. But let's take a moment to reflect the real source of some major changes in the UK and globally. They weren't changes that were introduced by people in what is often called 'positions of power'. Or perhaps they were, as the people chose to use their personal power, their right to have a voice, their right to be heard to create something pretty special. Have a look at these.

Airlines globally introduce a NO SMOKING policy on flights following repeated requests from some passengers.

Gurkha soldiers
who retired to the UK win the right to remain in the UK following many years of battling with the British Government. How did this happen? An actress named Joanna Lumley, whose father was an officer in the Gurkha regiment spoke up for them. And they won!

MP's Expenses - A four year challenge to the Freedom of Information Act results in UK residents finding out that their elected member of parliament had been claiming expenses on everything from new, expensive furniture (not needed to help them undertake their role in Government) to a duck island in a moat. The lady's name escapes me for the moment.

Iranian Election - Nearly 2 million people take to the streets of Tehran to protest that they believe the supposedly democratic election has been rigged to keep the present, anti-West President in power. The last time 2 million people took to the streets of Tehran, the Shah was overthrown.

Iran National Football Team - 8 members of the national football team chose to wear green wristbands, and their team captain, a green armband to show support for the pro-democracy movement during their match with South Korea. Why didn't the other players wear the same? Well, democracy and the freedom to choose is a good thing isn't it? Remember that these guys will have to return home at some point and could face severe punishment for their actions. But, they took their message to the masses - to the world!

Remember that in your organisation, whatever kind it is. You do reserve the right to have a voice. You would benefit from considering deeply, how you could help people want to listen to what you want to say. This will potentially strengthen greatly the impact of your message and also authenticity. Always speak up with a positive intention of either eradicating a problem, enhancing something or helping someone. NEVER speak up just for the sake of being heard or to impose your authority or will on another human being. After all, if the law of reciprocity turns up - the same thing will come back to haunt you at some point.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Government help for jobless executives ?

I came across this article in the Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jobless-executives-to-get-special-help-1640147.html .

The gist of it is that the UK Government has earmarked £40 m to be used for recently released executives to receive training to brush up their job-hunting skills and obtain advice on changing careers.
The Government will also pay specialist recruitment agencies to help people seeking executive posts.

It was interesting to see that several dozen people had commented on the article and after reading the first 20 or so, I  noticed that all the responses were negative. Some of them violently so.

A quick poll among friends and family members revealed the same result: nobody thinks that those unemployed managers and executives deserve to receive support from the Government.

The whole debate about whether the Government should invest in such an endeavour or whether these managers should pay for it themselves might be a topic for another day, but do these executives actually NEED training in interview and CV skills?

Shouldn't they have spent the last few years communicating effectively, whether orally or in writing?

Granted, a good course in interview and CV skills will give you an edge. Even though it should not matter, your chances of being considered for a position will improve if you spell "leadership" correctly.

Still, unless I massively underestimate the UK Government's intention with this scheme, the most useful part will not be the interview or CV skills that the executives will learn, but something more important: they will have to learn humility.

And that will benefit us all.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Inside the Dragon's Den

In case you have not heard about “Dragons’ Den”, it is a British TV series showcasing the efforts of several entrepreneurs to convince investors (the Dragons) to fund their ideas. Think “American Idol” with business ideas rather than songs. Same amount of abuse, too.

Last month I was invited to participate in a jury at a French Business School that evaluated “mock” investement funds that were based on financial, but also environmental, social, societal and sustainability aspects. Twenty-three teams of students presented their ideas about which companies they thought had the greatest potential to do well, while adhering to stringent non-financial criteria.

It was an eye-opener!

Even while taking the current financial crisis into account, funds that focused on companies with high ethical standards of internal and external behaviour did and are expected to do better than those only focused on financial criteria. It really warmed my heart to hear that and I thought that if students learn such lessons before starting their careers, they might focus on those important ethical issues that are often overlooked when you are in the thick of the daily business grind. This might lead to a gentler invisible hand guiding the markets in future.

And the nicest bit of information was that those companies that are expected to do well and do so on a higher ethical level than other companies, also had the highest training budget! :-)

Counterintuitive? Maybe, but very much in line with the findings of Boston Consulting Group, as publishes in People Management magazine in April 2009 (page 9).

In that report, executives were asked which cost-cutting measures worked during the last recession. Cutting back on training did not! On the contrary, it led to a decline in employee engagement.

We have to keep in mind that training is not just a way to enhance employees' skills, but also their motivation levels. If we don't invest in their development, what kind of message that does that send about how much we value them?

Why The Long Face? Feedback - It's Bound To Be Negative!

So many consultants, trainers and facilitators espouse the value of giving people open, honest feedback in the workplace. They sing from the hymn sheet 'Just do it, it'll be ok' or 'Don't worry, you're not doing a firewalk'. As if these kinds of statements, however well-intended, are really of any help or value!

What stops us from giving feedback?

