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550: How to Free Yourself from Conflict with Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler

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Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler shares what to do when your attempts to resolve conflict fail.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The simplest way to stop conflict from overwhelming you
  2. How to untangle the complex web of recurring conflict
  3. The smartest thing to do when a conflict goes nowhere

About Jennifer:

Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler is founder and CEO of Alignment Strategies Group, the New York-based consulting firm that counsels CEOs and their executive teams on how to optimize organizational health and growth. Author of OPTIMAL OUTCOMES: Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home, and in Life (HarperBusiness, Feb. 25, 2020), she is a keynote speaker at Fortune 500 companies, public institutions and innovative, fast-growing startups, where she inspires audiences of all kinds, including those at Google, Harvard and TEDx, and in her popular course at Columbia. A former counterterrorism research fellow with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, she is a graduate of Tufts University and holds a Ph.D. in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jen, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Pete, thanks so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig in. First, I understand that you hiked the Appalachian Trail. And did you do the whole thing or what’s the story here?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
I did not do the whole thing, although that’s a nice goal. I’ve been on many parts of it but the part that I write about in the book is four days in the New Hampshire White Mountains part of the Appalachian Trail.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Cool. And so, can you tell us any key lessons learned or what inspired you to get out there?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, what inspired me to get out there is two things. One, on the personal level, I just love being outdoors. I find connecting to nature to be just spiritually grounding and nurturing and fun, so that’s one piece of what inspired me. And then the other piece is what I write about in the book, is I was in the middle of writing the chapter on emotions when I decided to go on the trip. And I decided that what I would do was experiment with feeling each of my emotions as they arose and just noticing them and naming them, identifying them, and then seeing if I could just be with them and let them go.

And that is exactly what I did. And it was a very rainy few days on the trail, and I began to notice that the emotions were really, like the Buddha say, like the weather. They came and they went just like the rain came down heavier and then came down lighter, and then sometimes went away, and the sun came out. And so, it was great learning about what it was like to really feel the emotions as they come because there were so few distractions on the trail like there are in the big city.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, so that’s intriguing right there. So, what is the implication for professionals or folks dealing with conflict that that is how it works with emotions, they come and go like the weather? What does that mean for us?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, first of all, it means we do not all need to go hiking on a trail for four days.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, fast forward, it’s just you.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Or even hours, right. What it means is it can be important to just pause. That might mean 30 seconds of pausing while you’re on the commuter train, and you look up from your phone and look out the window at the view, or that might mean in the middle of switching computer applications, taking a deep breath and standing up and then sitting back down and keep on going. But any practice that you can do. Frequency is, I think, much more important than duration. So, doing something like that once a day, or twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, is very helpful.

For all those people out there wondering, the question I get so often is, “What do I do when I’m stuck in conflict and it’s like the heat of the moment, and I’m just so triggered and I’m so angry?” One of the best practices that I know of is to, on a regular basis, pause and notice, “What am I feeling right now?” That’s all there is to do. And it can be very uncomfortable, of course, but we gotta do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Jen, we’re on a great start.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then I want to hear, so you got this book Optimal Outcomes and I love things being optimal. Fun fact, the name of my company is Optimality LLC. So, tell us, what made you conclude that the world needed you to write this book Optimal Outcomes? What’s sort of like the main issue we’re addressing here?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah. Well, first of all, I’ll say I love that we both like things being optimal. I think there are strengths and limitations to that, which I can talk about. But the reason why I think the world needs this book is because all of the conflict books that I know of that I’ve been sharing with people for years that are great, all help people resolve conflict. And the problem is sometimes conflict is not resolvable. I want to say that again.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m hearing Gottman echoing in my ear.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Continue, yeah. It’s not resolvable.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, not all conflict is resolvable. And I think that that can come as a surprise to many, many people because many of us have been inculcated in this idea that we must be able to collaboratively resolve conflict when it arises. And what we know from now, the last 40 years of conflict literature, is that conflict naturally begets conflict. That is the nature of the beast. So, if that’s true, sometimes we may be able to use collaborative win-win principle negotiation methods in order to resolve it, but sometimes we won’t be able to. Sometimes that conflict will turn out to be what I called resolution resistant.

So, this book is all about what to do when you find yourself in recurring conflict, that is conflict that doesn’t go away no matter how many times you’ve tried to resolve it, and that’s what Optimal Outcomes is all about. It’s about how to free yourself in those kinds of situations.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that sounds very helpful and important. And, yes, I’m thinking about Dr. John Gottman, I think that’s one of the main points he puts forth. This is the legendary, for listeners, relationship therapist who can predict divorce rates based on observing them. At first, it seems like a depressing thought, like, “Oh, many conflicts. You’re going to have the same argument until the day you die with your spouse.” Like, “Oh, wow, that’s a huge bummer.” But, in a way, it really kind of frees you, it’s like, my wife is always going to be super into safety as the top, top, top priority, maybe more than the average person, has a Master’s of Public Health.

And I want to be more into efficiency, optimality, productivity than the average person. And sometimes these things coincide beautifully with our vacuum robot, safety and efficiency, and sometimes they are not at all in accord, and that’s kind of just what we’re going to deal with until we die. But, knowing that, we’re able to sort of deal with these matters more healthfully and productively. So, tell us, what do we do when we find ourselves in that situation?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah. Well, Pete, what you were just talking about reminds me of how I define an optimal outcome. The definition of an optimal outcome is one that both takes into account the greatest ideal future we can imagine in that situation and it also takes into account the reality of the situation that we’re facing. And I think, again, one of the places where we tend to get stuck is that we’ve been taught that the way to reach an optimal outcome, or the way to resolve conflict rather, is to imagine what we want and then offer other people options, and that we’re taking into account what they want. And the problem is sometimes they don’t know exactly what they want, and we don’t know exactly what we want because we’ve buried some of our interests and needs and desires inside of ourselves.

So, because of that, it can be very difficult sometimes to do that classic collaborative problem-solving. And we need to take into account the reality of who it is that we’re facing, the reality of the constraints of the situation, even the reality of who we ourselves are, just like you were starting to talk about. You sound like you have some self-awareness about you like things to be optimal and your wife is all about safety. But, for many of us, when we don’t have that self-awareness or we’re not willing to admit certain things about ourselves, it can be very difficult to take those realities into account. So, that is part of the definition of an optimal outcome, so it does take those realities into account.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, yeah, that’s really connecting. And I don’t know why you got me thinking about contractors right now in terms of, because sometimes I wonder, “Why is it hard to get them on the phone or to show up when they say they will?” And part of me wonders, like, “Maybe this is somehow optimal for them in a way that I’m not even aware of.” And so, what you’re surfacing here is that maybe they’re not even aware of it, and so awareness is a key foundational step. How do you recommend we get some more of that?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, I’ll give a name to what it is that you just mentioned. That is distinguishing between our ideal values and our shadow values. So, our ideal values are those things that we care about in life that we’re proud to say we care about, things like adventure, spirituality, customer first, collaboration. These are things that people tend to be proud of. That’s in contrast to things that we really care about in life that we’re not proud to admit that we care about. Tend to be things like everyone’s different, and I can talk about it more about how some people’s ideal values are actually other people’s shadow values, and vice versa.

But some classic shadow values, in my experience working with thousands of students and clients, is that things like status, recognition, power, financial security, competition. These are things, ease, right? So, in the case of, in the example that you just gave about a contractor who doesn’t call you back, they may open up a business because they want to be helpful to people and do great work and get paid for their work. And yet there may be things that they care about, like quality of life, ease of not having to keep track of phone numbers, or I don’t know, I’m not a contractor so I don’t know what those things are. But it can help us just to imagine what might be driving someone to do or not do what it is that we hope or want them to do.

And it’s just in guessing even what someone else’s shadow values might be, even if we’re wrong, just the act of wondering what their shadow values might be can help raise our empathy for them. And so, even if we’re wrong, it’s a very helpful exercise to do. The rewards are worth the risk of getting it wrong.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that gets you thinking in terms of like, “Oh, maybe this poor roofer has just been nonstop and needs a break.” And I like that list of shadow values. This reminds me of, I don’t know, St. Augustine or someone who laid out sort of money, power, honor, fame, comfort, pleasure was kind of the framework, and it seems like there’s some rich overlap to what you’re describing, so this is really timeless stuff in the human condition. So, okay, that’s a great step is we become aware and think and maybe guess about some of the shadow values that others are having. And so, where do we go from there?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
So, this is only one of eight practices that are part of the optimal-outcomes method. A nice place to begin, so I dove into this idea of looking at your values and other people’s values, and I should say looking at shadow values is not only about looking at other people or guessing at other people’s shadow values but, obviously, a really great thing to ask yourself is, “What might my own shadow values be that might be driving my behavior in this situation that I might not be proud of that I’ve pushed down?”

But doing that can really, really help free you from conflict, because once you realize what’s been driving your behavior, you have the power to either own up to it and stop doing it, or own up to it and say, “You know what, this is something I’m going to own, and I’m going to do it right out. So, if authority is important to me, and I wish it wasn’t, well, maybe I need to start being more direct, and that would help in this situation where I’m confusing people because I’m trying to be so collaborative but they don’t understand what it is that I want them to do.” So, that’s values.

But a great place to begin is about mapping out the conflict. So, so often, when we’re stuck in conflict, it can seem, on the face of it, like it’s just a very simple situation, “It’s between me and you, and you’re wrong, and I‘m right.” Right? And so, the thing is when we’re stuck in recurring conflict, it’s usually not that simple. If it were, we probably would’ve figured out how to get out of the situation a long time ago, or had resolved it a long time ago.

So, a great tool is to map it out. And, in fact, people can go, if they’re interested in an online, a very cool online mapping software, or even paper and pencil, you can go to OptimalOutcomesBook.com and download the paper and pencil template and also find this very cool online software conflict mapping tool. So, what you do is put down on your map as many, first of all, the people that are obviously involved in the situation. And then your job is to add as many people to your map as you can, people who are related in the situation that you hadn’t thought of before.

And I not only want you to put people on your map, but also any other events, timelines, background, history, anything that has impacted the situation, and also anything that might be impacted by the situation, so people that are impacted or could be impacted by. And, all of a sudden, your map starts to have some texture to it. And it’s amazing to me, it can sometimes take people less than five minutes to sketch out a map like this and, all of a sudden, the lightbulbs are going off and people realize levers for change on that map that they had never thought about before. It also really can help raise empathy for other people, and also compassion for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that sounds very exciting. So, could you maybe give us an example of someone, they got a conflict, and they hunker down and they make the map, and what sort of results for them?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah. So, I have a client who is named Bob, I write about him in the book, and he was in a very long standing conflict with the head of sales of his organization. He’s the CEO of a startup tech company. And they had been growing by leaps and bounds, and the salary that he had been paying to his head of sales was completely out of whack, way above market rates, and he knew that he needed to lower it, but every time he tried to bring it up with Sally, the same thing happened. She would get very angry, they would start screaming at each other, and they would walk away and shut down for weeks, sometimes months. By the time he and I started working together, they had not talked to each other for a number of months, and that was a big problem because they needed to run the business together.

So, when I asked him to map out the situation, at first it was just very obvious to him, well, it’s him and Sally. But a few minutes later, when I asked him to put more people on the map, what he realized is, well, the executive team is involved and, particularly the CFO, who had been pressuring him to lower Sally’s compensation. And then he realized he had to put his own family and his background on the map because his ideas about his father and his brother, who were these entrepreneurs, who had taught him that entrepreneurial risk-taking was important. And, also, the way he grew up as an adult in the software field, that touted collaboration as the highest virtue, had made it very difficult for him to be authoritative with Sally and be direct about what he needed and wanted from her.

He also puts Sally’s family and background on the map, and noticed that he knew this from stories she had told him, but he realized she came from a poor family. Even though she made so much money now, she still might have fears about not having enough because of how she grew up. He also put their VC, venture capital investors on the map because they were also pressuring him to lower Sally’s compensation, and that influenced the situation.

So, all of a sudden, a situation that began with him thinking it was just him and Sally yelling at each other on a street corner, it turned out to be a little more complex, and that helped him see these levers for change of people that could potentially be helpful and ways he could have more helpful behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then tell us, what’s the end to this story?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah. Well, the ending to the story, I will let you find out in the book, but I will say that he was really able to see because he had been pointing his finger at her, saying, “Why is she so greedy? She’s so greedy. Why can’t she just understand that for the sake of the business she should take a cut? Her salary is just completely out of whack.” And noticing that she was just driven by fear from how she grew up helped him not forgive and forget the behavior that he didn’t like. He didn’t like that she had yelled at him and walked away from him, that was not appropriate behavior in his opinion, or mine. It didn’t make that go away, but it did help him calm down, and it did help him stop yelling back, and it did enable him to actually decide to have a conversation with her.

And the mapping also helped him realize he had beenpressured by the CFO and the VC investors to have this conversation with Sally, but he had gotten no guidance from them, he hadn’t asked them for help on how to have the conversation. So, mapping helped him do that, helped him go to them and ask for advice and help about how to do this. So, those are just a couple of examples of how his map helped him.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. Thank you. So, then you’ve got a term, a distinction between conflict freedom versus conflict resolution. Can you kind of help us get our arms around this distinction?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah. Well, conflict resolution is what I’ve talked about before, which is thinking that a collaborative win-win style of negotiation is going to help you resolve a particular conflict. But so often it doesn’t work or it’s about safety, right? We could go back to the example you gave about you and your wife. You’re talking about things that are values that are near and dear to your heart. If someone cares deeply about safety, or someone, I’ve worked with plenty of executives who complain about their CEO who cares so much about financial security that that CEO can’t be innovative or can’t put resources in the places that the person thinks they need to in order to allow the organization to grow and innovate because they’re so worried about quarterly financial reports.

And so, whenever we care about things that are deeply ingrained in us from a values perspective, we’re not always going to be able to resolve that conflict and tie it up neatly in a bow. Instead, our job is to free ourselves from that conflict loop. I call it a conflict loop instead. So, the way the conflict loop works, the way we get stuck in it, is that we have conflict habits. There are actually four conflict habits that I’ve identified in the book. And our conflict habits get locked in patterns, in a pattern, with someone else’s conflict habit, or another group’s conflict habit, and those conflict habits make it very difficult to break free from that cycle. So, it’s just a conflict cycle that goes around and around and around.

And so, the goal there is not to resolve anything, sometimes there’s not even anything necessarily really to resolve when we look at that. A classic conflict pattern is blame-blame. So, we blame someone, right? So, that’s what Bob and Sally were stuck in, they were blaming each other. He would tell her he needed to lower her compensation, she would yell back that that wasn’t going to be possible, and then they would just call each other names and how horrible they each were to each other, and they were blaming each other.

So, when you’re stuck in a blame-blame conflict pattern, it can be very difficult to resolve, but you can take what I call pattern-breaking action to free yourself from that situation. And the beauty of freeing yourself from a locked pattern is that it doesn’t take anyone else’s cooperation. You don’t need anyone else’s help or cooperation in order to free yourself from that conflict loop. All you need are your own resources which is the practices in the optimal outcomes method, looking at what your own shadow values are, looking at what other people’s shadow values are, mapping out the situation, using your emotions in your favor, not taking other people’s emotions on as if they’re your own, but keeping those separate from you. And there’s a whole bunch of work you can do around that.

Designing a pattern-breaking path, so not just taking one pattern-breaking action but actually having your actions build on one another over time, because it probably wasn’t one action that got you stuck in this. It’s been going on for a while so it’s not only one action that’s going to get you out. It’s going to be a whole series of simple but surprisingly different pattern-breaking actions that will get you out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you please give us an example? So, some pattern-breaking actions that come together in a pattern-breaking path. What are some examples for how that comes to life?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, the beauty of a pattern-breaking action is that it’s basically anything that’s not what you’ve already been doing. So, typically, when we get stuck in conflict is because we’re doing the same habitual conflict habit over and over and over again, and expecting a different result. So, in the case of Bob and Sally, they’ve been blaming each other. In other cases, you might be blaming someone, and they’re running away and hiding from you. They’re not engaging. They’re shutting down. Or you may be relentlessly trying to collaborate with somebody and they are shut down, they are not cooperating with you, and you’re just offering them option after option, spinning your wheels, wasting your time, wasting energy, focus, money.

So, a pattern-breaking action is anything that’s different from what you’ve been doing. And, obviously, that’s different in any situation, in all different kinds of situation depending on what you’ve been doing. But the beauty of it is that there’s like a bazillion different possibilities, right? So, I also like to say you want your pattern-breaking action to be, ideally, something constructive, so I would not advise, if you’ve been blaming someone else, then like go blame yourself instead. No, that’s not what I’m talking about. But what I am talking about is it could be that if you’ve been blaming, blaming, blaming, and you take a pause, notice the pattern that you’re stuck in, and decide that you want to do something that’s pattern-breaking, something different, it could be you decide to kind of hang back for a little while and not do anything at all.

Sometimes just pausing is a pattern-breaking intervention, in fact. And if people want to find out what their conflict habit is, you can also go online at OptimalOutcomesBook.com/assessment and you can find the conflict habit assessment. It takes like seven minutes. It’s totally free. And so then, you could also ask your friends and colleagues to take the assessment as well. And once you know your conflict habit, and other people know theirs, you can figure out what is the pattern we’ve gotten stuck in, and then you have each some ideas about other things you could do instead.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you could take the assessment to learn what specifically is yours in the habit. Can you give us sort of the menu, the rundown of options, in terms of, “These are the conflict habits.” So, one of them is blaming. And what are the others?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
One of them is blame others, one of them is blame yourself, blame and shame yourself. So, some of us gets stuck in that negative self-talk cycle. One of them is shutdown, so we avoid to the point of letting the conflict brew until it boils over and then we have a crisis on our hands. And then the final one is relentlessly collaborate, so we will collaborate even when other people refuse to cooperate with us. So, we’re offering option after option, and people are not working with us.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, and that’s the whole menu right there?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
That’s just four, yeah. So, there’s 16 different patterns that can emerge out of those four.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, intriguing. Okay. And so then, when you say just a pattern-breaking, it’s just a matter of doing anything other than that, so it could be one of the other three. Or is there something completely different beyond those?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Definitely, things different beyond those, but it’s very idiosyncratic so I can’t say to you, “Here’s the thing that you must do to break the pattern,” because we need to know what it is that you’re dealing with. So, in Bob and Sally’s case where they had been blaming each other, Bob had to take a step back and take a break. And then pattern-breaking action for him was that, instead of surprising Sally as they walked out of the client lunch with telling her that he needed to talk to her about her compensation package, which is what he had done previously, he realized that he could do better by giving her some advanced notice and asking her when was good for her to talk.

