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Do You Really Want to Take the Plunge (Tell the Truth)?

We all have “undiscussables”—things we think and feel but usually don’t say. Whether or not we decide to share those issues, however, is a different matter. Chris Argyris, American business theorist, believed that if organizations would talk safely and openly about their issues and concerns, then immense learning would take place that would allow individuals, teams, and organizations to solve problems, improve decision making, and increase their overall effectiveness. No one will argue with that, but the operative word is “safely.”

Years ago, when I was training at an electric generating station in the Midwest, someone in class said, “We’ve got major undiscussables here!” Naturally, I pressed for an example. The participants in the class told me that the company procedure for obtaining materials and resources to fix things at the plant was a major obstacle to getting the work done and keeping the turbines online and generating electricity. “So,” I asked, “what do you do when things break down?”

They all laughed and said, “Oh, we have the ‘Rat Hole!’”

“What’s that?"

“We’ll tell you, but if you ever tell anyone, we’ll lock you up there forever!” I promised I wouldn’t say anything.

My class members said that the Rat Hole was a secret room deep in the recesses of the plant stocked with equipment, tools, and resources that they had easy access to. There were welding rods, asbestos clean-up suits, gloves, cleaning fluid, mops, buckets--you name it, they had it all stocked away. When I pointed out to them the costs involved in maintaining a “duplicate” storeroom, their only response was, “That’s what we have to do to get the job done and keep things working.” 

When I asked them if they had ever brought up this problem with their managers, they responded in the negative, “There are consequences for doing that around here!” I was told.  Obviously, the inability to bring up concerns safely had large financial ramifications for this company. Failing to speak up always comes at a cost.

Please note: I am not recommending that whatever you hold to be “undiscussables” should always be shared. (Those of us with significant others have learned this the hard way!) Nevertheless, it is wise to stop and think about what might be appropriate to share, or what is better left unsaid. 

Here are a number of questions you might ask yourself to determine whether you should share your thoughts:

Will things improve if I share this, or not?

It is important to objectively examine the risks and benefits of sharing what you are thinking. If the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, then venturing to share your concerns might be well worth the effort. If not, it will likely be best to keep your thoughts to yourself.

What story do I tell myself or others to justify not providing feedback?

We all have a story or reason for not speaking up. Sometimes our stories are true and sometimes they are convenient excuses to avoid dealing with a pressing problem. Examining your story will allow you to assess its accuracy. You need to ask yourself, “Is what I am telling myself absolutely true?” All you need to disprove any judgment is one piece of data that goes contrary to what you believe.

What data or evidence exists in support of my story?

You must realize that in the absence of data we usually make it up, and often with a negative spin. If there is no data, then perhaps your judgments and ensuing feelings and thoughts are keeping you from stepping up and discussing the issue. Lack of facts usually means your reasoning for not speaking up might be inaccurate.

How often and with what degree of emotional intensity do I talk about potentially sensitive issues?

If you are continuing to talk about the same issue frequently and with a high degree of emotion, then you are probably sapping your emotional strength and that of everyone around you. You either need to talk out an issue and make a plan for discussing it with the appropriate person or let it go and move past it. Continuing to rehash a painful issue keeps those negative feelings and emotions from dissipating and negatively impacts you and those around you.

Do I discuss certain issues with everyone except the person I really need to talk to?

This is also a good indication that you need to address the issue. Your friends and family will listen for a while, but constantly bringing up an unresolved issue will become tiresome to the point that people will avoid listening to you, and you will be no closer to solving the problem.

How stressed out or utterly frustrated are you?

If you are on the verge of leaving your present position although you really would rather not, then it is time to take the plunge and talk about the issue with someone who can do something about your concerns. Taking note of where you are on your “fed-up” scale will help you determine if you are ready to do what you need to do to resolve the issue.

Has the person I need to speak with reacted negatively or emotionally in the past?

One of the most frequent justifications people offer for not speaking up in a business setting is the fear of negative consequences such as making your manager angry--which shows up as yelling, name calling or some form of belittlement. And there is also the fear of retaliation, such as missing out on a promotion, being fired, being given difficult assignments, or not receiving a raise. If these are your thoughts, you need to consider whether the relationship or the situation would be improved by speaking up, rather than just leaving things how they are presently. 

If this person has never reacted negatively to feedback in the past, then you will have to admit to yourself that you don’t really know if they will react negatively in this situation. You might also ask yourself why you are assuming they might react negatively. Rumor? Past experience? Other people’s experiences? Objectively examine the source of your negative assumptions and the negative feelings that accompany those thoughts. If you lack evidence that negative consequences will occur, then perhaps it is worth the effort to speak up.