In the workplace, if you want to give some candid feedback to your boss, how likely are you to actually do it? Well, if the relationship is one based on high-trust (there's that trust thing again) and the level of rapport is high and there's a track record of speaking openly with everyone's best interests at heart, chances are you will speak up and say what you feel needs to be said. On the other side of the coin, in such an authentic relationship, the recipient of your feedback, even if it is your immediate boss, is far more likely to be open enough and feel safe enough to listen to what you feel you want or have to say? By feeling safe enough, what I mean is, your communication will be private, specific, help them learn or become aware of something and....help your relationship to blossom rather than destroy it.

But what if the recipient of your intended feedback is your boss and you are not enjoying very much the low-trust relationship? You know, you're just tolerating each other because after all, you have to work together. Is it likely that you would speak up in the manner or spirit I mentioned above? Unlikely. Why?

Toxic Relationships and Self-Preservation

In a low-trust, low tolerance relationship, who wants to be the one to tell their boss that their approach to motivation matches that of David Brent of 'The Office' fame and that they are about as trustworthy as a pyromaniac with a box of matches? By the way, this comment was made by an employee to a manager in a heated argument in the workplace.

All too often in the workplace, the feedback that needs to be heard, and needs to be given, never materialises because the person wanting to provide feedback is subordinate, either in the organisation structure or informal hierarchy to the recipient. They fear being viewed as a trouble-maker or obstruction to the effective running and performance of the team. The 'It's better to keep quiet' approach rarely serves to improve matters so important as effective communication...but so many people continue to subscribe to this draining and toxic approach.

Can I have a word with you in my office?

Ouch, this sound pretty painful and the boss has only asked a question. But the impact of such a question can be quite frightening when it lacks any context - or our relationship with the person is not in a good place. I remember being asked this very question by a boss of mine nearly 20 years ago. We weren't getting on at all, we rarely agreed on anything (well, my ego wouldn't let me agree with her because we were scoring points against each other - a subject for another time). As I walked to her office which was only 30 yards away, I quickly started to recount all of the petty squabbling, arguments and 'spirited discussions' we had enjoyed during the previous 12 months. Oh, and there were many hum dingers! I was ready for a verbal slanging match, after all, I had reached the level of conscious competence at least as I had practiced so often with her. Sorry, conscious competence is my current justification for being 'rather stupid' at that point and it's not something I was proud of.

The rather unexpected surprise was that my boss had recommended me for a promotion and the Managing Director had approved her recommendation. I was to start my new role, with a new pay rise (and even my own parking space - result!) in 4 weeks time.

The ego had landed
What happened to my 'fighting my corner'?, well, it fell away. Apparently, when done properly, my boss actually appreciated my candid feedback. While my intention was to help, she stated that my impact was sometimes poor at best...and that was something I should work on improving in the future. What happened? I accepted her feedback BECAUSE she was in her own way, trying to help me - not beat or punish me. One major problem with giving and receiving feedback in the workplace is getting the ego out of the way. Switching off for a few minutes from the 'I'm right and you're wrong' and 'I'm the boss and you'll do as you're told' toxic rubbish that kills authentic, candid, well-intentioned dialogue. As Thomas Moore wrote 'We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like a simple, obvious suggestion but it involves courage and risk.'

May I speak with your manager for a moment please?

During a recent trip to the Kingdom of Bahrain I decided to visit a shopping mall which hosted an abundance of eateries for lunch. Each outlet had a female 'greeter' standing just inside and in view of passing shoppers. One person I notice immediately was a lady named Elisabeth. Her smile appeared genuine, her welcome was warm and she invited me to choose where I would like to 'enjoy lunch'. She subtly invited her colleague Mary to come to my table and take a drinks order. Again, smiling, both ladies just started guessing with each other which country I was from. This is right in front of me, within hearing distance. 'Oh no, he's not American, he's too skinny'. 'He can't be French, his skin is sooo pale'. All very strange but also very entertaining for me as a customer. They eventually guessed correctly and from this moment on, when they returned to my table, it was like a chat with friends rather than lunch with waiting staff. While 'enjoying' my lunch I noticed that a rather stern faced and official looking gentleman, who appeared to be their boss circled like a vulture around the restaurant, picking and picking at tiny bits of detail that his very low-paid and rather wonderful waiting staff needed to fix. When he appeared, there was a very quick and very noticeable shift in the emotional temperature of the waiting staff. So, me being me - I took this as a learning opportunity to share some feedback with the manager. Rather worryingly, when I asked Elisabeth if she would be so kind as to ask her manager to visit me she responded sharply 'Have I done something wrong sir?''No, just come back with him and Mary and we can have a chat.' I responded.