So, he did a bunch of different things that were pattern-breaking. Like I said, he kind of created this pattern-breaking path. So, one of the things he did was not surprise her at the last minute, asked her in advance to talk, emailed her, asked her if it would be helpful for him to send her in advance a proposal for what the package would look like. He also asked her if they could just talk about their relationship first. So, they ended up talking about their relationship, their working relationship, even before they then had the conversation about the compensation package itself, because he realized that their relationship had become so damaged that that actually itself needed to be talked about. So, once you start asking yourself, “What else could I do?” well, there’s lots and lots of ideas in the book about how to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I guess I’m also thinking about. I found that a lot of times breakthroughs happen when you stop and really, I guess, empathize, walk in their shoes, proverbially, and get a sense of, “You know what, she’s probably feeling this because this, this, this, this, this.” And it’s amazing, like, occasionally, it’s sort of like I think maybe we just sort of assume we know and understand, “We all understand what everybody’s thinking.” But then when you actually sort of stop and articulate, it’s like, “Well, hey, let me make sure I understand where you’re coming from.” They say, “Hey, he’s really concerned about this because of these matters, and then it really feels like this under these circumstances.” That can often just be just so powerful for folks with just that empathy, it’s like, “Well, yes, that is exactly how I feel and it feels great that you understand me.” And it’s sort of like we’re already getting somewhere now.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yeah, and that can happen and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes no matter what you do, you could be the most empathetic person on the face of the earth, and the other person is not interested. And so, sometimes the key is to be able to cut your losses and notice for yourself. So, the last chapter in the book is all about helping people stop living in fantasyland. So, if you’re fantasizing about that kind of conversation happening, and no matter what you’ve done, no matter how much empathy you have for someone, they’re still like a blank wall and just not responding to it, it may be that that relationship is one that’s not going to happen the way that you thought it was. And that’s part of what it means to take into account the reality of who the other person is and what they need and want.

And so, there’s exercises in that last chapter that help you determine whether you should continue to go for that ideal future that you might’ve imagined, or whether walking away is going to be less costly to you and more beneficial to you than you had originally thought. So, it’s basically asking you to do a cost-benefit analysis of what it looks like to stay stuck in conflict, what it might look like to walk away from the relationship or the situation completely, and also what it might look like to go for, to pursue that ideal future that you’ve imagined.

And this can be very striking for many people. So, I’ve seen people who thought that they were just going to keep on trying to have empathy and trying to collaborate with someone else, and then they did that practice of choosing an optimal outcome, and realized that the cost that they thought they would have to pay for walking away from that relationship, whether it was a business relationship, or a personal relationship, or some combination of both, that the costs were actually not as high as they had originally thought. And I’ve seen the opposite happen too. People who thought that the costs of staying put were so high that it was going to make more sense for them to walk away, realized, “Oh, my gosh, the costs for me walking away from my mother, from my best friend, from my co-founder, are so high, that’s a fantasy.”

I’ve worked with many clients who loved to fantasize about walking away, but all that does is it kind of acts like a soothing mechanism, because it makes it that you don’t have to deal with what actually is going on in the moment for you, but all it does is just distract you from what it is that you do have to deal with. And if you are going to stay, let’s stop fantasizing about walking away and really focus on, “What are some pattern-breaking actions I can take in this situation today?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, this is nice. We’ve covered a nice little lineup of some of your eight groundbreaking practices.
Okay, sure thing. Well, now, could you give us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yes, my mentor Dr. Morton Deutsch, who is the father of conflict resolution, always used to tell me, “Prevention is the best medicine,” and I believe he’s right. I’ve quoted him in the book as well. And there are so many parts of life that that quote is relevant to.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
I have many favorite experiments and research, one of them that I talk about in the book is about Dr. Wendy Wood’s research on habits. And what she basically says is, the best way to form new habits is to replace an old habit that you’re not happy with, with a new one. So, rather than trying to get rid of one that’s not working for you, just replace it with something new. And she has a new book out on that as well, and I encourage people to go study her work. She’s really a powerhouse and has done just amazing work in the habits area.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. So, that’s a great study and also a book. Any other favorite books?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yes. A friend of mine named Priya Parker wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Art of Gathering and it is just a wonderful book. It’s easy to read, full of great stories, and it’s all about how to gather people together from the informal wedding shower to the formal business meeting, and everything in between.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be more awesome at your job?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Pausing. Pausing. It’s a very low-tech tool. I know there are tons of apps out there, Calm and Insight Timer that people love, but I will say just being quiet. It doesn’t take much. I like to just sit quietly every once in a while, and just breathe. And I don’t do it as often as I might like or benefit from but when I do, it is just super helpful to just sit and be quiet.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they quote it back to you often?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Well, it’s something my father told me that I say to a lot of people, “Everything in moderation, and moderation in everything.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
OptimalOutcomesBook.com is a great place to begin.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Yes. When you find yourself stuck in recurring conflict, do something different, something pattern-breaking.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Jen, thank you for this. And best of luck with the book and all your adventures.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler
Thank you so much, Pete. You as well. Great to talk with you.

519: How to Have Productive Disagreements with Buster Benson

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Buster Benson says: "The real challenge here is not to solve all disagreements... but to actually learn a bigger perspective through disagreement."
Buster Benson discusses how to conquer your fear of conflict and start disagreeing well.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The surprising cost of avoiding conflict
  2. Eight crucial steps for productive disagreement
  3. What to do when you disagree with your boss

About Buster

Buster Benson is an entrepreneur and a former product leader at Amazon, Twitter, Slack, and Patreon. He’s now editor of and writer for the Better Humans publication on Medium, creator of 750Words.com which brings private journaling to a safe place on the web, and developer of Fruitful Zone, an online platform facilitating healthy discourse. He is also author of the Cognitive Bias cheat sheet with over one million reads.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Buster Benson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Buster, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Buster Benson
Thank you. I’m really excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be talking to you. There have been no other guests who have created a poster that hangs in my office.

Buster Benson
Oh, wow. Cool.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you have that unique distinction. “The Cognitive Bias Codex,” it is a work of art. And could you maybe share the story of that because I’m thinking it’s so cool?

Buster Benson
Yeah. It was a really strange and long story but like, basically, I have been interested in cognitive biases fairly pretty much my whole life and yet I always felt them really hard to remember. There’s just so many of them, there’s 200 plus, they all have really weird names, like the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon so there was no easy way for me to actually internalize what was happening here. And I’ve decided to take a couple of weeks, a couple of years ago, in 2016, to essentially try to eat this entire body of knowledge and figure out how to synthesize it into something I can understand.

And so, what came out of it was this framework where, instead of thinking about biases as mental bugs where your brain is glitching out, they’re actually all there to solve hard problems, like there’s too much information in the world, so we do have to filter some things out. Nothing really makes sense so we do have to connect the dots and fill in the gaps with sometimes generalities and stereotypes. And we also have to do things, like we can’t just sit and talk about it all day long. We got to go out and make decisions and take action, and that means that we have to be confident even though we don’t have all the information in front of us.

And so, all of the biases in the world fit into these categories. And when this poster was written, I figured I might as well make it a visual because this is already still such a hard topic, but make it look really nice, and the poster came out of that. And with a friend of mine, John Manoogian. and he really helped make it look like something beautiful, like a work of art.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, it is and it hangs there and I’ve been wondering if it’s possible for me to get that as a sound wrap, like an acoustic panel, you know, and that’d be the visual so it serves a double duty.

Buster Benson
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
But, anyway, so thank you for that. It’s really cool. And I love some of those names, they’re funny. Some of them are crazy and some of them are intuitive, like the IKEA effect, it’s like, “Oh, that’s exactly what I think it would be.”

Buster Benson
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“I spent all this time assembling something I think it’s worth more because I invest in that.” Is there a particular cognitive bias that shows up for you a lot still today even after all of your research and work?

Buster Benson
Well, that’s the thing is they don’t go away just because you know the name, unfortunately. Yes, so the confirmation bias is obviously one that really affects us today where we tend to not only prefer information that confirms us but, now, we’re actually also just only seeking out sources of information that confirm our biases. So, that’s an important one to think about.

There’s also the one called naïve realism which is really interesting and somewhat depressing, I guess, if you think about it too much. But it’s this idea that we think that what we think of people is what they’re actually thinking, and this happens a lot in conversations and debates and disagreements. We might say, like, “Oh, wait. I don’t understand why you think this.” And suddenly you brain is like, “Here’s a reason why they think it. It’s because they’re dumb,” and then we believe that, and that’s a strange bias that we do because we can’t read minds. We have to fill in the gaps there. But we could also ask the question to fill in the gaps, and especially if they’re right there in front of us. So, that really is on my mind recently.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, and a perfect segue to your recently released book Why Are We Yelling: The Art of Productive Disagreement because I think that’s quite one way that things go sour real fast is if you say, “Well, the reason that person thinks that is because he or she is a moron, or a racist, or hates me.” That gets you into some trouble. So, maybe let’s zoom out a little bit and, say, sort of what’s the big idea behind your latest work here Why Are We Yelling and, yeah, let’s get oriented that way?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, similar to the cognitive bias approach, I felt like there’s all these books about negotiation and rationality and persuasion that were really useful in particular context, like work, or sales, or debate in the courtroom, that kind of stuff. But there weren’t that many ways to really make it real for my everyday life. Like, what’s going to help me have a better conversation with my friend over a meal? What’s going to help me have better conversations as I’m going on a walk with my son? These things where we don’t have the tools, we haven’t been really taught how to have these conversations in a productive way.

And so, we resort to just these trial and error attempts, and some of us have luckily stumbled into the right approaches and some of us didn’t, and there’s no real way to help people develop that skill. So, that was my impetus for writing this, first, for myself, because I really need these skills and I want to synthesize it in a way that made sense to me, but also for other people because I feel like more and more these days we just feel stuck and frustrated with the way that our conversations are going.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love it if, do you have any data that sort of tell that story? Like, I’m wondering if things sure seem nastier and more hostile these days and less productive in our disagreements, but do you have any proof?

Buster Benson
Yeah, there’s proof everywhere you look. So, depending on which avenue or domain of the world you want to look, there’s different ones. So, one of them I found is that, in a work setting, for example, which is one of the safest ones, 85% of people believe that they have some crucial information about the business, about the company, and they’re not talking about it because they don’t want to start an argument. And so that’s where conflict avoidance has really risen to the surface.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Woo, I’m sorry. That’s huge.

Buster Benson
That’s shocking, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That is just… that’s huge. I think that’s like the core of so much dysfunction right there, it’s like, “I’ve got some info and I’m not telling you not because I’m diabolically trying to sabotage anything but just because, oh, man, this is going to cause a big old argument. I don’t want to deal with it.”

Buster Benson
Yeah, if you don’t feel it’s a safe environment to have disagreements or you don’t know how to have them, you’re not going to move forward and you’re not going to have that conversation, and that’s just going to linger and get worse, and eventually pop up in some other person’s lap. And this happens not only at work but obviously also in the political sphere. We don’t necessarily think that we’re trying to go out there and solve problems, where we all know what the problems are, and we’re just unhappy about it and yelling about it.

I think there’s ways that we can move away from this conflict avoidance stance, which turned out to be way more common than the unproductive disagreement stance. Most people are not having that many unproductive disagreements. They’ve given up and that’s even worse in some senses in terms of like, “Well, if you’ve already given up, how do we get you back in the game so that we can actually work through these problems?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, do tell. How do we do that? So, you’re feeling like, “Oh, that’s just going to cause a big argument. I’m not even going to bring it up, not even going to go there.” What’s sort of the next step?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, one of the first things we need to do is remember that other people are humans and other people are as complex as us. So, to do this, when we go into a situation where we’re feeling like, “I think that they aren’t as smart as I am, or I think they don’t get it,” that’s an opportunity to fill in the gaps with real information. So, having someone in front of you that has all these information and perspective is actually a blessing. You can ask them, “Tell me, I just don’t get how this works for you. Like, what’s the story? What’s the background? How did this happen? Help me get there. Help me see the world through your perspective,” just because that’s information that we don’t have, and until we have it, we just feel confused and baffled. And it’s frustrating. It doesn’t feel good.

So, use these people that you might normally think of as opponents or enemies as a source of information that can help you feel a little bit more relaxed about the world if you can understand their perspective better. And that’s really the first step is just think about, “What are the openings? What are the stories we can glean from each other in a safer setting to have a wider perspective of the world?” Not necessarily to change minds or anything, but just to see it from one more, a little bit higher on the plane of perspectives so that we can see, “This person exists because this happened to them and this is their story, and I’m like this because this happened to me, and I could see now why we both exist in the same world, and we both think we’re doing the right thing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, so when you say, “How do you get here?” you don’t specifically mean, I don’t know, why you did the project a certain way, but, like, their whole life backstory, history picture.

Buster Benson
Yeah, we oftentimes resort to what are the facts, what are the evidence. The facts and evidence are there to prop up our story once we already have it for the most part. So, asking for that is really about continuing the information, bludgeoning, you find the gotcha information. The stories behind the facts are the real reason we believe things, and that’s what we should go after because those are rich. Those are really filled with interesting detail, they’re exciting to hear about, they’re new. And our brains are trained to really delight in hearing these kinds of stories. That’s why all of fiction is story-based, it’s not about, “Here’s more facts about the world.” Worldbuilders spend all the time telling you about the small details. You get bored real quick, you want the story, you want the plot.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, could you maybe give us some examples of what a rich backstory sounds like, and how it can color, shape and inform a position or an opinion, and how a different backstory would give rise to maybe a contrary opinion or view?

Buster Benson
Yeah, so I try to tackle gun control in one of the chapters and I tried a bunch of different things online and in person. What ended up working was having a salon or a potluck in my house and inviting a bunch of people that have different experiences with guns. And we went around the table and each shared their own personal story. There’s someone who was a former NRA member. There’s someone that had a bunch of assault rifles. There’s someone who just bought a shotgun, and there’s a bunch of people that have never fired a gun before. There are people that have had suicide in their family. There’s people that had violence in their family.

And so, just going around, and saying, “Oh, wait, I know some of you, I don’t know some of you, but I don’t know any of these stories.” And the variety was just so eye-opening just to begin with, and that was really great. But the interesting part came when we decided to figure out, “What’s a policy we can all come to? What policy we think is going to have the biggest impact on gun violence. And let’s come up with proposals and then we’ll tear them apart together just for fun and we’ll see where it goes. Because if we all have the answers, this should be easy.”

What ended up happening as we all went into small groups and came back and now had proposals, and they were all terrible ideas. We all found flaws instantly. And this was eye-opening not because we learned that we didn’t know a whole lot about this issue but the fact that, “Oh, wait, this is complicated. And my simplistic position on it going in is incorrect.”

And that’s not necessarily changing your mind, but saying, “Okay. Well, in order to really do justice to this problem, I’m going to have to really know a lot more than I currently do.” And that can be both exciting and, if that’s not what you want to do, you could be like, “Well, I don’t have time to do that, but I know that the answer is out there somewhere. I hope we can facilitate conversations because we don’t have the answers right now.” And that’s an example where I came in with a really narrow perspective and came out thinking, “Oh, wait. Yeah, this is more complicated than I thought. I shouldn’t feel as self-righteous about this as I did before.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I really appreciate that example, and I guess I’m always a little skeptical when some people seem to know everything about everything, it’s like, “You know…” Oh, I forgot who said that quote but it said, “Some people are more sure of everything than I am of anything.”

Buster Benson
That’s very true. That’s one of the biases, right? Overconfidence is a big chunk of them, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. So, that’s, well, in a way that’s a “call me an optimist.”  I mean, in a way, that’s sort of discouraging, like, “Oh, man, this problem is going to be not resolved quickly because of its difficulty and complexity, but my optimism says okay.” It sounds like some people had some epiphany, some awakening, some understanding about other people’s viewpoints and were enriched as a result by being able to engage in those conversations and, well, I don’t know if you’re editing the story, but it doesn’t sound like anyone just started screaming someone else’s head off and stormed out.

Buster Benson
No, definitely not. Having food there also helped a lot because food calms you down, it sort of regulates your blood pressure a little bit more, and there’s also this culture element, like, if you’re sharing food with someone, you sort of see them as a peer or as a member of your tribe more than if you’re shouting at them over Facebook comments or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so there’s one quick tip right there. Hey, food is handy. I guess I’m wondering what are sort of like the general principles such that we can disagree with folks and walk away sort of with our relationship, at least, not harmed but hopefully improved? I think that’s sort of challenging is folks believe and sometimes it’s true that, “Boy, if I go here and we argue about this, they’re going to respect you less, or I’m going to respect them less, or it’s going to get ugly in one way or another.” So, how do we not have that happen?

Buster Benson
Yeah, it’s intimidating because it is a hard skill to acquire and a hard skill to practice, and if we’re not aware of where our skills are, we’ll oftentimes put ourselves in situations that are above our skill level. And so that’s why I advocate, let’s just start with small steps and get better in safer places and then move into harder ones, more challenging ones.

So, one way to think about it is that we don’t need to answer every problem. We can think of the world as a bunch of problems that are happening, a bunch of different people that are out there. And what is the one, or the two, or the three, that we are most well-suited to really deeply immerse ourselves in, understand from the inside, and to proactively act on?

And the feeling of when things happen in the news, and you have the answer in your head, and you’re like, “Why doesn’t everyone just do this thing that’s obvious to me?” That feeling goes away when you start to understand some of the problems deeply and you can respect that there’s probably more complexity going on.

And, secondarily, it helps us propose that we do have unproductive disagreements more often because unless someone is thinking about this and working on it, nothing is going to happen and this problem is just going to get worse. So, this mix of, “What is going to help me feel better? What’s going to lower my anxiety about just watching the news, or reading the news, or having family dinners?” Part of that is just being okay with this ambiguity of like, “These problems are harder than I thought they were.” But also, what can we do to make each other better at having these conversations?

First, we have to know what that means for ourselves but, secondly, we have to respect each other and help people get there because nobody taught us this, we don’t learn this in school, we don’t learn it at work. Yeah, it’s something that we should all be better at.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, when it comes to developing these skills, I mean, what are some of the practices, or action steps, or things we should do to get them going?

Buster Benson
The easiest one just to begin with is just to want to do it. And I think it sounds sort of trite but we go about most of our day in a pre-reactive mode where we’re like, “Okay, this bad thing happened. I’m going to go attack that. This bad thing happened, I’m going to go attack that,” versus like, “Okay. Well, what would it take for me to just pay more attention to what my reactions to these things and to think about if I did the same over and over again, things aren’t going to get better, so let’s just pay attention to it.”

I say, like, starting a disagreement journal is a great way to do that, if you’re into journaling, or just like talking to yourself and going on a walk, and like, “Let’s go back in that conversation and think about where I went off the tracks, where the thing that triggered me made me change from one that’s like asking open questions to one that was more like defensive, or even insulting, or whatever it is, and see what was it that was important to me that got challenged?” And maybe even follow up with that person the next day and say, “Hey, remember that conversation we had? I realized after the fact that I felt a little bit threatened because this is a value I held. Do you have that value? Is this something that you are really thinking about? What is your perspective on that?” And you might be able to use that as a bridge because there might be something, “Well, yeah, of course, that’s important. But I was talking about this other thing, completely different from that topic. And I’m sorry for lashing out.”

And so, you can use this as a way to go back after the fact and repair that relationship, and then use it as a way to connect it and make sure that the next one is a little bit better because it’s really hard at the moment to know what to do until you’ve sort of reflected on things a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’ve got, specifically, an eight-step process here to become better at productive disagreements. Could you give us perhaps a one-ish minute or less on each of these steps?

