I think I have finally found a way to transform the difficult aspects of giving and receiving feedback. It would really help to get rid of those terms because they have such a negative connotation. More later on what might be a better name.
A while back I wrote an article about when you should skip “difficult conversations.” If we consider Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference, most of the time we interpret the actions of others based on our assumptions and assign intentions based on our own past experience.
I was asking, “Wouldn’t it be better to learn to control our own reactions and not take things personally?” Even when we carefully inquire about their intentions before speaking, the very act of questioning can raise an alarm in the other person. This creates a sort of minefield when attempting to talk to others about their effect on us even when we try to objectify it by focusing on the work and “behaviors.”
Why do so many experts recommend engaging in constructive feedback and difficult conversations? Why take a risk that can feel quite huge to most of us? Some of us can attest to negative repercussions even with the best of intentions because talking to someone about negative feelings, perceptions or mistakes doesn’t always improve the situation.
You could be exasperated and resent not being able to speak your mind. After all, aren’t we all professionals? And, why do we have to spend all this time and money on training and off-sites to get people to talk about emotions and disagreements that get in the way of trust and communication?
I was working with an executive team to increase collaboration during a transition. When the new CEO arrived he said, “I pay them executive salaries. Why should I have to spend money on leadership development when they should already have all of these skills?” So he cancelled the next the off-site, fired one “difficult team member,” then the rest of the team quit. The CEO is happy to have a new team that he selected. The rest of the organization is reeling from the turnover at the executive level. Now the executive team has a new set of issues as more valuable people leave the organization.
Can individual leader make a difference in his or her area? I have seen proof that the answer is yes.
‘Without vulnerability there is no conversation’ David Whyte
The reconstruction of an idea is transformation. David Whyte is a famous poet, philosopher and leadership mentor. He teaches that leaders do their work through conversations, and that you can’t have real conversation without vulnerability and authenticity. So it’s not about difficult conversations or feedback, it is about real conversation.
This idea struck me in a way that helps me approach real conversations. It is no longer about correcting another person’s behavior. It is about ending an uncomfortable situation/working relationship that is stressing me or endangering others. It is also about presenting an new idea. But, alas, this cannot happen without making myself vulnerable. This is completely antithetical to our biological heritage.
Neuroscience tells us that our minds still live in the world of our Neolithic forebears. For them ostracism meant death because they needed the clan to survive. That is why we see speaking up in the workplace as risking our identity and ability to feed our families.
The leadership position clicks in when we make the conscious choice to be vulnerable—to speak up and risk exclusion. The transformative belief to be acquired is that vulnerability is a muscle to be developed, not a weakness. It is the path that leads to learning.
My 2017 article describes a possible thought process to make the decision to have or not to have the difficult conversation, but another type of decision is much clearer to me now. To be the kind of leader I aspire to be requires vulnerability because that is the only way to learn. How much am I willing to risk to truly be of service? Am I really risking loss or am I opening the possibility for greater accomplishments?