A few minutes later, the manager, straightening his already straight tie and smoothing down his already smooth suit approached my table. I was about to introduce myself and launch into my feedback but he beat me to it. 'Sir, I am sorry that you are not satisfied with your visit today. It is not acceptable that..(I interject) May I interrupt you, as Elisabeth and Mary are looking really worried behind you and I'd like you personally as manager to hear my feedback. Is this ok with you? Fear now began to grow in his face too. Is this the law of reciprocity returning to bite him on the behind?? 'Look, I want you to know that Elisabeth and Mary have done a wonderful job of first of all, getting me to visit your outlet and secondly, they have looked after me so well I wanted to let you, the manager know. (Now, his fear is disappearing but he's still a little/or a lot, confused). These two ladies are a real credit to you and your company. Please bring me two customer feedback forms and I will send them to your head office.' By this point he has offered me a complimentary drink, and given me his business card so that maybe I can mention him to his head office (not a chance).

So, when you wish to give someone feedback, get your intention right, focus on what is the outcome you wish to achieve - hopefully win-win to strengthen your relationship, and don't think automatically it will go badly wrong. Just as the manager of the restaurant seemed to expect a verbal slap from a customer, he wasn't open to achieving a very positive outcome. Make sure that you are!

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

If You Want To Learn More - Fail More

It is all too easy to forget just how easy, enjoyable and fulfilling learning can be. When we commit to learning something new, or even refreshing an old skill, it can be a fun and thought-provoking experience. When we enter in to the learning with an open mind and a willingness to take the little failures that are very likely to appear occasionally, overcoming them can be really quite straightforward. At least if we choose to think this way.

OK, now it may not be very motivational for you to read that, if you try something new, or even not so new, you should expect that you won't get everything right, first time or every time. Sometimes you might not realise 'why' you are failing, but you just are. It can seem like however hard you try, progress is minimal or non-existent. But that thought itself, is part of the problem. When we think that we aren't making any progress, or the progress we are making is really insignificant, it doesn't motivate us to focus on persisting. It can focus us more on generating justifications for giving up. You may have heard some of the following:

-It's not worth it anyway, I've got other things I need to do.

-Well, I've tried everything to make it work but still can't do it.

-S/he (someone who can do it successfully) must have some special ability that I don't possess. That's why they can do it.

-I was never serious about learning it anyway.

-It isn't worth the hassle or effort.

Any of these sound familiar? Not that I'm suggesting for one moment that you would use any of these justifications.

Who struggles most with failing?

The people that tend to struggle most with failure are those people who succeed so frequently that 'failure' appears foreign to them. Why don't they tend to handle failure well? Because they are so damned brilliant that they haven't learned how to manage themselves, their thinking and emotions through the turmoil that failure to achieve a goal can bring. You see, even the most brilliant amongst us has challenges to face and obstacles to overcome.

Failure as a learning opportunity

Let me put some context around this. If you are a trainee pilot attempting to land a passenger jet with 300 passengers on board, it wouldn't be wise to simply think positively to yourself 'I can do this, I can do this' when the technical competence hasn't reached the level required to confidently make an attempt. My preferred approach is small, regular and manageable steps on a daily basis. This way we exercise our self-confidence, self-awareness, motivation and resilience muscles. This way, any 'failure' is small and usually, more quickly overcome so you can get back on track.

If you want to learn more, fail more. But don't keep repeating the same thinking, communication and behavioural patterns over and over again. Persistence is a good thing when used wisely. But if you keep persisting at repeating the failure pattern, all you'll get really successful at failing miserably.

We continue to see how failure, either on a small or massive scale can bring about new learning. An airline crash can bring about a new or enhanced awareness of the need for specific pre-flight checks just as in business, failing to hit an agreed deadline for your boss can help you to realise that you shouldn't simply comply with a boss's demand or request when you truly know that you can't hit the deadline or achieve the required quality standard. The trick is to learn BEFORE the significant learning failure can occur - and this requires clarity of thought as well as a willingness to trust yourself to take appropriate and intelligent action.

Help me to learn to walk

Think of it this way. If you are the parent of a new born child, when it reaches 18 months old would you expect him or her to be learning to walk on their own? If so, when would you stop helping your child to learn to walk? Would you really have a tough talk with him or her stating that 'I've tried everything I know to get you to walk and you're not. So, either it's you can't be bothered or you're just not designed to walk or you're just being silly.' You'd never have such a conversation would you? Firstly, the kid wouldn't understand a word you are saying, never mind the significance of your communication. But more importantly, you place such a high value on your relationship with your child, and it with you, that you are going to persist and persist UNTIL your child learns to walk by itself, unaided. What an experience that would be eh? How proud would you be when those first unaided steps were walked?

So, why use the metaphor of learning to walk as a guide for yourself? What do you want to learn that you're not finding time or energy for? What do you need to learn if you are to achieve the goals you set yourself, or those set by your organisation?

You've already learned to walk, possibly drive a motor vehicle, speak at least one, if not more languages, program a computer, use the internet and so much more. Why not make your next learning something so important and exciting that you actually stick with it, even during the tough times?