Buster Benson
Sure. So, there are eight of them. Each one of them is about summarizing a big field of work. So, the first one is watch how anxieties sparks. This is what we’ve been talking about mostly, like this mindfulness about that moment that you switch from the calm, curious, open person to the defensive, sort of protective person, and sort of really understand that, where that switch happens, and use that as a way to identify your own values.

Number two is to talk to your internal voices. We all have inherited these, some voices that are very authoritarian, some voices that are very calm and reasonable, and some voices that are like, “Screw this. I’m out, then I flip the table and leave,” and I call it, that’s the conflict avoidance one. And it’s different in each of our heads, and we oftentimes think these thoughts and then we speak them out loud. And so, our internal voices turn into external voices.

And to understand why we say things the way we do, we can sort of go back and think about, “Where does that voice come from? Who in my life am I mimicking in that voice? Do I still need it?” and think about that. That’s cognitive behavioral therapy and sort of the many-minds theory of like, “Oh, gee,” which is really interesting. It can help us tease apart, like, “These thoughts aren’t as necessary.”

Number three is developing honest bias which is sort of the further step past the poster you have. Not only like the what are the biases but what do we do with them? How can we use this information to have better conversations? And I think developing honest bias is the key here. Rather than trying to un-bias yourself, or point out the bias in other people, look for the damage that it does and repair that because that’s tangible, it’s practical, it’s right in front of you, it’s something that you can actually have impact on, versus trying to change the wiring in someone’s mind that’s going to be really, really hard and frustrating.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, to do that, are you just sort of identifying, like, “Hey, this is some things that show up for me in bias”? Or what are you doing exactly?

Buster Benson
Depending on what the situation is, you can say, like, in the work situation, we have this hiring flow that is biased towards candidates that come out of Ivy League colleges. Just fix that and say, like, “Okay, who knows who set that up and whose bias was the one that designed it?” But you can actually fix the process itself. The same goes for if you’re looking for a new job, you’re looking for a new place to live, or any decision that you’re trying to make, you can say, like, “Okay. Well, regardless of what my initial state is, I might seek out familiar things, or I might seek out a safe thing, or I might seek out the thing that makes me look the best.”

What options did you undervalue that you can add back onto the list before you make a decision? And so, there’s these 13 questions you can ask yourself about, like, “Am I favoring the bizarre, interesting, adventurous answers over the seemingly boring ones, even though the boring ones might be better answers for me?” and just add them back on the list, and then look at them altogether. So, you don’t have to change your bias, you can just fix the results of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you.

Buster Benson
So, number four is speaking for yourself. This is one that we do all the time where we speak for others, right? So, we will say, “That party is doing this for these reasons,” or, “That person is evil because they think this.” Rather than doing that, try to invite them into the conversation and ask them to speak for themselves, and also share your perspective from your own stance rather than trying to imagine what they’re thinking. That’s sort of what we talked about at the very beginning.

And it’s a hard habit to break because, I know, speaking from experience, we are just so used to using group labels, and saying, “This group of people has this intention, is doing these things for these reasons,” and we don’t question where we got that from, because we obviously can’t read their minds, and we don’t talk to them a whole lot. So, how can we know? Let’s go ask them directly. It also shows that these groups aren’t as homogenous as we think they are. There’s a whole lot of variation in our own groups and there’s a whole other variation in the other groups, so you can find reasonable people on both sides.

Number five is asking questions that spark surprising answers. There’s a whole list of questions you can just put in your back pocket and pull out right when you’re feeling flooded, you’re like, “Okay. Well, I don’t know how to address this. Okay, I’m going to ask a question,” because we oftentimes tend to ask questions that are black and white but are very limited in possibilities, and we often already prejudged many of the answers to the questions we ask. So, those aren’t going to return a lot of information about the other person that could surprise you. So, open questions, where no matter what they say, it’s going to be interesting and surprising. I think that that’s a better approach, and we can just make a list of these and use them.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you give us one or two right now? I like that way of articulating it, asking questions that invites surprising answers. So, that’s even a little bit more than just not just yes or no, but it gets you thinking about even better questions. So, can you lay a couple on us?

Buster Benson
Yes. So, one that I use a lot is just like, “What am I missing about your perspective that would help me understand you better?” I like to say, “How has this belief been useful for you? Who do you admire?” All these questions are ways of pivoting into their perspective and seeing the world through their eyes, which is always surprising.

In fact, the more different, the more bizarre they are in terms of their worldview, the more surprising it’ll be. And this is a self-reinforcing system because if you do this once, and you get an interesting answer, you’re going to like it. It’s going to be entertaining and meaningful to you. You’re going to want to do it again. You’re going to now have more information to ask even more interesting questions. So, it builds on itself in a really great way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fun. I guess I’m thinking about things like, “What TV or movie character do you most sort of relate, connect, identify with?”

Buster Benson
Oh, exactly, yeah. There are so many ways to bring your own personality into the questions and ask the ones that you think has some overlap with you, because you can embed that shared interest in a question, and say, like, “Hey, we both like this story. Let’s talk about it,” and through that, talk about the world.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Very good. What’s next?

Buster Benson
So, sixth is to build arguments together, and this is an interesting one. It requires the other, speaking for yourself, asking questions that spark surprising answers, building arguments together means, “Let’s put aside whether or not your argument is right. Let’s just work on it together and make it as good as possible.” Because any argument, any position, has a best version of itself. Even something like the flat-earth theory of the world has a best argument for it.

And it’s interesting because by bringing yourself to this question, you can be creative, you can sort of start building something that you may never have thought about before. And flat earth is sort of, in the topic, but like to just illustrate the point, it’s just interesting to build that up and think about, “Okay. Well, I obviously have a lot of problems with this. I can help you address these. Like, let’s find the answers to all my questions, and then you’ll potentially will build up to a point that you can convince me from this argument, then that’s a win-win as well.”

So, it’s one way of just turning the conversation from combative to collaborative that can turn out to be really fun. You do have to have some trust built in there because you don’t want to come across as, like, “Oh, I’m going to go in and let’s play blocks and treat your argument as a game.” But assuming that you can pull it off in terms of like, “Yeah, I really do want to build this up for you, and I want the best person and the best people to represent your position so I understand it,” then it can lead to really interesting places.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Buster Benson
Seven is cultivating neutral spaces. This is one of the hardest ones because think that arguments exists in the land of abstractions and ideas. Really, they exist in the world of words, sounds, body language, lighting, and power dynamics, and rooms, and sort of it’s really important to think about, “Which ideas are allowed on the table in this conversation? What are the power dynamics between us that maybe I’m not going to share everything because I know that if you don’t like it, you can fire me?” And then there’s also the question of, “Who can be in this conversation in the first place? Who can enter the room? Can I leave the conversation if I feel like it’s no longer being productive?”

It brings to the surface a lot of the power dynamics that have to happen. And these have a material impact on the success of the conversation. You can always turn something that’s really not a neutral space into something that’s more neutral. And we do this instinctively by saying, “Let’s go on a walk,” or, “Let’s go get dinner tomorrow,” or, “Let’s do something where the dynamic is different and the space feels a little better.”

Pete Mockaitis
Or if there’s sort of anonymous inputs in terms of we don’t know whose name is on that idea.

Buster Benson
Right. Exactly. And there’s people, you know, we don’t even see faces, or there’s no accountability, and people can drop in and drop out whenever they want. That’s another thing to consider especially online where these things happen, yeah.

And the last tip is to accept reality and then participate in it. And this is the most abstract one, but, really, it’s a call to this desire that we shouldn’t try to reject the world that exists and just refuse to participate in it until it is more likable. It is the way it is, and the only thing we can do is be a positive or a negative influence within it.

And I see disagreement as this opportunity for us all to say, “Okay, we’re not going to be unscathed, and we’re not going to be on the sidelines just critiquing all the bad things happening. Let’s get into the mix. Let’s be part of the solution. Let’s even be willing to be vulnerable and compromise in those situations and admit how we’re complicit in them,” because that’s the arena that these can be resolved in, and that’s really the way to participate in the most productive way.

So, this idea, like we can just exile, or censor, or ban all the things we don’t like is the opposite. Let’s bring everyone in and let’s figure it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so much good stuff here. And as you kind of walk through these eight, what really stuck with me, or struck me the most, is that “speak for yourself” bit. And I remember, this will be super quick, but, boy, when we were closing on our house, we had what we call split close where this other side was in a different room with their team and they were talking through the cellphone to, say, our lawyer. And there was this one point, like, “Oh, a little bit.”

And so, our lawyer was, say, “Well, hey, we would like this and that as a result of this,” and then she hangs up the phone and says, “Yeah, they basically say, yeah, they think this is a shakedown.” And then our real estate agent says, “A shakedown? For them to impute our integrity in this way,” and it was so funny, like they didn’t use the word shakedown. Our lawyer summarized for them using the word shakedown, and then the real estate agent took Umbridge at the words they never said, and I was just like, sometimes lawyers, not to point fingers, they come back and stuff happens.

Buster Benson
And this happens all the time, the tiny small steps can really derail a conversation so quickly, so quickly that we don’t even notice that it happened. So, yeah, that’s really a good example of just how easy it is to go on the wrong direction. But there are ways to notice them and say, “Okay. Well, let’s hear it from them. Can we just confirm that this is what’s happening?” because there’s more to be gained by a positive outcome for everyone than to just leave the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
And, speaking of that, well, I guess a shakedown is probably not one of them. But I want to get your take on some common phrases that can show up in arguments that tend to make things unproductive in a hurry and show up a lot, and some superior alternatives to those.

Buster Benson
Yeah, and there are just so many. Choose a genre of conversation that we can tease apart a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. We are professionals in a workplace considering what is the best option to complete an objective in terms of, “Should we invest in A, B, C, or D?”

Buster Benson
Right. Okay, so many things there, yeah. One of them you might be familiar to is, “Let’s take this offline,” is a really, really common one in the world of, okay, that just basically means, “There’s too many people in the room. We want to have this decision between a smaller group of people. And I’m going to decide who those people are.” That’s unproductive. I think that there are ways to identify the goal instead of just saying that the entire conversation should be taken offline. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that. But there’s also, let’s see…

Pete Mockaitis
That makes a lot of sense in terms of it’s quite a power grab, really.

Buster Benson
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay. You can just unilaterally declare that these topics are not going to be discussed here and, apparently, at an arbitrary later time with a group of people to be determined, it may or may not be discussed. Thanks.

Buster Benson
Yeah. And it is a tool that works but it’s also a tool that’s slightly dysfunctional if it’s misused. So, I think that a lot of these tools, they have good intentions. They’re like, “Okay. Well, we’re not ever going to go around the room and get everyone’s opinion, and then figure out what this is going to be”  because we think that that’s the only other option. But there are ways to move fast and make decisions and include people at the same time. It’s not a tradeoff you have to make, as much as it feels like that in the moment sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. And do you have, could you share, what are your favorite approaches for pulling that off?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, I was thinking of, as a product leader, I have many projects where your team is spending months working on something, and at the very last minute, the leadership is like, “Oh, I don’t know about this. Have you considered this possible downside?” And usually you have but you only have a very limited amount of time to talk about this. And so, this can turn a project from launching to taking months and months and months.

And then they’re like, “Let’s talk to more people. Let’s take this offline. Let’s revisit this in a month,” or whenever. One way around that is to say, “Okay. Well, let’s just go through worst case and best case scenarios of this so that we can mitigate those possibilities that are bad and sort of look forward to the ones that are good,” because then they’re heard. You can say, like, “I think the worst-case scenario is that all of our advertisers, they’re going to leave, or our users are going to revolt.” And they can say, “Okay. Well, here is how we’ll know if that’s happening. We’re going to launch it with a smaller group of people. We’re going to roll it out slowly. And if this starts happening, we’re going to stop. But we’re going to start going and find out if that’s true or not.”

So, trimming it from like, “Is this going to be a problem?” to, “Let’s find out if it’s a problem as quickly as possible, and keep the ball moving forward,” can save months and months of time in a lot of situations.

And that could be used in a lot of situations where people are risk-averse and feel like they don’t want to move forward until they feel more confident. But the way you feel more confident is by learning, and so there’s ways to make a prediction, “Let’s learn, let’s move forward. And if it turns out that I’m right, great. If it turns out that you’re right, we’ve learned something. Either way it’s going to be okay and we’re both going to win.” So, that’s really one of the simplest ways to move things forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And, quickly, I also want to get your take on is there any best practices, approaches, or tips you’d suggest for when we’re disagreeing with our boss or someone who outranks us?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, I always like to turn it into, “What would the evidence be of…?” especially with power dynamics, there’s like, “Do this,” right? And you’re like, “Oh, but that’s a bad idea,” or, “I don’t want to do that,” or, “I’m not good at that,” or sometimes it’s a judgment saying, “You’re not good at this,” or, “You’re not the right person for this,” or, “Your promotion is not going to happen.” Those kinds of things, that are really about a judgment of the worth of something, sometimes you, sometimes your work.

The way to turn that into productive disagreement is to say, like, “Okay. What would you see in the world if I was performing at a higher quality? Or what evidence would there be if I was ready for a promotion? Or how do you see it?” Just so it turns it from something that’s a judgment call into something that can be found in the world. And that’s also a great way to summarize what they’re really trying to say, which is like, they’re going to ultimately going to use signals in the world to make decisions, and it brings clarity to that.

So, turning it from something subjective to objective, saying that in the future if you had done these three things, or if you had spoken for the company and those things that happened, then I would sort of think that you’re prepared for the next step. Versus, like, “Oh, you’ll know when you see it,” or, “I’ll let you know,” kind of thing which is really vague, ambiguous, and can only increase your anxiety over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Buster, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, the last thing I’ll say is that the real challenge here is not to solve all disagreements, be like a perfect disagree-r, but just to have one or two to experience what that’s like, how enjoyable they can be, what it’s like to actually use disagreement to connect, what it’s like to actually learn a bigger perspective through disagreement, because if we can feel that feeling and sort of see that as the antidote to the anxiety we feel, then we could begin to expect it from our leaders, from our politicians, and the world more broadly, because right now we just don’t expect a whole lot from people because we haven’t experienced it for ourselves. So, taking baby steps and saying, “Okay. I just want to feel this and sort of see it in other people as well,” in the long run is the challenge here, and my hope that this sort of brings out.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Buster Benson
So, not to be too trite, but, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” is a Gandhi quote, but I think that that is one that has really influenced my approach to the world. It goes back to this accepting and participating. Don’t just be the critic. Be in the mix. Get all messy in the mud and get something done. If that’s what you want everyone else to do, then you got to do it too.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Buster Benson
In the news recently, I saw that this Stanley Milgram experiment has been debunked, which is really interesting to me. The interesting thing I think with experiments that I love the ones that had been falsified just because it helps us understand science as an evolving process. And one of the worst biases out there is publication bias where we only look at the studies that sound good as a headline, and that can sort of validate something about our lives.

So, I love any experiment that feels like it should be right that gets disproven just to add a little bit of that complexity back into our conversation. So, we can’t just listen to what feels good in our studies. So, Stanley Milgram is the prisoner experiment is going to be one that I would recommend reading or listen to, but the fact that it was revised and that we’re now questioning this is really interesting to me.

Pete Mockaitis
We’re talking about the authority with the shocks?

Buster Benson
Yeah, the one where you would zap people until they were basically dead because you’re the authority.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I want to see the latest on this. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Buster Benson
Favorite book right now. There is this book by Jenny Odell called How to Do Nothing, and it is just a delightful book that is both meditative and practical and rich in imagery in stories and stuff. She talks about how to live in a world where everything is trying to make us more productive, including my book, and how to just maintain integrity and dignity in that sort of high-pressure environment.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Buster Benson
My pen and paper are the ones that I go by the most. To add something a little bit more quirky, I’ve been really interested in the art of tarot decks recently, and I’ve been using this as a way to add symbolism and interesting this to my life.  We just have these tendencies to get into these routines and ruts where things can get really dry and sort of abstract.

Bringing back art into our work is really important to just remember that there’s a creative force that goes into the things that we do. Not necessarily advocating for the pseudoscience of tarot but I’m saying that just seeing the magician and the empress and the hanging man next to your desk, and say, “Okay, yeah. We live in a really rich world,” has been really helpful for me.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit that helps you be awesome at your job?

Buster Benson
So, my favorite habit is private journaling. I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s morning pages, Julia Cameron wrote a book called The Artist’s Way. It’s like this brain dump. Anytime that my brain is tangled up and I’m not into open question, I’ll just type furiously until all the knots get worked out. And it’s been a really, really helpful tool for me over the years to figure that out through that because, otherwise, you need to go on a long walk or ask someone out to coffee and talk about it. But this is a way that’s always handy and you can always use it to figure something out for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Buster Benson
BusterBenson.com is my website, there’s all kinds of weird things, and @buster on Twitter is where I live on the internet.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Buster Benson
Yeah. Have one proactive disagreement about something that you feel is important, and don’t keep it bottled up, and see how it goes. And be patient with yourself if it didn’t go right the first time.

Pete Mockaitis
Buster, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks. And keep on having some lovely productive disagreements.

Buster Benson
Thank you so much. It has been a joy.

516: Making Difficult Conversations Easier with David Wood

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David Wood says: "The tough conversations we haven't had form the boundaries of our world."David Wood shares his process for making difficult conversations more manageable.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What makes difficult conversations so difficult
  2. The four-step blueprint for tackling difficult conversations
  3. The simplest way to receive more quality feedback

About David

After life as a consulting actuary to Fortune 100 Companies, David built the world’s largest coaching business, becoming #1 on Google for “life coaching.”

He wants every human to play the best game they possibly can in work AND life and to have zero-regrets when they die. David coaches both high performing leaders, and soon-to-be-released prison inmates, to higher levels of Truth, Daring and Caring.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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David Wood Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
David, thanks for joining us here on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

David Wood
Hey, my pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to kick it off if you could share an interesting story about some of your work with people in prison.

David Wood
Well, I’m moved by their stories, and I’m particularly moved by some of the tough conversations that they need to have. There’s one inmate who we interviewed. We took in a film crew and we interviewed her, and she was part of a robbery. She didn’t actually do the robbery but she conspired to plan the robbery, and they didn’t follow the plan. They did something else, and someone got shot and killed. So, she got sentenced to 25 years in prison for planning a robbery whose plan wasn’t followed.

And one of the toughest conversations of her life that was coming up when I spoke to her, and I haven’t spoken to her since she had it, was she said, “How do you explain to the widow of your victim how sorry you are? How do you say ‘I understand that your kids are now suicidal, and you’ve lost your husband, and it was all because of something that I set in motion’? How do you explain how sorry you are?” And I didn’t really have any answer for that. So, that’s one story I’m moved by. I’m moved by many of the inmates and what they’re facing on a daily basis.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m intrigued. And so, in terms of your life’s work and expertise, what is it that you think that causes you to return this population again and again?