I’m sure that you can generate other questions that will help you to objectively assess your situations more objectively. The fact is, we all have issues that we judge to be undiscussable, some of which really are better left unspoken. Other concerns--if they negatively impact our results, our relationships, or the level of respect we are currently experiencing--may be worth talking about. Behaviors and work processes will never improve unless concerns can be identified and discussed. If an issue really matters, most people want to know about it. That, after all, is how things get better.  If you had broccoli in your teeth, wouldn’t you want to know about it? Only you can determine if taking the plunge will be worth the reward that follows.

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Do They Really Want the Truth?

Many organizations and leaders highly espouse transparency and openness in an attempt to improve their organization’s effectiveness.  Even though this may be part of what an organization portends to support, the question still persists, “Do they really want to know the truth or do they just want to hear what they want to hear?”  Unfortunately, a consultant friend of mine had a poor experience with a leader who said he wanted the truth, but really didn’t.

Jill had been hired as an outside consultant to help improve an organization’s systems and processes.  One day during a training class, a senior leader asked Jill if there were any processes that she felt needed the company’s attention.  At first, Jill didn’t answer from her own perspective and suggested that he review the data the company had gathered from recent customer focus group meetings. 

The leader let Jill’s answer slide for about an hour and then returned to pressing her for a more candid response.  Finally, under pressure, Jill capitulated and told the senior leader that the company would do well to focus on their accounts payable process. (Bad idea!)  Somewhat surprised, the leader asked why that was an issue for her. Jill responded that waiting 120 days to be paid for work done four months prior wasn’t very responsive.   When the senior leader asked what the difficulty was, Jill explained that she was traveling weekly to various company sites around the country to teach a number of process-improvement courses, and with each trip she was accumulating a significant number of expenses associated with each trip. She explained that she could barely afford carrying the company’s expenses and that she had recently had to borrow money to pay the company’s expense. She also told him that she had attempted to address the issue with the company but had been rebuffed in her attempts.  A week later, Jill’s contract with the company was canceled.

It is difficult to know when a leader is inviting you to share your view; sometimes one doesn’t know whether it is safe to do so or not.   However, leaders soliciting data or “the truth” from individuals would do well to do some self-evaluation before requesting that others step up and expose what they know, but what may not be obvious to you.

Here are a number of questions that any leader might ask themselves before they solicit others to be totallycandid about an issue. These questions are applicable to both personal and process issues.

Why do you want to know what you want to know? 

This question should help you focus on your intent for wanting information. Hopefully, your focus centers on improving something rather than on putting a person on the spot or finding someone to blame for what you already know is happening.  You must realize that if a person has any question about your motivation or their safety that they are more likely to just tell you what they think you want to hear.  An individual’s willingness to talk about what needs to be improved could be a measure of the amount of trust that you have built between yourself and the individual as well as the trust in the current work setting.

Is now the time and place to bring this up?

If you are in a group setting, the individual may feel somewhat uncomfortable sharing what they know about what is not working. You are better off asking an individual for information, particularly if you suspect that what they may share may not be positive, in a private setting. If the individual is candid about an issue, you need to give them your full attention, ask questions to make sure you have understood, and thank them for their willingness to help.

Are you willing to ask questions that will provide specific examples or details about an issue? 

If you expect to change or improve anything you have to know exactly what you need to address.  The more specific the examples that people provide, the easier it is for you to make specific changes.  Because it is often easier to speak in generalities, you have to attune your ear to hear specifics.  If someone says, “Oh, things aren’t working very well around here,” you will need to ask specifically what is not working, and what “not working” looks like.

Can you remain calm and explore the other person’s perspective?

When we hear things we don’t like, don’t believe, or refuse to accept, we tend to become emotional and revert to justifying our current behavior or practice.  If any of this happens, the person speaking will clam up.  It is important to set aside your feelings, judgments, and perspective and explore the experience and perspective of the individual.  In order to do this, it is important to distinguish between fact and fiction.  Asking questions should surface verifiable evidence that supports the individual’s perspective.  Without the facts, it is impossible to fix anything.

Can you avoid any form of retribution toward those who are honest with you?

If you can’t, then don’t solicit their input.  We should view the feedback that others give as a gift--an opportunity to see things in a different way.  This will be very difficult for those that tend to take things personally.  If you really want to improve anything it is important to recognize that we frequently see things only from our point of view.  That’s how we’re hard-wired.  Seeing something from a different vantage point will allow you to learn something you didn’t know.

Do you have the patience and time to engage with the person?

Learning takes time and patience. If you don’t have to time, you need to take the time or the person will interpret your harried behavior as a lack of interest. This dynamic will results in less than candid responses.

Are you willing to admit that you don’t see yourself the way others see you?