David Wood
I keep wondering why I go back into prison. I think, initially, it was a fascination with confronting my own freedom because I think that we take so many things for granted, and I wanted to see what was it like to go in and serve this underprivileged population. And then when I got in there, I found out how grateful they were. They were really humble, and they were really listening. They wanted to learn, “How am I going to communicate with a potential employer? How am I going to handle tough conversations with my family while I’m in prison and then when I get out since they’re blaming me for everything that’s gone wrong?”

So, they’re listening, and they want to know. And when we leave there, they’re just so grateful. They said, “A lot of people won’t come and spend the time with us. Thank you so much.” So, it gives me a chance. A lot in my life is going really well and it gives me a chance to do some service.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, can you zoom out a little bit? I want to hear a little bit about your philosophy and organization, play for real, what does it mean?

David Wood
Well, I believe we’re playing a game. I know not everybody has that viewpoint but I think life is the greatest game there is and the stakes are very high. Literally, we can die. So, the stakes don’t get much higher than that. But if you don’t know that you’re playing a game, what can happen, let’s say in your job, you can get tense, you can start to feel overwhelmed, you can start to get a bit crabby and snap at people because, now, you’re stressed and you’ve forgotten that you’re playing a game. So, I’d like everybody to be able to tap into the flow of life by remembering this is a very high-stakes game.

But I don’t mean we’re being frivolous about it and we’re just, say, dancing through the daisies with butterflies floating around our hair and not a care in the world. I’m saying, let’s play the game but let’s play it like we mean it. Let’s play it as if we may not get another chance to be reincarnated and live a second life. Let’s play but let’s play for real. So, to me, that means let’s try and live so that on our deathbed we will have zero regrets and say we absolutely gave our job and our relationships and our life everything that we possibly could.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. And so, we’re going to spend most of our time talking about how real conversations are difficult conversations play into it. But just to get oriented to the broad picture, you lay out four particular obstacles or enemies of playing for real. So what are those if you can give us the quick version for how we overcome those?

David Wood
Yeah. So, one thing that people are missing is real goals. They’re going through life but they haven’t actually set goals to light them up. So, that’d be the first thing that’s missing. The second thing, suppose you have goals, you know where you’re heading, but not everybody sits down and creates a strategic plan, and says, “This is exactly what needs to happen for me to achieve those goals.” So, we’re just talking about a lack of a strategic plan.

The third one is there’s no real action. It’s one thing to have a plan, it’s another thing to implement the damn plan. So many of us get distracted by Facebook messages and text messages and people coming and knocking on the door that we don’t actually take action on the things that we say matter. So, lack of real action is the third one.

And then the fourth one is lack of real growth. And I’ve identified three values that I found critical to up-leveling in life and business, and that’s increasing your truth, increasing your levels of daring, and increasing your levels of caring. So, by addressing these four, we can actually create real goals, we can create a real plan, we can get in real action. And by increasing levels of truth, daring, and caring, we can actually have real growth in our life. And if you follow all four of those, then I say that leads to a regret-free life.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that makes a lot of sense to me in terms of, yeah, I can see those four things need to be in place to move toward really cool stuff that matters. And if we increase the truth and daring, that’s going to certainly help you out there. Now, I guess I have a bit of a picture or assumption on how daring and caring apply and how they’re special. But could you expand upon increasing truth? What does that mean and how is it done?

David Wood
Right. Well, let’s say, this is about being awesome at your job, right? So, if you want to be awesome at your job, let’s look at how you can increase your levels of truth. Now, if you’re not speaking up and talking about something that doesn’t work for you, then you’re hurting yourself and you’re hurting the team. So, let’s say Bill, over in accounting, is doing something that’s actually slowing down your job, and you stay silent. Well, that doesn’t really help anybody. So, by increasing our levels of truth, we can start to speak up about what I need, about what the team needs, and about what the company needs. It might be that you need a pay raise, and so while you’re sharing that with your boss, you’re increasing your level of truth.

And I actually have a secret mission. I want everybody in the world to increase their levels of personal responsibility, increase their levels of agency so that we’re speaking up and we’re causing the matter instead of just being passive or, even worse, complaining or gossiping. So, that’s an example of how we might increase truth.

Now, to increase daring, I think you can start to see how it goes hand in hand. For you to speak up and be the squeaky wheel at work, it might take some courage to go to your boss and say, “May I have more money?” or, “Can I get a transfer to this environment?” or, “Hey, I think I’m being discriminated against sexually in the workplace.” All of these things take daring to speak up. Also, it’s daring to say, “Can I have that Japanese account?” or to say to a prospective customer, “How about you sign up for a year instead of one month?” So, those are just some examples of the daring.

And then caring, you can care for your fellow workmates and actually care that they do a good job, and that they’re doing well, and that they’re feeling appreciated. You can care for your direct reports. You can care for the relationships between you and your customers. You can care for your personal relationships and nurture your relationship with your kids, with your parents, with your spouse, and you can also practice self-care, because burnout’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem in the workplace. And if we’re not taking care of our nutrition, and our rest, and our exercise, then, eventually, we are going to burn out and it’s going to whack us with a big stick.

So, does that answer your question of, “How do we increase levels of truth, caring, and caring?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, so I’ve got a broad picture for how that unfolds there. So, now, yeah, let’s just talk, when it comes to pulling all that and you’ve got some conversations that are tricky, I mean, for starters… I made this more philosophical. Let’s see how it goes. What makes a difficult conversation difficult in the first place?

David Wood
Fear of loss. We’re usually worried about losing something. So, a difficult conversation at work would be, again, “May I have a pay raise?” We might be worried about annoying our boss and getting cut out of the next project, or maybe the boss says, “You know, we really don’t have the budget to support your salary, and you’ve just reminded me. You’re fired.” Or, let’s suppose, with our partner, a really tough conversation can be a confession, “Hey, I kissed someone and broke an agreement three years ago, and I want to come clean about it.” We could lose that relationship. So, fear of loss is one of the biggest things that make something a tough conversation.

The other thing, which I think is linked to this, is vulnerability. We can’t control a tough conversation. We can’t control the other person’s reaction if they get upset, if they get defensive, we can’t control what they do. We can’t even control how the conversation goes so we’re stepping into vulnerability to have a tough conversation. And I can understand why a lot of people might want to just sweep that under the carpet.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so that’s why it’s sort of tricky. So, then how do we go about having these conversations effectively?

David Wood
Well, I have a four-step blueprint. And, by the way, tough conversations, I’ve been interested in those for 10 years in helping my clients, but I only recently, but I realized how well they fit into truth, daring, and caring because it’s all about telling the truth. It takes a lot of daring to have a tough conversation, and it takes a lot of caring to do it right. So, I’ve been very excited when I realized, “Oh, this is a way I can express truth, daring, and caring in the world and one the ways that we can play for real.”

So, how we do it, as I have a four-step blueprint, and if you like, we can give listeners a download at the end of this so that they don’t have write down a whole bunch of notes.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Let’s do that too. So, okay, four steps.

David Wood
Yeah, four steps. And if you like, we can use an example with an authority figure. So, it could be something that you want to say to your boss, or we had an example with one of the prison inmates, and she was saying, “When the guard was late to his shift, that meant that I couldn’t be where I needed to be in the prison, and I got chewed up by another guard, and it really impacted my life.” And she said, “How do I have that tough conversation with an authority figure who has the ability to make my life hell?” And anyone with a job knows that their boss has a lot of power over them financially, their work hours, a whole bunch of things. So, we can use that as an example perhaps.

Step one is you ask permission for the conversation. Don’t just launch into it. So, with this prison inmate, for example, she could say to the guard, “Excuse me, Mr. Smith, do you have just a few minutes for a quick conversation?” And this is a good point to share your hope for the conversation, and we’ll give listeners a worksheet as well. When they download the four-step worksheet blueprint as a worksheet so you can prepare for this, and that’s where you work out your hope.

Now, her hope was, “My hope is you can understand a little more about what it’s like to be an inmate and that, hopefully, that might influence some of your decisions in the future,” something like that. Or, “My hope is that my life might be a little bit easier if you understand a bit more what it’s like.”

And then, step two, this is where you can share your fear or concern. Now, I guarantee there’s a fear or concern or you wouldn’t be calling it a tough conversation. So, in her example, “I’m hesitant to bring this up because I don’t want to offend you. You might feel offended or defensive and you might not want to listen to me, and I might get in trouble.”

And then, step three, this is where you share the issue. And if you have a request from your worksheet, this is where you put it in the request. So, in her example, again, it might be something like, “When you were late, I got in a lot of trouble. I got chewed out and I couldn’t pick up my property, and it really had an impact. And my request is, to whatever extent you’re able to, if you could try and be on time, then I’d be really grateful.”

And then, step four, the last one, I think can be the most important. This is where you get curious and you listen and negotiate. We don’t want to have tough monologues. We want to have tough conversations. And this is also where caring comes in. So, it might look, in this example, something like, “I’m wondering how is it for you to hear that? Does that make sense? Does that sound workable? Do you have a better idea? I’d love to hear anything you’ve got to say,” because you don’t want to just dump this and then run. And you may find out, she may find that this corrections officer may have a better idea than she had. The corrections officer may be like, “Look, I’ll speak to the other CO and I’ll smooth things over for you,” or, “I can’t guarantee I’ll be on time but I’ll help you out if you get in trouble because of it.” We don’t know. But that’s the plan.

Step four is get curious, and then we listen and negotiate.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yes. I like that. It makes sense. It’s handy when you sort of have, I don’t know, a preamble but you share those bits in advance. And I think it makes them more kind of sympathetic or appreciative that you’re a human being and you have some sensitivities and vulnerabilities and you’re not trying to attack them.

David Wood
Yes, that’s right. It’s relational and it’s vulnerable. It’s like, “Here’s my hope out of this, here’s my fear or concern out of this, I’m a real person. I’m kind of at my edge here.” It changes the whole space. And people are more, I find, they’re more likely to listen when you show a bit of vulnerability and let them know the context of what’s going on instead of just you working it out in your head, and then launching into a tough monologue trying to get what you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s do another scenario here and I think this happens a lot at workplaces. Okay. Let’s say you are responsible for your project to get done and that has any number of dependencies from other departments which you don’t have really control or authority over those folks who need to provide key stuff or inputs for you to get the job done. And so you’ve got to do some of those prompts, like, “Hey, you didn’t give me your stuff when I needed it.” But I always found that tricky in environments, in terms of, “How do I do an appropriate follow-up and what are the prompts I should be using to get what I need without being sort of offensive or pestering?” Because I don’t want them to think like, “Who’s this guy and why is he always in my business pestering me non-stop?” So, yeah, there’s the scenario. Let’s walk through how’d you approach such conversations.

David Wood
Perfect example and very similar to this inmate who wanted something from someone else who had some authority, she couldn’t control it so it was really a request. And in giving that preamble, I think you’ve given all the answers we need. So, first step would be asking permission, right? We’re not going to dump it on someone. We’re going to say, “Hey, if you’ve got a few minutes to talk about this project,” and this is where you’ll sweep in your hope, “My hope is we can be more in sync as a team and to be honest that I’m going to look even better with my boss,” for example, right? I’m making that up, “But I probably want to look good with my boss. So, that’s my hope.”

“And then my fear, or my concern about bringing it up is I know you don’t report to me, I know it’s not your job to make me look good, and I don’t want to be too obnoxious. I don’t want to be stepping on your toes, and I don’t want to put you offside, so I’m a little hesitant to bring it up, but I think it’s worth talking about.” So, now, we’ve been real, we’ve shared a hope, we’ve shared a concern.

And then, step three, share the issue and include a request if you have one, “So, the issue is I would share the impact. When I get the material later than you said it’s coming, there’s a whole pipeline that gets messed up, and it ends up taking us longer, and then sometimes I get in trouble for it. That’s the impact. And so, my request is that if we can be more rigorous around our deadlines, and if you don’t think you can get it to me by Thursday, give me a firmer deadline of Monday. But if you say Thursday at 5:00 o’clock, my request is that we be a bit more rigorous with it. Do you think that would work?”

And now I’m already going to slip straight into number four, “What do you think about this? Have you got any other ideas? Because this isn’t quite working and I’d really like to find something that does work.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, defensiveness pops during the course of the conversation. Do you have some pro tips for navigating that?

David Wood
Yeah. And I like what you said, like, “I don’t want to be obnoxious. I don’t want to be nagging all the time.” So, I’ll share that concern and I’ll say, “How do I request things from you without being a nag? How do I do it? Do you have a suggestion for language? I’d really like your ideas on this because I’m a little bit stumped.” And then you work it out together.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure. Now, can we talk about going first. I’ve got Stephen Covey in my head here now. You know, “Seek first to understand then be understood.” How do you think about that sequencing or timing of who’s going first, and when is it optimal?

David Wood
Yeah, yeah, great. I love that. So, in the download, you’ll get some pro tips. And one of the tips is if you find that the other person is not really listening, they’re just jumping in, so you say something like, “You know, if I get the things later than we said, then I said, ‘Oh, well, my boss was doing this, and blah, blah, blah,’” they’re not listening, then you could try some words like this, “Hey, I want to hear that, and I want to try and get this out in one go. Do you think you could give me just two minutes? And I think I can cover all the bases. And then I’d love to hear everything you’ve got to say. So, we’ll just take turns then. Is it okay if I go first?”

And if it’s not, “Okay, maybe you go first and I’ll listen first. I’m okay with that.” The main thing is that you take turns and that there’s actually a two-way communication instead of someone just getting triggered and kind of running the show. If that happens, make the request, “Can I go first? And if not, you go first.”

Can you say the question again about the sequence of timing?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. So, we talked about, “Can I go first?” and I’m thinking about Stephen Covey with one of those seven habits of seek first to understand then be understood. So how do you think about the timing, sequencing of who goes first, talking versus listening. And are there particular circumstances in which you recommend listening first or just how do you think about that?

David Wood
Well, I think it’s sometimes a matter of charge, like, “Who has the charge?” So, if you’re the one that has some emotional charge on something, and you’re a bit at your edge, you might just want to request permission, “Can we talk about this? Can I share this issue?” And if you a yes, go for it. And then find out their reaction. So, I think it makes total sense for you to go first.

If you think that they might have a bit of charge, let’s say that you think they’re really upset with you about something, then you might say to them, “Look, I want to have a conversation about this and I can go first if you like, or if you like, you go first and I’ll listen, and then we’ll switch.” So, you’d still ask permission for the conversation, then you might throw it up in the air. Because if they’ve got a lot of charge, then the chances are higher they’re going to get triggered, angry, defensive, upset, something like that, and I might want to preempt it and let them, just hear their issue first.

But sometimes you’re taking something to someone where you don’t even know if they’ve got an issue, so I don’t think we have to artificially try and get their side first. I think it’s fine to just lead in and see if there’s permission for you to share your side.

Pete Mockaitis
I got you. Thank you. And then in terms of sort of managing in your own head and the emotions in the midst of these conversations, anything you recommend on how you can do that well? So if you’re starting to freak out, do you have some tips? Or if you’re feeling a little scared, nervous, anxious, and some things show up that you weren’t expecting… What do you do?

David Wood
I can see why you’ve got so many reviews on your podcast. You ask really good questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

David Wood
So, yeah, we’re talking about some emotional regulation now. If you know that you’re going to have an issue, for example, I had a podcast host say, “How do I share with my mother who’s got Alzheimer’s and who’s dying? How do I share with her all the things that I’ve been disappointed about in my life? I want to have no secrets between my mother.” Now, that’s a tough conversation.

And one of the tips that I gave her was to talk it out first with a friend or even journal it. Like, get it out. Don’t take all your charge about your disappointment about how your mother raised you and dump it on your mother. Better to go through your worksheet, work out your hope, work out your fears, you might write down all your disappointments, talk them out with a friend, in this way you can release a lot of that emotional charge so that when you go into the live conversation, you can be more matter of fact and deal with the facts, say, “Yeah, I was disappointed about a few things. Here are a couple of the key ones. And now that I’ve talked it out with a friend, I’ve realized that you’re actually doing the best you could.”

Those kinds of insights can come out of doing this. And I’ve also, I had one client who’s a manager in a tech company, and she said, “I’m worried about this tough conversation with my staff. They’re going to give me feedback on my management style. What if I get triggered? What if I get defensive and shut down?” Which is a super smart thing to be aware of. So, I said, “Great. We’re going to practice it. I’m going to be your employee, and I’m going to give you feedback, and I’m not going to go very easy on you, and we’re going to see how you go.” So, she got to roleplay it. And I started easy, just with a few things, and she handled it really well. And then, finally, I said, “You know, basically, you’re just clueless.” And that was too much.

So, we found her edge and she shut down, and then we slowed down, and we worked through it, found out why she would shut down, and she learned a new language. She learned how to say, “Ouch! That hurt,” instead of pretending and covering it up. So, long answer to a short powerful question, you can roleplay it, and you can talk it out with your friends first to release a lot of that charge so that you’ll be more settled when you actually have it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is good. And while we’re talking about feedback and being on the other end of some of this, are there other perspectives in terms of, how can we be open to the feedback and encourage and receive it and put it to use all the more often?

David Wood
Well, one way, this might seem flippant, but one way that we can get good feedback more often is to listen to the feedback we get. Now, I’ll put myself up and confess straight away that this isn’t automatic for me. If someone says something that I receive as critical, my first thought might be to defend, “Well, the reason that happened was blah, blah, blah.” I’m not listening. I’m not listening to their experience. So, if you can catch yourself, you go, “Oh, wait a minute. I just reacted to that. Let me slow down and listen to this. All right, you’re saying when I deliver this late, it has an impact on you and you get in trouble with your boss. All right. So, what I need to do is to be better about managing my deadlines.”

Now, if I’m willing to actually listen to someone’s woe instead of just defending myself, they’re more likely to come to me next time and say, “Hey, you know that conversation went well. How about this one? Would you be willing to try this?” But how many people do you know at work who just, historically, have not been open to requests, or criticism, or feedback that’s less than glowing. I know people that I’m not going to give them any feedback because they’re bumpy and they’re just not open to it so I stop giving it to them.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally, yeah.

David Wood
Yeah, I’ve got this manager I was just talking about, she wants feedback. She wants to be a great manager and she knows to be a great manager she’s got to know if there’s a problem so she’s gone to each of the team members and said, “Would you be willing to tell me if there’s something I’m doing that’s not the best?” And she told them a story about her boss. She told her boss, “What could I do better?” The boss said, “Oh, everything is good. Everything is good. No, you’re doing great.”

Pete Mockaitis
What happens?

David Wood
And then when it came to review time, the boss said, “Well, here are five things you could’ve done better.” And she was naturally pissed. She’s like, “I wanted that feedback. I could’ve been better already.” So, she told that story to her staff to let them know that she really does value feedback, and to model for them what it’s like to actually request for feedback so that some of them could go, “Oh, same here. Let me know if I can do something better.” A real ninja move to cause some of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, David, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about your favorite things?

David Wood
Well, I like talking about my favorite things, so let’s shift gears.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, let’s do it. How about a favorite quote or something you find inspiring?

David Wood
Well, I’m going to quote myself because I said something a couple months ago and it stuck with me, and it feels so core to the work I’m doing. And what I said was, “The tough conversations we haven’t had form the boundaries of our world.” They literally form the boundaries of our reality. But the tough conversations we do have become the defining moments of our relationships, our career, and our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

David Wood
A favorite bit of research? Well, there’s an assistant professor on the East Coast of the U.S. who surveyed, I think, it was 150 hospice nurses to find out what people actually regret on their deathbed. You hear so much talk about, “Oh, on your deathbed, people wished they hadn’t spent so much time at the office, blah, blah, blah.” But where’s the research? Well, I’m telling you, there isn’t any. This guy has got the closest piece of research, it’s very hard to get to the actual people dying due to privacy laws and permissions at the hospital and family and all these things. I’ve tried. But he actually researched the nurses and found, say, the top five regrets of the dying. So, that’s one of my favorite pieces of research just because it’s the closest that exists to what I really want to see which is actually asking those who are dying.

Pete Mockaitis
And for those who haven’t seen the study, could you share a couple of them?

David Wood
Oh, being true to one’s self, that’s one. And I may not have the words right but being true to one’s self, speaking up for you instead of living other people’s dreams, that’s one. And I think an example of that would be telling people how much you love them.

And I can relate to that. When I imagine being on my deathbed, there’s a scan, and I’ve been near death. I’ve been sitting on a plane with the engine caught on fire, I’ve had my parachute collapse and head plummets towards the ground, and I’ve scanned, “Is there anything left? Is there anything left unsaid?” In fact, I turned to my partner, with the engine on fire, and said, “Well, good, Ray. Is there anything we haven’t said?” And we agreed we were solid. I want that experience for everybody, that you don’t die with anything left unsaid.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

David Wood
I’m a fan of The Work of Byron Katie. And so, I’m going to mention Loving What Is because it was my first introduction. I didn’t get a grasp for The Work from that book but it was what led me to go further with Katie and finally get a grasp on The Work. So, Loving What Is by Byron Katie will start to introduce you. This reminds me of a quote of hers which is one of my favorites, which is, “The worst thing that can happen to you is a thought.” Yeah, a whole gamechanger to start to realize that circumstances don’t give us our experiences of our life. It’s what we’re believing that gives us our experience of life. And Katie gives us a way to hack those painful thoughts to get to peace.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a favorite tool you’d recommend to people to be more awesome at their jobs?

David Wood
Yeah, I recommend the four-step blueprint for tough conversations which we’ll give your listeners in a few minutes.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

David Wood
Ooh, I like something called somatic sequencing. It’s new. This is new for me. I’ve been running from a lot of the sensations in my body for years and years, and I believe this is what people pick up with cigarette, or they smoke, or they have a glass of wine. Or you take some medication to kind of numb ourselves, or watch TV. But I’ve been experimenting with a therapist in feeling the feelings. Like, I’ll go and lay down a special place in the house and I’ll be like, “What is happening in my body?” I’ll just feel it and I will try and welcome everything that’s happening. And that’s been a bit of a game changer for me. So, that’ll be my new favorite tool or practice.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

David Wood
You can go to PlayForReal.life. At PlayForReal.life you can download the blueprint. If you are serious about up-leveling in career and life at the same time, then see if you qualify for a discovery session with me. If you do, I don’t charge for those sessions. And I have joined the ranks of the podcasters in the last week, Pete. And if you’d like to listen to me as well as Pete, then Tough Conversations with David Wood is a new podcast you can subscribe to, again, at PlayForReal.life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Well, David, it’s been a whole lot of fun. I wish you all the best and keep on doing the great work as you’re playing for real.

David Wood
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate you.

491: How to Have Powerful Conversations that Improve Performance with Jonathan Raymond

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Jonathan Raymond says: "We're too nice to each other. We're not having honest conversations."

Refound CEO Jonathan Raymond teaches how to communicate feedback that gets results.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What makes traditional feedback ineffective
  2. How to have more effective conversations using the 5 stages of the Accountability Dial
  3. How to articulate feedback to your team, your peers, and your seniors

About Jonathan

After twenty years of not being able to decide whether he was a business executive or a personal growth teacher, Jonathan stopped trying to figure it out. He’s the author of Good Authority — How to Become the Leader Your Team is Waiting For, and the Founder & CEO at Refound, a people training company that teaches people how to have human conversations at work. Refound specializes in working with people leaders at high-growth organizations and is proud to be a trusted learning partner to Fortune 100 organizations like Panasonic and McKesson, cutting edge tech firms like Niantic and Box and small businesses that are going places. He’s madly in love with his wife, tries not to spoil his daughters, and will never give up on the New York Knicks. Jonathan is an experienced CEO and people manager and has thrown his heart, mind, and soul into more than a few culture change projects. He lives in Encinitas, California and is an avid, albeit mediocre, surfer.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Jonathan Raymond Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jonathan, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Jonathan Raymond
Thanks, Pete. It’s great to be back.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to hear, have you learned anything extraordinarily useful and maybe new that changed the way you were thinking from two years ago?

Jonathan Raymond
Yeah, I hope the answer to that is yes. We’ve learned a ton, really, as an organization.
I think that one of the ways that we work with organizations and try to advise them is, you know, a lot of people will say, like, “Well, we want more communication.” But if you actually talk to people inside an organization, which we do through our engagements, they say, “Well, you know, it’s not so much that I want more communication. There’s plenty of communication.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Plentiful.

Jonathan Raymond
“What I want is for them to think a little harder.” They meaning the organization or the leaders or whoever. “I want them to think a little more about which ones matter to me and why, and invest a little bit more time in context and why, why this particular piece of communication.” There’s a bunch of stuff that you’re telling me about that, it’s not that I don’t care but I have so many things that I’m trying to digest at the same time, I’d rather you didn’t. If you could just invest a little bit more time in thinking into which pieces of communication need a little bit more context and a little bit more of the why, those organizations are succeeding in terms of having more effective communication.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, when it comes to communication effectiveness, I wanted to chat with you in some real depth about feedback. We touched upon it last time, which was, boy, way back, more than about a couple of years there. And so, I wanted to talk about feedback in particular for this chat and maybe to start us off with in what ways does feedback often sort of just not work in teams and organizations? Sort of what’s the problem that you bump into most often?

Jonathan Raymond
Yes. Well, let’s start by thinking about for anyone who’s married or in a serious relationship. When you try to give feedback to your partner or spouse, how does it go? Usually not well, right? If you have kids and you try to give your kids feedback, including but not limited to teenagers, how does it go? Generally, not well, right? Why? Like, why does feedback not generally go well?

One is because we’ve got a lot of pent-up emotions, typically. We sometimes have more power than the other person, not always. We are often missing context around why they did what they did when they did it. There are so many possible ways that things could go wrong. We have our own bias, we have our own judgments, we have a lot of our own projection and how we feel about ourselves, so it’s a mess. So, when we enter into a thing called a feedback conversation, the likelihood of success is very low given all of those factors.

And so, we have to start thinking beyond feedback. Because that setup, whether it’s in the workplace or in our families—it doesn’t work. We know that it doesn’t work. People get defensive, it’s awkward, we feel uncomfortable, we talk past one another, so we need another way to think about solving the problem of what is the problem that feedback is intending to solve. There’s a real problem there that we’re sort of taking this tool called feedback and saying, “Oh, that’s going to solve it.” And then we found our position is like, “Hmm, not so much. It’s not going to work for that for a lot of different reasons. There’s another way.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I suppose most often, the problem I’m trying to solve with feedback is, “I would like for you to do this thing differently and better as I perceive better.” And so, if feedback is not the mechanism, what is?

Jonathan Raymond
So, for us, the everyday conversations take a different tone. So, exactly as you said, right, “What is the purpose of feedback?” Well, I want someone to behave differently. Now, we could also say we also want to give them feedback around things that they do well. And we’ll get into kind of the different feedback spaces or the different feedback relationships that we all have.

But if we think about approaching that conversation, not by making a statement about something but by asking a question, or making an observation, but doing it from a place of acknowledging our subjectivity, and saying, “Hey, I noticed this,” or, “It seems to me that X,” or, “When I was sitting in the meeting, one of the things that struck me was…”

But we’re approaching those conversations with a spirit of curiosity, with a spirit of dialogue, like, “I don’t have all the information. I don’t know everything about why you did what you did when you did it. I just noticed something and I’m going to bring it up because, as your colleague or as your manager or as your subordinate—whatever the case may be—I see that as part of my role to when I see things that are either problematic or potentially problematic, part of my role as a leader in this organization and in standing for my own values is to say something.”

But the way we go about it changes the whole game. And if we approach it from a place of assumption and conclusion and prescriptive, like, “This is what happened, and this is what you need to do differently.” Well, now we’re doing feedback and we’ll get the results that you would imagine. But if we approach it from a place of, “Hey, I have a question about this. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It seemed like this but I could be…” And so, it’s having that open hand relative to those everyday conversations.

So, in one way you could say, “Oh, that’s another way to do feedback,” and that’s fine, you could call it that. But for us it’s really different. When we train and teach these tools, people feel like, “Oh, so I don’t really have to give feedback in the way that I understood it. All I have to do is talk with people. All I have to do is show up as a human being, find a way to surface what I’m feeling, thinking, sensing, and then we can have a conversation, and that’s right.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued. So, we start with the curiosity and a statement of, “Hey, I noticed this…” And then maybe how’s the rest of the conversation go or maybe could you do a roleplay or an example?

Jonathan Raymond
Yes, so what we did is we created a tool called the Accountability Dial. And what we found—and this came from my own painful experiences as a people leader—is that I found myself having the same conversations over and over again, whether I was in a management role or when I was more junior, and I would flag something or name something, and I would find myself repeating those conversations.

And so, what we did is we created an architecture, we said, “Hey, what if there’s actually five parts to that conversation?” We called them the mention, the invitation, the conversation, the boundary, and the limit. And if we think about locating ourselves, “Well, where am I in this conversation? Is it the first time that I’m bringing this up? Well, I’m at the mention stage.” “Hey, Jennifer, I was in this standup this morning and you seemed frustrated by where the conversation was going. I’d love to hear more about that if I’m reading that right.” So, that’s the mention, right?

So, I don’t know why Jennifer, maybe there’s a really good reason, maybe there might be 27 things that could be happening, maybe I’m misinterpreting the situation. But my mention is just my first attempt to get in dialogue with Jennifer about that. So, that’s the mention.

Now, let’s say a couple of days goes by, maybe a week goes by, and I’m still sensing she’s frustrated in that meeting, I notice that in some email back and forth, something is not clicking. So, if I was Jennifer’s manager or if I was her peer and I cared about her as another human being, I wouldn’t let it go. I would come back to her and I would say, “Hey, I mentioned something in the hall last week. I’ve noticed a couple of other things. It seems to be something bigger and I care. I want to know. Maybe there’s something, maybe there’s some way that I can help.”

So, that’s the invitation stage, the second step of going into a little bit more deeper dialogue. And every single one of these steps, all five of them, are ways to express care in human ways to say, “Look, there’s something going on, or at least I think there is, and if there’s something that I’m doing, I want to be able to change it. And if there’s something that we need to work out together, well, let’s do that.”

And so, we go through those stages. That’s how we move through the Accountability Dial where we don’t try to tackle the whole thing in one bite. It doesn’t work that way. We’re not geared to be able to solve important things as human beings that touch on all these interpersonal and intrapersonal issues. We can’t solve those in a 30-second conversation so we’re going to come back to it a couple of times over a period of days or weeks or whatever it is.

Pete Mockaitis
And for that second bit there, the invitation, what exactly are we inviting them to?

Jonathan Raymond
So, we’re inviting them to reflect, to say, “Hey, look, it looked like it was maybe a one-off thing but now I’m seeing maybe it isn’t a one-off thing. Maybe there’s a pattern that’s emerging. And it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it doesn’t mean you failed, it doesn’t mean I’m judging you. It just means, hey, I’m here. I’m human, you’re human. There are probably things that you see about me that maybe are patterns. But, in this instance, here’s something that I’m seeing. And if I’m your manager,” and, again, this is a philosophical point of view.

In our work, we say, “Hey, if you’re the manager or the people leader, it’s your responsibility to approach that person, if not in real time, in near time to say, ‘Hey, look, there’s something that seems to be happening here. I’m inviting you to take a reflection on this, to think about, hey, is there something that you’re not saying, or is there a conversation you need to have with someone else, or is there a step that you need to do that you haven’t done?’” Whatever it is, but not from a place of judgment or shaming, but just offering somebody from that coaching mindset, a reflection from the outside.

Because what’s really hard for us as humans is we don’t see when we’re doing that often. Most of us, our powers of self-reflection, especially with the pace of work, are limited. So we want, you know, if you’re hungry for growth you need people around you who are going to say, “Hey, look. Hey, Jonathan, here’s something that I’m noticing. Maybe it’s worth thinking about.” That’s the invitation.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, that’s an example we’re running with. So, Jennifer, the first time with the mention, she seemed frustrated by something. And then so how does the conversation unfold during the invitation phase? You say, “It appears that this has happened a couple more times. This might be a pattern. So, I invite you to think about it or…”

Jonathan Raymond
Well, so it depends in the context, right? So, if I’m Jennifer’s manager, that’s going to feel a certain way, if I’m a peer I might approach that conversation a little differently. It depends on how you know the person and what the nature of that relationship is. But the invitation stage, it’s not so much, it’s not a directive. The invitation is more sort of describing the stage. Like, imagine you had like a black light that you could put on the floor of an office, and you could see all of the, what we call, feedback conversations.
Mostly what you would see is a lot of like started but never re-engaged conversations. So, people bring up something, they flag something, they name something, they highlight something, but they never come back around to that person and say, “Hey, remember that conversation we had the other day? There’s something else that I’m noticing that I think might be connected to it.”

And then the whole point of using the Accountability Dial in everyday conversations is you’re engaging your curiosity, right? “Hey, I don’t know. It’s not my job to know the answer, but here’s what I’m seeing,” and building those relationships of trust with a colleague. So, that’s the invitation. And then we move to the next stage, into the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then some time goes by again, and you notice some other things. And then what happens?

Jonathan Raymond
So, the conversation stage of the Accountability Dial is when we try to help somebody, again, whether it’s a colleague, or a direct report, or somebody more senior, shift their awareness from intentions to impacts. So, most of the time, 99% of the time, when something happens in an office that isn’t great, or a factory floor, you know, we do a lot of work in manufacturing and other contexts like that, it’s not intentional. The person is not intentionally trying to create work for other people, or make life more difficult, or they’re not intentionally doing something to harm others or the team or the customer. And yet, behavior has impact.

And the conversation stage of the Accountability Dial is to help somebody shift their awareness, “Hey, so I get that that’s not what you intended. I get that. I understand that. But I’d love to actually have a conversation about what the impact to de-personalize it. It’s not, well, you’re bad a person.” People are likely to get very defensive especially if you’re their manager or any other context like that too. I know many of your listeners are not in a people management role.

But the context of that conversation is, “Let’s step back and let’s talk about, well, if you’re finding yourself frustrated,” if we take Jennifer’s example, “Jennifer, if you’re finding yourself frustrated with the team and maybe the pace of projects, or there’s too many changes, or whatever it is, how might that be impacting your working relationships? How might that be impacting our customers or vendors or stakeholders? How might that be impacting the overall experience that we’re having as a team? How might it be impacting your own development? Like, is there some career goal or something that you’re working on that’s staying in the state of frustration is keeping you from reaching as fast as you may want?”

So, questions like that to help people go like, “Oh, wow, I hadn’t thought about it in that way.” That’s how you know you’re in the conversation stage to help people, again, de-escalate. Like, the whole goal here is we’re trying to have human conversations, things happen, it’s not about jumping on somebody when they make a mistake, or creating a culture of fear is the opposite of what we want to create, but to be in conversation with that person, but to help them see.

Just like if you had a financial advisor, or a relationship coach, or in any domain of life, the reason why you hired that person is you’re trying to have a different outcome, right? So, you wouldn’t go to your relationship coach and say, “Well, I didn’t intend that,” and expect that to be the end of the conversation. “Of course, you didn’t intend that but that’s what happened, so let’s talk about why. Let’s talk about what the impact was and then let’s work our way backwards.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, you’re asking all those questions, “How might that impact…?” So, I’m imagining you have your view of how it’s impacting things. But is your recommendation to keep it more of you are more of a question-asker as opposed to a describer of what’s up or you do both?

Jonathan Raymond
Yes. So, your orientation, in our overall philosophy, we say, “More Yoda, less Superman,” or, “More Yoda, less superhero.” So, your job is you’re trying to help somebody grow. You can’t actually force them to grow, right? You can’t make them change their behavior. So, the orientation, the best orientation to take as a coach is to ask questions.

And it doesn’t mean, just as you said, you may have a theory. Your theory may be bang on. You might have a really good theory as to what’s happening for them. But if you give it to them, they’re far less likely to feel ownership of that thing that they’re changing and they’re far less likely to succeed in their goal. But if you ask questions and you encourage them to think about things differently, that’s what a good coach does, right? That’s the difference between a coach and a consultant, right?

A consultant gets in there and does it for you, doesn’t force you to ask those difficult questions, those self-reflective questions. A coach, or the hallmark of a coach, is someone who’s willing, who takes a different tact, and says, “Look, this isn’t my thing to change, it’s your thing to change. And the best way that I know to support you is to let you do it and let you struggle a little bit, and have some, maybe, ‘Oh, wow, I never really thought about how it impacted our customers.’ Okay, that’s fine. Maybe think about that for a little bit and let’s get back together at the end of the day.”

You don’t have to solve everything in the moment. We become so inured to this, like, solutions, solutions, solutions, solutions. We don’t even know that we’re doing it. When we do inventory discovery, the depth to which we have adopted it, actually a really problematic level of firefighting and going through our inbox and knocking off inconsequential activity in place of strategic, in-depth full and creative thinking, a lot of that comes from how we role-model that. Do we role-model taking a moment to reflect? Or do we role-model like, “Okay, conversation solved. Let’s go. Action. Go, go, go”? That’s what leads to burnout and overwhelm and all of those things that take culture sideways.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess I’m wondering here, if you’re asking, “How might that impact these things?” and they’re drawing a blank, and you know very well, “Yeah, I see the impact that that had on some things,” and they’re not picking it up, how do you play that game?

Jonathan Raymond
So, you can be and should be transparent. You can say, “Look, I have some theories about how it might be but I think it’s more helpful if you arrive at that on your own.” So, I would be transparent, that’s how I do it. And if they’re struggling, then you can give a hint, you say, like, “Well, one thing I noticed was in this interaction between David and Suzanne, I noticed this.” So, that would be an example. So, give them an example, a specific example of where you see that behavior having an impact.

And then you will almost always get, like, “Oh, I see what you’re saying. I never thought about it in that way before. Yeah, I could see three other things.” So, you’ve got to prime the pump a little bit oftentimes, especially if it’s really on the nose. If it’s something that somebody, it’s so second nature to them to do, you might have to give them an example, and then they’re much more likely to open up.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And so then, we engage in that conversation. And what happens next?