This is a question that deals more with personal issues: your behavior, your leadership style, or your treatment of others.  Hearing a person’s opinion that reflects negatively on you is especially difficult to hear because most of us are generally well intended.  Positive intention aside, you may not understand how your behavior impacts others.  It is much easier to talk about procedural or process issues that may not be working than something that you may or may not be doing.  Nevertheless, being open to examining yourself from another’s perspective is a wonderful opportunity to learn something that may be too close for you to see clearly. We just don’t see ourselves the way we are seen.

Hopefully these questions will help you to assess your motivation and intention in soliciting candid and open feedback from others.  Taking a moment to assess yourself and what you really want to know and why you want to know it will help you to be more deliberate and respectful toward those that have much to offer.  Then, from whatever you learn, you can make the necessary adjustments and changes to get the outcome you really want.

7 Tips for Improving the Quality of Your Feedback

People often ask me for tips on how to give “negative feedback”—which is something that apparently no one enjoys either giving or receiving. Constructive feedback, on the other hand, which is feedback that helps people grow and improve, is on everyone’s most wanted list. So what’s the difference between negative feedback and constructive feedback? The challenge you face when you give someone this helpful feedback is to speak in a way that allows people to hear and understand your message without causing them to become defensive, resistant, or emotional.

Some people advocate a "rip off the Band-Aid" approach to providing feedback. This approach can be traumatic—it hurts the receiver and causes more avoidance and denial every time it happens.

Other people promote the “feedback sandwich" approach in which you sandwich the negative message between a positive message up front and another positive message at the end of the conversation. This approach feels like manipulation, and recipients learn to discount the positive feedback that begins and ends the exchange—even if it is authentic. The initial positive statement acts as a setup for the negativity of the real message that is to follow.

Here are a number of tips that will help you improve the quality of your constructive feedback conversations—and increase the likelihood that your feedback will produce the desired results;

1.Clarify your "come from." When you provide constructive feedback, your attitude and thought process must come from a space of help and support. Most people are painfully aware when they have performed poorly, and approaching a person with an attitude of frustration or anger will do more harm than good, both to the person and to the relationship. People instinctively shut down when they are approached with negativity and strong emotion. Approach the conversation clearly from the perspective of helping the individual grow and develop. Your positive approach will set a positive tone for the entire conversation.

2. Identify the facts. To provide clear and helpful feedback about an individual's performance, you have to know exactly what happened and the consequences that followed from their behavior. If you do not have concrete examples of what a person did, it will be difficult for him or her to know what to improve upon or change. When your feedback is vague, you run the risk of speaking in broad generalities or personal interpretations. No one knows what to do without specifics.

3.Move the person forward. When we provide feedback, we have a tendency to ask questions that force people to defend themselves, such as “Why did you do that?" A far more effective approach is to ask questions that stimulate thinking and help the person move forward into the future: "What would you do differently next time to improve your results?" This question allows the person to look at what they did, learn from the outcome, and think about what they need to change to improve their results.

4. Build accountability. The objective in a feedback conversation is to establish a clear and specific plan to improve performance or change behavior. Having a clear-cut plan in mind before holding the conversation is a good start, but don't be surprised if you learn something that will change your original plan during the course of the conversation. If the individual finds it difficult to create a plan that will improve their results, you may have to step in and help them build the plan. If you step in, be sure that you explain why you are asking them to follow a particular course of action.

5. Don’t assume anything. We generally assume that we have been understood, or that we understand why someone behaved in a certain way. We also assume that once we have given clear directions, the problem will not occur again. Identify your own assumptions and challenge them by asking yourself or the other person a series of questions. Listen carefully to the answers to those questions, for they will let you know whether or not you have been clearly understood.

6. Assess the quality of your relationship. If the other person knows that you care about them, they will interpret what you say as a reflection of the importance your relationship. Everyone finds it gratifying to know that the people they work for appreciate the contributions they make. If the only time you ever speak to a person is when they have done something wrong, you are missing a huge opportunity. Make time to mention the good things that people do and celebrate their successes. This will improve the quality of your relationship, and also increase their commitment to achieve results.

7. Express your support. People want to know that you have their back. They want to know that they can come to you when they have questions, concerns, or challenges. If you are approachable and continue to reinforce your desire to help them succeed, you will increase the degree of openness and collaboration that is invested in achieving results.

The purpose of feedback is to improve performance and achieve desired results. People want to be successful in what they do, and very few people, if any, intentionally go out of their way to perform poorly. As a leader, manager, parent, or spouse you should recognize that you have a huge impact on how people perform and the satisfaction of that journey. Improving your ability to provide constructive feedback will pay huge dividends.

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