Jonathan Raymond
So, here we’re going to go, we’re going to diverge a little bit into different types of conversations. So, if I’m a more junior person relative to somebody that I work for, let’s say, and I’m having an accountability conversation. I’ve used the mention, I brought up something that I think is problematic that I’d like to see change. Nothing happened.

I went to the invitation stage, I said, “Hey, I think this is a pattern and it seems to be problematic to me.” Nothing happened. We had the conversation, maybe in a one-on-one, and hopefully I work in a culture where I can talk with my manager in a more open way. I know that that’s not always the case. It’s changing these days, not fast enough, but let’s assume that there’s some amount of that. But I have the conversation, we talk about the impact, and I get an acknowledgment from my boss, and they say, “Yeah, you’re right. I can see that is having an impact. I’ll get better at that.” Let’s say that’s the generic response.

Now, what do you do? So, it’s really different if you’re the manager and this person is more junior than you. You have more authority. You have more structure. You have the ability to put a boundary around the situation to say, “Hey, look, this is what needs to change by when, and here’s what it looks like.” And so, that’s what the boundary looks like if you’re in the manager position, or in the more senior position, you have more power.

If you’re in the more junior position, you have less power, the boundary might look different. It might be, “Well, okay, here’s where I’m at. I’ve had the conversation with this person. I’m not really sure where to go next. But maybe I’m not going to step up for volunteering on the next project that this person has, or maybe there’s some other step that I need to take.” Perhaps even going to an extreme position, and this is a very real position for many people, which is, “Look, if this keeps going, I don’t think I can keep working for this person, or I don’t think I can keep working on this team.”

And the reality is that’s the nature of how most people are already feeling. So the boundary is about getting in reality of where things actually are. And when we interview people all the time, thousands and thousands of people managers and frontline employees, and we ask them, like, “Well, how would you feel about setting a boundary for yourself of what do you need to take care of yourself here? And when does this need to change by? And what does change look like?”

Most people will say, like, “It’s got to change like this week,” or, “It’s got to change in the next month.” Like, I understand why they’re struggling with this but people are incredibly frustrated. And I think one of the things that we have to do is we have to take the mystery out of this idea of like employee engagement or employee disengagement. That’s what it looks like. If you’re spending your energy and life units worrying about what the organization is doing and, “Why my manager is behaving this way?” you’re already disengaged on some level, reasonably so, from the mission and the values of that organization because it’s not real to you.

And so, that boundary stage, or that fourth stage, mention, invitation, conversation, boundary, looks really different depending upon how much power you have in the conversation. And then the third version of that is if you’re working with a peer, you have the same amount of authority as they do, well, what does that looks like? So, the first three steps are the same, mention, invitation, conversation, and then at the boundary, we’ve had whether it’s a senior exec or a junior manager, actually make new agreements, “Hey, we have to make a change because this is what’s happening in your group over here, and these are our needs. This is what we need from you.”

And so, that boundary stage is critical. And when I talk with CEOs, every single CEO I’ve ever worked with, at some point in our first conversation, they’ll say something to the effect of, “Well, accountability is one of our core values.” They don’t always use the word exactly accountability but they’ll say, “Accountability is one of our core values.” And I say, “Great. That’s wonderful. Talk to me about that. How does that work in your organization?” And they’ll say, “Well, what does that mean? What do you mean how does it work?” “Well, talk to me about a situation where someone wasn’t accountable and what the consequences were.” And they say, “Well, what do you mean consequences?” To which I reply, “Well, what do you mean accountability?”

And then we can have an interesting conversation. And this is what we see over and over again in organizations from Fortune 100 companies that we work with to tiny little startups that you’ve never heard of. This is what organizations are struggling with right now. We’re too nice to each other. We’re not having honest conversations. We’re way too over-indexed on wanting to be liked and wanting to be nice and we’ve forgotten the value of having people who are courageous in positions of leadership, in positions of management, who say, “Look, that’s not the way we do it here. We need to do better.”

And we’ve lost that in large measure. We’ve lost that foundational accountability. We could talk about the historical narrative of why, but that’s a lot of the phase that we’re in right now, is we went from too much command and control, we said, “We don’t like that.” And then we went to not enough command, not enough direction, and now we’re finding our way as a business culture, we need a hierarchy, we need managers, we need leaders, we need people who have more experience to direct activity. How do we do that in the lightest way possible so we don’t undermine autonomy and creativity and we’re as transparent as we can be? And that’s the moment that I think we’re in right now.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. So, if you are the junior person, with regard to the boundary, do you recommend that you sort of share that boundary with the manager, or that’s just sort of internal, it’s like, “Okay, this is what I’ve decided that this behavior will need to change within a month or I’m going to be pursuing new opportunities”? Or, what’s your thought? Is it more something you articulate or more something that’s internal?

Jonathan Raymond
So, the first thing you have to know, you may already know, like, “Is there a fear of retribution?” because that could be very real. It is very real in some cases. But, if possible, I would recommend articulating it. And so, here’s what it sounds like. If I’m setting a boundary with someone more senior, I’m saying, “Look, I really appreciate that we have this conversation. It’s impacting my results and I don’t know what else I can do.” Right? So, that’s my boundary. It’s like, “I’m working within the constraints that I see in front of me and I believe that that’s where I’m at, and I can’t move what I can’t move. I don’t have the authority to change that. I need you to change that. But, in the interim, here’s where I’m at.”

And so, to be able to articulate the impact, again, so we’re pointing the conversation stage forward, so that impact is still there. “And here’s how it’s impacting our results. And I’m doing the best I can. If there’s something that you think that I’m missing, please tell me. I’m happy to hear that. I’m happy to consider that but that’s where I’m at.” That’s the boundary as articulated to somebody more senior.

And, again, you have to know who you’re dealing with. I would say most of the time, and with most of our engagements with most managers, people are willing to hear that conversation as long as it’s not coming in the form of an attack. It’s like, “You’re screwing up and you’re making life bad for me.” And you frame that conversation as, “Look, here’s how it looks to me, is I can’t move this project any faster because these things happen so I’m going to continue to do it based on the constraints that I have.” So, that’s a form of how you would articulate that to somebody more senior.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think sometimes your boundary and the implication is that you’re just not enjoying the experience of work under the circumstances and you would rather be elsewhere.

Jonathan Raymond
Right. And I think that’s, at least in North America, we’re at effectively 0% unemployment, right? So, if you’re talented and you’re resourceful, you can go get another job and employers understand that. So, we do a lot of work in tech. The average tenure in tech is 1.8 years, right? It’s not very long. So, people are moving around a lot. It’s longer in other industries, but people are moving around a lot. People are looking for different experience of work.

And so, from our perspective, it’s like we’re just being reality around that and then make a plan. So, if you know, now there may be opportunities in that organization to move. You may have, hopefully you do have, other outlets for where to go, “Hey, I’ve been trying to have this conversation, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I’m frustrated. I really love this company, this organization, but this isn’t working for me.” If you’re any at all talented or a skilled person, you’re going to find a receptive ear in that other person. So, don’t feel like, my last piece of advice there is, don’t feel like you’re on an island there.

Oftentimes, people will leave an organization prematurely and then they won’t take that other step of like, “Go talk to somebody. What’s the worst that could happen is your feelings fall on deaf ears. Okay, well, you’re already there so no harm done in having that conversation.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, then there’s the final step, the limit.

Jonathan Raymond
Yeah, the final step is the limit, and a lot of people think, “Well, the limit means I quit,” or the limits means you’re fired. It doesn’t mean that. If people read the book Good Authority they’ll get the nuance there is if you think about good leaders, just take a moment, for anyone who’s listening to this, take a moment to reflect on effective coaches, mentors, parents, teachers, people in your life who were there in a moment in your life where something big changed for you, something important, not a minor thing, a major thing.

And if you think back to those situations, in some of those moments, one of the tools that they used was a limit. They said, “This goes no further. I can’t support you behaving in this way even one more time.” And it was in that moment where we went, “Whoa, I have to change. I have to do something different. This person, who I respect, who I value, who I love, who I know, even though I don’t like the way they said it, I know that they care about me. They’re putting up a stop sign and they’re saying no further with this behavior.”

And that is a key feature of how we grow as human beings. And so, the limit is doing that in the workplace. If we want to say, “Hey, we want to bring humanity to the workplace,” we have to bring all of it, and so that includes having a limit which doesn’t mean, “You’re fired.” It means, “Hey, we’ve been having this conversation — mention, invitation, conversation, boundary — I can’t support this behavior any longer.” Now, does that mean you’re fired? No, it means, “I want you to take some time to think about this, and maybe there’s a gear you haven’t found. Maybe, for whatever reason, it didn’t quite click for you until this moment. That’s all fine but I need you to tell me where we go from here.”

That’s the limit from the perspective of a manager and it’s an incredibly effective cultural tool. I’ve seen this happen over and over again where leaders, especially when someone is on the verge of maybe leaving an organization, and maybe for an okay reason, not because there’s animosity, but it’s just time to move on. And by having a boundary and by having a limit, you give the opportunity for that person to really own their exit. How often does that happen where a company can celebrate, or a team can celebrate when somebody leaves and it feels like a great moment instead of a lousy moment where everyone is like, “What happened?” and it creates all these gossip and politics?

If you use accountability conversations in the right way then that person will go, “You know what, actually this isn’t the right place for me anymore and I’m sort of approaching this from so much frustration, but there’s actually nothing wrong here. I need a role where I can do this other thing that I really love and I can’t do that here.” Okay, that’s all right. That doesn’t require any personal animosity. We can shake hands on that, and both from the individual and from the organizational perspective.

There are so many good things that can happen as a result instead of, you know, one of the things I say to managers all the time is, “Remember, when you’re managing somebody, especially if you’re in the process of thinking that they shouldn’t be on your team anymore, you got to worry about that person. But don’t worry all about that person. Worry about the rest of your team. How are they interpreting what’s happening? How are they perceiving how you’re handling this situation? How are they perceiving how this person is being treated and whatever their opinions may be?” People are watching so it’s your opportunity to live and live your values as a leader in how you treat people that may be exiting for a good reason or otherwise.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so now this is a great framework and I’d love to hear it just sort of play out maybe one, or two, or three examples, one from the manager, one from a peer, and one from the report to the manager, and so three different scenarios. I’m really putting you on the spot, Jonathan. Let’s kind of rock and roll kind of through the five steps in three different scenarios.

Jonathan Raymond
Which one do you want to do first?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do the peer-to-peer first.

Jonathan Raymond
Okay. So, let’s say I’m on the marketing team. I’m a junior manager on the marketing team, and I work a lot with operations because a lot of the stuff we do touches on operations. And my peer in the operations department basically says no to everything. Everything I want to do he says no to. So, my mention, let’s call him Dave. So, my mention to Dave is the first time that I see that ideally, I’m going to say, “Hey, so I know this request came through from somebody in our team and it got denied. Can you tell me a little bit more about what happened there? I want to understand.” So, there’s a mention. I’m not saying, “You have to change,” I’m not saying, “Push it.” I’m asking a question, right?

And then maybe I agree with his assessment, or I understand it even if I don’t like it, whatever it is, or I let it go. So, that’s my mention, I’m at the first stage where I’m saying, I’m flagging to some degree, “Hey, there’s a something here where we’re trying to accomplish something and your group said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I want to know a little bit more about that.”

So, then maybe that goes by and then I’m getting from my team, they come to me, they say, “Hey, Jonathan, we’ve pushed through like eight requests to do things in the last week, and like six of them were denied. And we don’t know why. We’re really frustrated. All those ops people, they’re a bunch of whatever.” “Slow down, okay? Let me go talk to Dave and see what’s happening.” So, I’m going to go back to Dave and I’m going to say, “Hey, Dave, so something is happening here. My team put through eight requests and six of them got denied, and I’m not sure what happened there, but there’s some frustration that’s emerging on my team.” So, I’m going to the next level. I’m not going to the CEO and saying, “Dave is a jerk.” I’m going to say, “Hey, let’s have a conversation.”

Now, I may or may not get a good answer from Dave, and I’m going to form my follow-ups based on that. I might even go right to the conversation, he might be like, “Oh, well, I didn’t think those were that big a deal so that’s why we denied them.” “Oh, wait a second. Well, do you have five minutes because I want to talk with you a little bit more?” I’m going to go into the conversation, “So, it’s impacting my team in a bunch of different ways. I don’t know if you’ve seen or folks have come to you with that.” So, we’re going to engage in a conversation shifting. I know he’s not trying to make life miserable for my team, but he’s making life miserable for my team! So we’re going to talk about impacts.

Again, we have the same level of authority in the organization so there’s that. Now, when we get to the boundary, Dave, maybe he tells me what I want to hear in that moment or it turns that he did, and that keeps happening and, basically, they keep behaving the same way and nothing ever changes. Now, I’m going to go back to Dave and say, “Dave, hey, look, we’ve got a problem here. So, we had a bunch of conversations about this, and I have to do something else here because, as I said to you, it’s impacting our goals, it’s impacting our speed and our ability to do things. If you and I can’t come to a resolution here, I’m stuck and obviously I’m going to have to go someplace else with that. I don’t want to do that but can we talk about this?” And we’re going to go deeper, right?

And that conversation might be a little uncomfortable but that’s where we’re going to go because, again, Dave doesn’t control whether I can afford my mortgage next month. He’s a peer in the organization and so we should be able to have healthy conflict. In a healthy organization you’re going to have healthy conflict just like in a healthy relationship, right? And so, that’s going to go through and then if nothing changes there, I say, “Hey, here’s what I need. I need you to go back and take a look at those eight requests and really come back to me. And say, hey, do those really need to be denied, and if so, why? And really help me to understand was it something the way we did it or however.”

And then I’m onto my limit stage where I might have to do something else. I might have to say to Dave, rather than me going to, let’s say we have the same manager, or we have a manager in common. I might say, “Look, I don’t want to go to that person by myself. I don’t want to do that but you and I need some help here. Let’s go talk to Jennifer and see if she can help us with a resolution. So, let’s go together rather than I said, you said, and that kind of thing. How’s that sound?” But I’m not going to let that conversation go. So, that’s what the Accountability Dial looks like, an example of what it looks like in a peer-to-peer situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s good. I understand it and that’s helpful seeing that play out. And it seems like the timeframes here could be short or long, you know.

Jonathan Raymond
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
This might happen over the course of a year or a week.

Jonathan Raymond
Absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s really the art of it is like, how important is it? Is it something that needs to be resolved today? Rarely, right? Sometimes, but rarely. Is it something that needs to be resolved in the next week? Hmm, sometimes. Is it something that needs to be resolved in the next 30 days? Almost always. And if you look at most cultures, you have a whole bunch of things that really need to get resolved in the next 30 days that never are, and they go on month after month after month, year after year, and we still haven’t dealt with that and we cycle through people, we cycle through systems, and we cycle through documents and culture initiatives because we’ve skipped over the human conversations to change the very nature of work, the things we work on together day to day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I want to get, let’s do another scenario, and let’s say I am managing somebody remotely and I have a request that I think is simple and that I’d like to see carried on, which is sort of that each day to get sort of a daily email that reveals, “Hey, this is what I worked on, and these are some questions I have for you, and this is what I plan to be working on tomorrow.” So, that’s something that I think is a good practice and I’d sure like to see that but I’m not seeing that. I say, “Day after day after day and maybe I brought it up.” How would you, using this model, kind of roll this out?

Jonathan Raymond
So, I’ll take a step back for a second because you said something that I want to push on a little bit. Is it something that you would like to see or something that you need to see?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I suppose it’s theoretically possible for work to happen without this.

Jonathan Raymond
But you’ve hired this person, right, or you’re managing them. In order to do your job, you need this, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. There are certainly numerous negative implications of not having this.

Jonathan Raymond
So, part of it is what is the expectation? So, when this person came on your team, maybe the conversation was then. If not, maybe the conversation is now, and maybe that’s your mention, right? So, your mention is, “Hey, you know what,” there’s two possible mentions, right? “You know what, I don’t think that I was completely clear with you about what one of my expectations. And one of my expectations in the role, for anybody, irrespective of whether it was you or anyone else in the role, was that I would get this daily email. And the reason why it’s important to me is X, Y, and Z,” right?

“So, there might be a piece of context missing because without that I can’t do X, Y, and Z. Does that make sense? Can you understand why I’m asking you for that? Rather than you need to do this because I need it. To some people it might sound really overly process-y…”

Pete Mockaitis
Controlling or dominating. Okay.

Jonathan Raymond
Yeah, but it’s a really necessary part for people to understand the why. And, again, when we talk with folks, this is over and over again, “I don’t understand the why. I don’t understand.” And from the perspective of the manager it’s often much more clear to us, “Well, of course, I need that,” but not from their perspective because we don’t understand all the other things that they’re trying to deal with. So, if I put myself in that person’s shoes, I’m going to be like, “Oh, my God, an email at the end of every day. That takes me this and I have to do these other things, and I don’t think Pete understands how busy I am,” and all that kind of stuff.

So, it’s an opportunity for you to get into conversation with them about it. So, we’ll put that to the side. But so let’s assume that the context is there, so let’s say it’s day three of their employment. The first two days, they did the email and the third they didn’t, right? So, ideally, I would say to that person, “Hey, I didn’t get the daily email. What’s up?” And not in a mean way, but it’s like, “Hey, I’m right there. Like, I look at that every single day.”

So, I want to let them know the reality which is that, “I look at that every single day so it’s not a process for the sake of process. Every time you send me that email, I open it, I read it, I digest it, and I notice when it isn’t there.” “Oh, I’m really sorry. I got really busy today. Like, can I send it to you when I get home.” “Sure.” “Can I send it to you in the morning?” Now, you might say, “No, I actually need it right now,” or you might say, as you probably would, you’ll say, “That’s fine. Can you send me the wrap-up so I have it for first thing in the morning? That’s fine,” and this, and whatever.

So, let’s say he did that. And then over the next couple of days you’re seeing, “Wait a second. This is like some days I get it, some days I don’t.” So, clearly the mention didn’t have the intended impact which was a full resolution of this thing, right? So, now you’re going to go to invitation. You’re going to bring it back up. Now, again, we said just before, it could be really the timeline or the timescale of the whole five steps could be really short or it could be really long.

So, in this case, if it’s a core business process and it’s not happening, it’s going to happen really fast, “Hey, so we had this conversation and I thought we were on the same page. Something must’ve got crossed there, but two out of the last five days I haven’t gotten it, for example, I’m getting concerned.” So, it’s your opportunity to say, “Look, I am concerned. I’m concerned that we’re not aligned in terms of this particular thing that’s really important to me.”

And leaving space for them to explain or not to make an excuse but you want to understand why is this thing that, from your perspective, seems basic, but it’s clearly not basic from their perspective. You want to understand why. If, for no other reason, then that person, let’s say that person says, “Pete, you’re a jerk. I’m out of here. I never want to work for such a terrible boss ever again,” you want to know what it is about that tool that maybe you can improve for the next person. Maybe there’s a grain of truth in their otherwise victim mentality that you’re like, “Oh, you know what, they didn’t handle that professionally. But for the next person, I’m going to make it six steps instead of eight because that’ll make it a little bit easier for them to do on a daily basis,” whatever the case may be.

So, are we tracking so far?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. So, you say, “I’m concerned,” and then you sort of let them sort of respond without sort of any follow-up questions just to see if they respond?

Jonathan Raymond
Yeah. And so, if they say, like, “Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s fine. You don’t need that.” “Okay, now I‘m really concerned,” right? Or if they step back and they go, “Whoa!” If there’s an acknowledgment that you have to work with the person in front of you, the human being in front of you. And different people are going to respond really differently in that moment. And that’s how you find out what your people are made of, not that they never make a mistake. It’s what do they do when they make a mistake? How do they recover? What’s their level of resilience? What’s the level of dialogue? Are they willing to be vulnerable with you? That’s the team that you want. You want a group of people that’ll do that with you and that you can do that with them.

So, all of the cycle is happening in leading the high-performance team. So, that’s your invitation. Now, let’s say you have a one-on-one with that person later this week. You might sit down with them and say, “Hey, look, we’ve had this kind of hallway conversations, we’re not in the same building together so we had them via Zoom or via Slack, or whatever it is. I actually want to drill a little deeper here. It’s really important but I know in the hallway we can kind of lose sight of it. This has a really big impact, like when this doesn’t happen, it has a really big impact. And I understand that that might be harder for you to see from your perspective because you’re not the one asking for it. But can you imagine or let’s play this out for a little bit.”

“Like, from your vantage point, how might this have an impact on me or our team or our organization if we don’t have these daily reports?” I promise you they have never thought of that question, they haven’t thought of the answers to that question. So, that’s the conversation stage, you’re helping them shift. They didn’t intend those outcomes, right? They didn’t intend to make you late on the report that you need that information to, that wasn’t their intention. They were just busy. They were overwhelmed. We’re all overwhelmed, or most of us are.

And so, the conversation is your opportunity to help them go deeper, to take ownership and say, “Wait a second. Oh, I didn’t realize how big of an impact that was.” Now, you could say, “Oh, well, they should’ve gotten that from the initial moment.” Yeah, maybe, but that’s not the world we live in. I was working with an IT director recently, and he said, “Well.” We were talking, and one of his colleagues brought up an example, and he said like, “Well, that would be unacceptable to me.” And his colleague called him out, and said, “Come on, man, really? You’re going to fire a person if they didn’t do that?” “Well, no, not really. I can’t really do that,” right?

There’s a whole bunch of reasons why you can’t. Like, you can’t hold that line for really good reasons, we have controls in place in organizations so you can’t just snap off at a person. There has to be an opportunity for, if you went to your HR leader’s office and said, “Hey, they didn’t fill out that report two days in a row. I want to fire them.” They would say, “Get out of my office, Pete. Don’t want your lawsuit. Go have another conversation with them.” So, how are you going to do that? It’s helping them shift from intention over to impact.

And then, you’re seeing the pattern here, so then you have that conversation, and in that conversation, right, you might start foreshadowing what about, “Hey, what’s your plan? How are you going to make sure that you get that report done at the end of the day? Not what’s my plan for how you’re going to get that done. What’s your plan for how you’re going to get that done because I can’t have you do my plan, that won’t work, right?” So, now we’re going to the boundary step, “What is the…”

People will often say, it’s like, “Okay, Pete, I hear you. I get it. I promise it won’t happen again.” “Not good enough. What is the plan? What are the action steps? What do you need to give up in order to make sure that that stays the priority that we need it to be?” Then you’re in the boundary stage of the Accountability Dial. And then if that doesn’t work, so let’s say, I’ll ask you a question that I often ask of managers. So, if I say to you, Pete, “This person is going to be on your team, this remote employee, they’re going to be on your team, and they’re going to be not sending you the daily report 40% to 60% of the time, and they’re going to be doing that for the next 10 years. How’s that sound?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s not going to work. I mean, we can conceivably have an alternative to email, but there must be some sort of a daily communication that occurs, yeah.

Jonathan Raymond
Okay. So, how about if we went on for five years, are you good with that?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Jonathan Raymond
How about one year?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Jonathan Raymond
How about 90 days?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, if there’s some really extenuating circumstances maybe.

Jonathan Raymond
Okay. So, every single time I run that question, it’s at 90 days where it starts to get a little bit like, “Well, maybe, depends.” But somewhere in there, between zero and 90 days, that’s the boundary, right? The only difference is internally to you, you have that boundary. They don’t know that that’s your boundary.

So, the process, the boundary step is getting in reality with them, and say, “Look, maybe there are some extenuating circumstances that make it so that 75 days is a reasonable time when probably not given the scenario we’re working on. It sounds like something that needs to be cured much sooner than that.” But if you think about the boundary phase as like, “Hey, this is something that we’ve talked about. We both acknowledged that it needs to change. What’s a frame within which it needs to change?”

It’s very, very rare where the right answer is going to be more than 90 days. And almost always it’s going to be in the next 30, and we’re going to need very specific milestones where we know that progress is happening. That’s the boundary phase.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we’re having that conversation, we’re establishing and getting to some sort of agreement, like, “Yes, this is what I shall do within this timeframe there.” And so, I guess, that almost sounds like a Performance Improvement Plan. I guess we’re not using that kind of terminology and structure but it’s similar.

Jonathan Raymond
So, there’s an overlap in the way that we approach it. In a lot of the organizations, one of the things that we’ve learned is that what HR wants, which we were hoping would be the case, is that they want the manager to have these types of conversations outside of the Performance Improvement Plan because the Performance Improvement Plan is not a joke, it’s there for a reason but those reasons are legal in compliance. It doesn’t actually improve performance. If you ask any HR leader who’s been around for more than one year, “How many times in your career has a Performance Improvement Plan actually turned somebody around?” And they’ll give you like one example. It never works. Almost never.

So, it is, in this context, when we’re talking about something that needs to change, it definitely is about performance and about improving performance. But the idea is we’re doing that in a humane way, we’re having a conversation, it’s not a writeup, we’re not bringing in HR. Once you bring in HR, once you go outside of that relationship, that bond between you and your employee, mostly only bad things happen. So, it’s, “Hey, this is something that needs to change. Let’s you and I figure this out, right? Like, I know it’s uncomfortable, I don’t like having this conversation, you don’t like having this conversation, but this has got to change. This has got to be our agreement for what needs to change.” So, that’s the boundary phase.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And so then, the limit?

Jonathan Raymond
And then at the limit, let’s say you make that and the person says, “Look, I’m going to, over the next 10 days, I’m not going to miss one, right? Every single day for the next 10 days, that’s our first milestone, I’m going to hit every single day. And then at the end of that 10 days, we’re going to like shake hands, and then we’re going to do the next 30 in a row, and we’re going to build up my reps, so to speak, where I’m not going to miss a day.”

And let’s say you’re good with that, and you say, “Okay, that’s fine. Okay, well, what are the consequences, what are the implications if you don’t send me that in the next 10 days, not what do I think the consequences should be, what do you think the consequences should be?” “Oh, hmm. Well, Pete, that’s a really good question. I think in the next 10 days if I miss one, then I shouldn’t be able to go to this conference that I was really excited about that you said that I could go to. Or I’m not going to be eligible to take on this other part of the work until this part of my…” whatever the thing is, right?

So, let them author the boundary if that’s possible. And if they can’t come up with a boundary, what I found is that most of the time when you ask people to come up with their own boundaries and consequences, they’re tougher on themselves than you will be on them. Not always but oftentimes. And so, that would be a boundary and then there are some clear agreements, “What needs to change by when? What does change look like? What happens if it doesn’t work?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, that’s the boundary.

Jonathan Raymond
Yeah. And so, then the limit is, let’s say, it doesn’t happen. They just don’t do it. Let’s say starting on day one they don’t do it, like, “Okay, I’m going to go right to that limit.” Say, like, “Hey, we tried this. I appreciate your earnestness. We made this agreement. You said you were going to do it, there was no constraint that prevented you from being able to do it. I don’t know what else to do now. I feel like I’ve done everything that I can as your manager. I’ve given all of the thoughtfulness and coaching and everything that I could think of but I don’t know what else to do here. So, I feel like I’m out of options.” That’s the spirit of that moment.

Now, in that case, you have to decide, “How important is that task relative to the role? Are there enough other things that that person is doing that outweigh where you would be willing to change that tool for this person? I doubt it but anything is possible in that scenario. But that’s what the limit would be. And what you will find is that here’s the, I don’t know if we will call it ironic, but what will happen if you use the mention, the invitation, the conversation, and the boundary, is that somebody who doesn’t want that level of accountability in their life, they’re going to leave. They’re going to say, “Pete, you know, I’ve been thinking about this and I think you need somebody who’s more detail-oriented than I am or whatever. And I don’t want to let you…” Whatever it is, right?

Okay, fine. That’s good. That’s a good outcome. In a healthy organization people leave and they move on and we shake hands and we say, “Hey, you were right for the role for this period of time. The role has changed, or you want different things, that’s okay. Let’s shake hands.” I love that concept of the tour that I think Netflix pioneered, you know, that tour of duty, “Hey, go on a tour with me. And then when that tour is over, let’s decide should we go on another tour together.” This idea that you’re an employee for life, it’s a fiction. If it was ever true, it’s definitely not true now. It’s a fiction. Let’s be in reality with one another. I’m there for as long as it’s valuable to me as an employee and that my skills are valuable to you as an employer.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thank you, Jonathan. Anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jonathan Raymond
I will just say that for wherever you are in an organization, whether you’re a first-time employee in the workforce or a senior leader, the thing that you want—to feel seen, to feel heard, to feel valued—get that. Don’t settle for less. You deserve that. As a human being, as a sovereign human being, you deserve to have a world of work that is additive to your life and not subtractive where you go home and you feel dread or feel like you’re being exploited or taken advantage of. And I can tell you because a lot of them are our clients. There are amazing organizations out there that would love to have you so don’t settle for less.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jonathan Raymond
My favorite quote is from Albert Einstein, he says, “I don’t have any special talents but I’m passionately curious.”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jonathan Raymond
I love the Harvard relationship study or I think some people call the Harvard happiness study that they did a couple of years ago. There’s a great TED Talk about it. And, basically, what they found was that your satisfaction in relationships is the best predictor of longevity and long-term health outcomes. So, they said, “If you look at someone when they’re 50, you’re much more likely to know how long they’re going to live based on their level of satisfaction in their relationships than their cholesterol.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jonathan Raymond
I’m still working on it, but I read the first couple hundred pages of Sapiens some years ago. So, it’s still my favorite book because I haven’t finished it. I hope that doesn’t change at the end. But I love Yuval Harari, a wonderful philosopher and I love what he has to say.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be more awesome at your job?

Jonathan Raymond
I have to say I’m happy to be off the guests list for Superhuman which is a very hyped email interface that goes over Gmail and it makes it really easy to go really fast. So, the hype is earned in my view. Superhuman is a really neat tool.

Pete Mockaitis
I use it. I love it. And I’m not ashamed that I pay $29 a month for email that could be free.

Jonathan Raymond
Yeah, it’s worth it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jonathan Raymond
My favorite habit is walking often with my dog and listening to an episode of Revisionist History. I’m a big Malcolm Gladwell fan.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you’re known for, something you say that gets re-quoted, re-tweeted?

Jonathan Raymond
A lot of people re-tweet, “You don’t get to grow and look good at the same time.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jonathan Raymond
You can go to Refound.com and then if you click the Resources tab, there is some quizzes and some downloadable tools. And then, of course, you can pick up the book on Amazon, “Good Authority,” Kindle, print, audio, the whole thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jonathan Raymond
Have one conversation, ask one question that you’ve been thinking about asking, you’ve been thinking about approaching this person and asking them a question or making an observation. Commit to doing that in the next 24 hours.

Pete Mockaitis
Jonathan, this has been a delight. Thank you and good luck with all your great conversations.

Jonathan Raymond
Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation.

470: How to Give and Receive Useful Feedback Every Month: Insider Tips on Making Performance Reviews Not Suck with Dr. Craig Dowden

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Craig Dowden says: "If we want to give appreciation, give only appreciation. The most common blunder is that we combine coaching and evaluation."

Craig Dowden exposes gaps in common performance review practices and presents an empowering alternative approach everybody can use–no matter where you work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why the current performance review practice is broken
  2. The key thing NOT to do when giving feedback
  3. A different and better strategy for regular reviews

About Craig:

Craig Dowden (Ph.D.) is an inspiring and thought-provoking executive coach, Forbes author and keynote speaker who partners with leaders and executives to tackle their most important personal and organizational challenges. Craig holds a Doctorate in psychology, with a concentration in business and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach. In his role as a trusted advisor, he integrates the latest findings in the science of leadership, team, and organizational excellence into his coaching and consulting work. In 2009, Craig was recognized as one of Ottawa’s 40 under 40 business leaders by the Ottawa Business Journal.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Craig Dowden Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Craig, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Craig Dowden
Thanks so much for the invitation, Pete. Looking forward to chatting with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m looking forward to it as well. But, first, I want to hear a quick tale about your nickname Egg in high school and how you used that to your advantage.

Craig Dowden
Nice. Well, good background searching and sleuthing there. When I was growing up, I was kind of an awkward gangly tall kid, and so we would have races around the neighborhood. And so, of course, the classic last one to Craig’s house is the rotten egg. And then, I was routinely last, so you can see how they quickly made the link between, “Craig’s the rotten egg, Craig’s the rotten egg, Craig is the egg.” And, thus, the legend of Egg was born.

And so, not to be thwarted by the nickname, I ran for Student Council President, and we actually had a very boisterous group of supporters, and we had a lot of different campaign slogans attached to them, like, “Vote for Egg. He won’t crack under pressure.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, zing.

Craig Dowden
Or, “Vote for Egg, or the yolk is on you.” So, we got a little playful. And, apparently, that worked, branding, won by a landslide, so it was quite the campaign. Very enjoyable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well-done. Well, I’m going to go for an awkward for a segue, and I want to hear about how often people feel like there may be egg on their face on the giving and receiving of performance reviews out there.

Craig Dowden
Exactly, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I was inspired. I enjoyed your incoming pitch and we’re getting more and more selective these days as we’re getting clearer and clearer on what listeners want. But you nailed it, you and your publicist got it going on. Performance reviews, that is a pain point for a lot of people. Can you orient us maybe what’s current practice in most organizations with performance reviews and how well is that working for us?

Craig Dowden
Well, thank you for the feedback. I’m glad the pitch was received well. And, yes, it’s one of those internal pain points. What’s really interesting is if you look at organizational research, in very few circumstances does management and employees agree on certain things. You talk about engagement levels, transparency, you name it, there often tends to be a disconnect between leadership and employees. And, yet, for performance reviews, this is one of those areas that are universally loathed.

Pete Mockaitis
Loathed with a T-H, not a V as in Valentine’s. T-H as in Thermopylae.

Craig Dowden
Correct.

Pete Mockaitis
The first T-H word I thought. How about thumb?

Craig Dowden
Exactly. So, yes, they just absolutely, people just dislike them. So, managers really dislike giving the feedback, and employees really hate receiving the feedback. Oftentimes they’ll use a lot of ineffective strategies like the compliment sandwich, which, you know, say something nice and then you follow it up with something really critical, and then, of course, just to make sure they leave on a positive note, you end it with a positive.

And so, all of these tips and tricks just lead to a lot of disappointed participants in this process. There was a study done a couple of years ago where 55% of people said they didn’t feel that their annual performance review was fair or accurate representation of their performance. Two-thirds said there was surprising feedback in the review, which you would think that shouldn’t happen. And then three quarters of employees said there were no specific behavioral examples given to support the feedback.

So, this is a really broken process which many leading organizations are starting to realize and make changes as a result of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I’ll tell you, this just fires me up. I just think feedback is so important.

Craig Dowden
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’ve heard it said that it’s the breakfast of champions.

Craig Dowden
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s so powerful and useful as a tool for learning, growth, and development which I am big in, big on, and to hear that in some organizations this may be the only or the majority of the feedback they get, which is sad as well, and then to hear that it’s not working for people, and isn’t accurate, doesn’t have specific examples, it makes me sad because it could be a cause for celebration.

I actually enjoyed getting reviews because I viewed them, well, one at Bain, they gave very detailed and thorough reviews and lots of examples, and I like that. But, two, I thought I’m in this job largely for the learning, and a lot of the learning is happening during my performance review, for me. And, thusly, I was like excited to go into them because I thought, “This is part of my compensation. It’s like I’m getting a bonus.”

And I was a little bit odd in most of my college life, like, “Okay, Pete, I kind of liked it a little but you’re weird.” But organizations that are not advanced or in that domain, of which it sounds like they are a majority, leave a pretty crappy experience all the way around.

Craig Dowden
Well, for sure, and I think and I love your personal experience and being a bit of an outlier to say in terms of just loving the process. And when you look at the evidence, people are open to receiving feedback, and I think there’s just a lot of challenges. I think that if it’s constructed well, the conversation can go fantastic because it provides an opportunity for leaders to give some feedback to people in terms of where they are and where they need to be.

It also provides people in the organization an opportunity to learn and grow, which this is one of the keys when you look at the research around engagement, that’s one of the key indicators, “Do people, feel like they’re learning new skills, having an opportunity to challenge themselves and grow?” So, fundamentally, the process is a wonderful one to really drive and facilitate peak performance and learning, yet, unfortunately, the way in which we handle it just ends up leaving invariably to some really challenging circumstances because people either don’t deliver the feedback particularly well.

Doug Stone, out of Harvard, did some fabulous work around the different types of feedback so this is one huge challenge in terms of how some missteps that we make. So, he identified three primary forms of feedback. So, there’s appreciation, which is, “Hey, Pete, great job. Really love what you’re doing. Couldn’t achieve what we’re doing without you.”

Then there’s coaching, which is essentially bidirectional conversation where you’re exploring with someone different ways of approaching a particular challenge or opportunity. And then the last one is evaluation, which is essentially saying, “Hey, Pete, this is where you are based on what we initially projected, or what our end goals were, and so let’s discuss that.”

And so, based on Doug’s research, and I’ve spoken to him extensively around this, the difficulty is it’s almost like the movie “Ghostbusters,” right? Don’t cross the streams. And, unfortunately, we have this terrible habit of crossing the stream. So, according to his work, and he’s been at the Harvard Negotiation Project for well over 30 years, and what he’s found is we’ll combine those.

So, if we want to give appreciation, give appreciation. The most common blunder is, is that we combine coaching and evaluation. And as he shared with me a little while ago, he said, you know, Pete, you can deliver the best coaching advice anyone has ever received or the best coaching conversation anyone has ever experienced, and if you combine it with evaluation, guess what happens? They basically just totally lose all of the coaching and focus on the evaluation, “So, why did I score a three out of five on this?”

And so, he said for the maximum impact to ensure that feedback is received and is actionable, the best thing we can possibly do, focus on evaluation for one conversation, and then have the coaching conversation following up on that. So, don’t mix them. And, sometimes, again, in the interest of efficiency, we mix the two, we’re like, “Hey, we’ll do the evaluation and then spend time coaching so that the person can really put this into practice.” Unfortunately, even though it may intuitively make sense or feel like it makes sense, in practice it has an opposite effect and actually leads to real challenges in the development and adoption of new behaviors.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a very helpful rule of thumb, that I think that could take you far just following that forever. So, you were saying, “Let us not mingle the coaching and evaluation bits of feedback in the same conversation because we’re going to miss out on that coaching goodness.” Now, is it kosher to mingle appreciation and coaching, or are those too helpful to be separated?

Craig Dowden
Again, the safest route, based on the work that he has done, is to separate them. Keep them because, again, it’s going to be around, “Hey, great job. This is wonderful. Really appreciate your efforts on this.” So, it keeps the conversation focused on, “We want you to feel recognized and acknowledged for your contribution.” Once again, as soon as you throw coaching into the mix, the person may forget about the appreciation and then focus on, “What are different strategies I can use around this?”

So, keeping our focus on what kind of feedback do we want to deliver, and then keep or maintain that focus on delivering that message. And then, later, you can talk, again, have a coaching conversation. So, all of those pieces can be much more effective in terms of supporting behavioral change and/or maintenance in someone else by being cognizant of those three different pieces of feedback.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. Well, now, you have a particular approach you recommend when it comes to performance reviews. Tell us about this.

Craig Dowden
Well, I think it’s basically a do-it-yourself employee review, and Daniel Pink, an international bestselling author, talks about this in “Drive” around having do-it-yourself performance reviews. And there’s lots of fundamental reasons as to why this is so effective. So, number one is that so feedback becomes less threatening through familiarity.

So, every month, if you and I are going to sit down, Pete, and have a conversation about performance, then I’m going to basically hand the reins over to you and say, “Okay, tell me how you did. Tell me where you think you thrived. Tell me where there were some challenges.” And so, in that way, what it does is it empowers someone else to be able to deliver their own feedback conversation.

Also, there’s less kind of threat around it because it’s more familiar to them. And it also empowers the other person to highlight some things within their own performance. So, really, it enables someone else to take the lead.

One of the worst things around performance reviews, and how organizations typically do it, is that you’re going to deliver the feedback to me. So, it’s very unidirectional and you’ll essentially stand on high and essentially pronounce judgment on how I’ve done over the past 12 months. By making a do-it-yourself performance review, and do it on a monthly basis, it’s much more common, frequent, routine, and now the individual feels empowered around what they’re going to share with you.

And so, that provides a sense of autonomy. It provides a sense of input. It provides a sense of ownership. And it’s really framed as a learning conversation, which is so essential. And then the benefit to managers, one of the key benefits to leaders and executives and business owners that I worked with, that they’ll talk to me about in terms of their own practices, they’ll have a laundry list of feedback that they want to be able to provide to the person. Well, oftentimes, their employees will tick off the boxes of all the things that they want to share so it takes the pressure off them to deliver that message.

And, secondarily, in some cases, you will volunteer things that I don’t even have on my list. So, it’s a really cool opportunity to be able to get insight that you might not have captured with someone else and, again, without the pressure of trying to figure out, “How can I best frame that conversation?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what’s also really awesome is that if you are the manager, like you’ve reduced so much of your workload as well.

Craig Dowden
Right. I love that, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And the benefits are huge in terms of, okay, so you’re less defensive because you’re the one generating these things about yourself.

So, are there any kind of key particular prompts that you recommend to structure or to latch onto a DIY review, or is it just like, “Hey, how do you think you did? How about it?”

Craig Dowden
Yeah, great question and I think it’s important to explain to people. And this, again, a major gap around just feedback processes in general is that they’re rarely explained, the purpose is rarely explained. So, leaders, executives, business owners, that I’ve worked with, they’ll talk about. So, what we want to do is make feedback an ongoing part of our DNA. Feedback is not something every six months or 12 months. We want to get to a space where we want to have feedback as a regular part of our organization and our organizational DNA because the world moves in such a fast pace these days. We need to have information. We need to have it readily available.

And so, what we’re going to do is have a monthly performance review where you come in and tell me where you’ve done well and what your successes are as well as some of the challenge areas and even what some proposals around what you think you and I can do to be able to address them. And so, it’s a wonderful way within that prompt. And then once you have that discussion in the first month, you can a check in after the first conversation and ask your employee, “How did that go? What did you think about it? Is there anymore specific direction that I can provide and anything I can do differently?” so you really start to have, open up the dialogue around that space.

And I think another really powerful benefit of this is that by employee sharing their feedback with you, then at the end of the conversation you can say, “Hey, do you mind if I share a couple of components or a couple of observations that I have?” So, it really benefits from the reciprocity principle. If you ask someone how they’re doing, well, they’ll generally ask you how you’re doing. So, it’s a wonderful way to create a bidirectional conversation that really kind of lowers the anxiety on both levels because it’s seen as, “Well, this is cooperative. We need each other in order to paint an accurate picture here.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, how do we deal with, I don’t know, numbers, ratings, rankings, competencies, you know, raises, bonuses, like the numbery things of it all?

Craig Dowden
Well, I think this is where some of the performance review processes are really broken because, like a forced ranking system as an example, right? And this is where a lot of them lose credibility, which is, “Well, we’ve got to have a certain number of stars, and a certain number of average performances, and a certain number of low performances.” So, this is where a lot of organizations are just redefining how they do performance reviews.

Some of the larger more progressive organizations are just getting rid of them altogether and moving it to a more kind of check in type of process. Adobe is an example as one organization that just stopped doing them altogether. And so then, I think this is an opportunity for senior leadership in an organization to start talking about.

So, what is the purpose of feedback? Because if the purpose of feedback is going to be around performance metrics, as an example, well, now, what motivation is there for individuals to disclose what’s going on? So, I think the metrics are an important part of it and how do we achieve it. Now, the process is around, “Okay, so how do we have that feedback conversation so we maximally set people up for success so that they can attain the goals that they set out?”

So, again, fundamentally, so let’s go back to that standard kind of Bell curve example that so many organizations use from a metric standpoint, or a financial incentive standpoint, “Hey, if everybody is knocking the ball out of the park through terrific feedback conversations, isn’t that awesome?” So, I think this is where fundamentally we have to rethink how we deliver incentives and how the feedback system is connected to that and be much more thoughtful around its implementation.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’d be great to be more thoughtful around it, and so I’d like to hear then, you mentioned Adobe and some other. Let’s hear some more best practices with regard to is it kind of more separated with regard to how we’re thinking about raises and promotions and compensation things? It’s kind of a different set of conversations than is the performance reviews or how does that go? Because often, you’re right, I think that these things come together and that can be.

Pete Mockaitis
So, Craig, within this model, how do you think about raises and promotions and compensation sorts of things? Are those like completely different set of conversations, kind of separate from the performance review conversations?

Craig Dowden
Yeah, I think that’s a great question, and they are. They’re separate because you can talk about, “Have the objectives, the goals, what are we trying to achieve be it quarterly, monthly, yearly?” And then that’ll be a different discussion around, “So, how well did I do in terms of achieving those objectives?” And then when we talked about the do-it-yourself performance review, essentially, and that’s something that could be readily integrated into that framework, which is, “Okay, for my Q1 goals, if I’m doing this monthly, how do I think I’m doing? Why do I think that I’m doing as well or not as well as I’m doing?” And then be able to provide that as a counterbalance to that discussion. So, they are issues that would be dealt with separately.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Gotcha. And so then, I’m curious, if we have individuals listening who are thinking, “Boy, DIY do sound really cool.” We have a broken review process that you sort of discussed already also operating. Have you seen just sort of like individual professionals and their managers say, “You know what, this is cool. We’re going to go do it even if nobody else in our organization is.” How does that work?

Craig Dowden
For sure, yeah. One of the challenges is that it can feel awkward, almost like doing a new exercise at the gym. It can feel awkward so I think what’s really important is for both the manager as well as their team can talk about, “Okay, this may be awkward and we may have some stops and starts, and so let’s raise our hand and learn through the process.”

And I think when they have done it, what’s another challenge is that the manager, in particular the leader, almost has a scorecard, and what they may feel is the “right answer.” And so, giving control over to the employee can feel daunting and what’s going to happen, so there’s an uneasiness. And it’s really interesting and almost, to me, the parallel is having a difficult conversation.

I do a lot of work with executives and executive teams. And, particularly, if someone is having conflict with another colleague or other members of the team, when they actually sit down and have the discussion, it’s not nearly as painful or as challenging as they thought. And it’s the exact same thing with do-it-yourself performance reviews. When it’s over, a lot of times I’ll hear the executives say, “Wow, you know what, my employee shared things that I didn’t see, I didn’t have on my list, I didn’t feel was as great of an issue,” or, “I found that the conversation was much more constructive and productive.”

Or, “If they didn’t raise something that I had on my list, it seemed like they appreciated that I didn’t have the same level of defensiveness sharing my feedback with them.” So, there are so many benefits from doing it. Once again, kind of acknowledging that awkwardness. And I think it’s interesting because it is a very different way of approaching things.

And I think the other pieces, too, is that I hear is that then feedback becomes more normalized. It’s part of day to day, so it’s less awkward, so you don’t raise your hand when you only have something to complain about or a bad thing. So, it just becomes a natural extension of the discussion that you have each day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And so then, you have seen then those individuals who just decide, “Screw the broken corporate system that we’re in. We’re going to do this on top of it.” And it works just fine once they get past those kind of awkward adjustment bits.

Craig Dowden
Well, I love that you highlight that because, let’s say, you are working in an organization where they want to hold on to the standard performance review. Well, then there’s nothing that prevents a leader from adding that into the toolkit, and say, “You know what, we’re going to apply this within the traditional, or within our mandated performance review system.”

And what’s interesting, the benefits still translate because, “Now, I’m having regular conversations. You and I are having regular conversations, Pete, and so then we can talk about things. And then when the actual performance review comes up, we’ve laid so much of the groundwork that they’re really straightforward. Very little, if anything, is surprising,” which is the way it should be.

And so, fundamentally, whether or not your organization adopts it at large, or whether or not they resist and that you do it yourself, this strategy can be used regardless.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Well, so I’d love it if we can maybe do a roleplay or a demonstration of a DIY performance review in action. I mean, I guess part of it is quiet reflective thought on your own before you engage in the conversation. So, let’s say that I did that.

Craig Dowden
Right. That’s right, assuming that, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll make this like, okay, let’s just say you are the owner of my whole company, and I’m an employee who is in charge of making the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, and we’re having a monthly check-in here. How would we start?

Craig Dowden
Well, I would say, “Pete, thank you for taking the time to come in and meet with me today. As you know, we do do-it-yourself performance review on a monthly basis, really, so we can have an open and constructive dialogue around how things are going. And so, I appreciate you taking the time to go through the questions, reflection questions, and fundamentally what I want us to talk about this afternoon are a couple of things.”

“Number one, how do you feel things are going in terms of the goals that you set out this month? How do you feel that you’re performing? Then, also, what are the gaps? What are some areas where you feel there are possibilities to raise your level of performance? And then, also, what’s some feedback that you have for me? So, how can I do a better job of supporting you in terms of where you are and what you’re trying to achieve? And then, lastly, I would love to be able to share my insights, observations with you to close the conversation, and just talk about the next steps.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Okay, cool. Well, thank you, Craig. I really appreciate you investing the time to do this with all of your many direct reports and it could add up perhaps. And I feel that it’s going smashingly well with regard to the podcast having completed a huge listener survey. It gave me a clear idea of what people are into and seeking those folks out to deliver upon that.”

“I think in terms of the gaps, I think it’s that I’ve not yet sort of systematized an approach so that we can sort of take listener requests, write to guests like very quickly in terms of figuring out how to do that over and over again when it’s a lot harder to do that than to just snag an author who sounds relevant, who’s got a book coming out because they said yes immediately to invitations on the podcast.”

“And my feedback for you, Craig, is that we speak very rarely, and I’d love it if you could provide some more input more frequently into my performance there. So, that’s what I’m thinking right now.”

Craig Dowden
“That’s fabulous. Well, a couple of things, and I’ll certainly add that. That’s valuable feedback and I appreciate it and I agree that if we had an opportunity to speak more, have much more constructive conversations, so I definitely will commit to doing that.”

“A couple of things that I think you touched on in terms of what has been going awesomely well. I’m thrilled to hear that, so congratulations and that’s great news and great feedback. I really appreciate that you took your insights from customer feedback and client feedback that you have so that’s really compelling.”

“And so, what steps, what are some lessons that you’ve learned through the positive feedback you received in terms of what you’re going to continue to do, and then also ideas you may have from what they shared on the positive spectrum around how to potentially move the podcast to another level?”

Pete Mockaitis
“Certainly.” Well, I think we got the idea as far as demonstration goes.

Craig Dowden
And then just add to that, too, and back to systematize the approach, and then, on the flipside, then I would ask questions like, “Okay, that’s great. I think it’s really valuable that you looked at that. What are some ideas that you think could assist you in that? And then how might I be able to support you in systematizing? Do you have the resources that you need?”

So, you kind of counterbalance because sometimes, and the reason I started with the positive is sometimes people will kind of focus right in on the negative, you know, like where you would improve. And so, there can be lessons learned on both sides of the docket, and then you want to ask questions on each of those follow-up questions in each of those domains.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I hear what you’re saying with regard to the reduction and defensiveness because it’s totally like, “Well, hey, I brought it up.”

Craig Dowden
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And even if I didn’t bring it up, it’s like, “I’m already in the zone of having thoughtfully introspected on what are some things I might do better.” And so, it’s not like you’re giving me a jarring sort of state-shifting attack, like, “Here’s how you screwed it up.” “What?”

Craig Dowden
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “No, this is what we’re talking about.” And I’m already in that kind of place so it’s a lot easier.

Craig Dowden
And I love that you said that you brought it up. And I think that’s what’s really important is, well, because let’s say you bring it up, and then I reframe it or I probe a little, and then you get defensive. Then, as a leader, as a business owner, you can come back and say, “Well, Pete, just for a moment, appreciate the response and just I’m following up on something that you raised.” So, sometimes back to dealing with fear or dealing with a trigger, maybe I’m triggered by it. Then this can help raise, bring the discussion back on point, where it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I did raise that, and so I wonder why, what triggered me on that.” So, there’s real richness to that discussion.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. I guess, certainly, if you want to go meta there for a moment with regard to what’s happening and then I don’t think that happen sometimes. It’s probably rare that folks start crying and sharing some deep historical therapy-type elements, but they might. And that might be just the thing for that particular conversation. But it could be just like, “Oh, you know, it’s always been a little bit of a sore spot for me ever since this happened that I’ve been quite conscientious about this sort of thing. It gets me going.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s really good to understand.”

Craig Dowden
For sure. Well, and this is, as an example, I mean, this is what then can bring a conversation back versus if you raise it as the feedback provider versus operating as a feedback facilitator. So, if I get triggered defensively by something I’ve openly shared, that in of itself shows the complexity and complications attached to delivering a feedback, because hearing it from you might trigger me differently than if I’m talking about it myself.

Because if I’m self-anointing and self-identifying, that can feel safer than when you do it. Then it’s like, “Wow, okay, I’m reacting to this.” So, it can be a really powerful moment of self-insight for the individual because they can actually hold up a mirror and say, “Gee, even though this is something that I recognize within myself, if anyone else around here points it out, I can get defensive.”

And then through a conversation with the manager, now they can add that to, “Hey, you may want to be aware of that in terms of how you receive feedback.” So, it can be a really powerful learning mechanism in that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. So, we talked a bit about some of the emotions there with regard to removing some of the defensiveness in there. Do you have any other pro tips when it comes to handling some of the emotional bits if folks are scared to talk about stuff, they’re frustrated to revisit things again and again, they’re disappointed that they’re not, you know, maybe they heard some surprises, like, there’s a whole lot of emotion wrapped up in all of this? Any kind of overarching pro tips for working with that well?

Craig Dowden
For sure. Well, a couple of things that you can have that as almost preparatory. So, when we have these, and that’s what’s beautiful about having this as a systematized approach where it’s monthly. You can say, “Okay, during our monthly do-it-yourself performance reviews, there may be times when you feel fearful, frustrated, disappointed in what we’re talking about. How can I best show up to minimize triggering those emotions within you?”

And so, it has, “And what are some things that may lead you to experience this poorly? So, before we even embark on this journey together, you can start to lay out the ground rules about, ‘Hey, if you say purple unicorn, that can tend to trigger me in a particular direction.’ So, then it’s like, “Okay, now, I can manage that.”

The other piece can be around saying, “Well, there may be times when I have to share constructive feedback, critical feedback, in terms of what I see. How can I best deliver that so it’s perceived with positive intent and so I can make it as constructive a message as possible? And then what are some things that I can do if I sense that you are reacting emotionally to be able to address that?”

And so, once again, same thing, where the person is actually sharing the answers to that exam. Now, when you bring that up, then you will already have a preordained conversation about, “Hey, Pete, we did talk about it, and I sense this happening. So, as we agreed, I’m doing X and now it’s, ‘Oh, okay.’” So, it softens that transition.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s handy. That’s handy.

Craig Dowden
And I think for all of us, I mean, as a lifehack, it’s a wonderful opportunity, personally or professionally, to talk to the people in our lives about, “How do I best perceive feedback? How do I prefer to give feedback? What’s the best context? What’s the safest environment? And how can I best share those feelings?”

So, as another example, you can say, “If there’s anything that’s in my approach or what’s happening that’s provoking fear or frustration or disappointment, please raise your hand because to maximize the impact of this discussion and really leverage the power of what we’re doing here, we want to ensure that those emotions are minimized. They may not be eliminated entirely. Our job, collectively, is to figure out how to minimize those so we can have a safe discussion and really talk about what matters. So, in order for us both to get the most out of it, this is what we need. So, anything I can do to facilitate that, let me know.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, Craig, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Craig Dowden
I’ve really appreciated the questions and the comments and the exploration. And I think, to me, the most important piece is the research shows that the vast majority of us desire feedback. We want to receive feedback. We want to figure out how we can stretch ourselves and grow. And so, for us, as feedback providers and receivers, it’s critical to develop both of those skills. And, again, I think, to me, the research in that is so important, that in order to be effective, we have to excel in both and be really committed to doing that and being curious explorers when we’re fulfilling both roles.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Craig Dowden
Favorite quote. I’m not sure if it’s a quote. Maybe it’s a practice. Something that I think is really powerful for me is around, “The answer is always no unless you ask the question.” So, it’s something that, for me, personally, as well as a lot of clients that I work with, sometimes we can put up artificial barriers and assume there’s going to be a negative, like, “No, this isn’t going to happen.”

And I feel like it’s so empowering for us to recognize that just by asking the question, asking someone to be a guest on a podcast, asking someone to interview, asking someone to have a coffee to discuss a business opportunity, if we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to play the game, then the answer is going to be no, and we’re going to have a losing hand. And so, to remind ourselves of the power in asking questions.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, what I like about that is, it’s sort of like there’s a guaranteed zero percent chance if you don’t ask. And even if you’ve upgraded yourself to a 1% chance, you know, divided by zero it’s like an infinite increase.

Craig Dowden
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s not like you’re ten times more likely to get a reply, or infinitely more likely to get a reply, in your favor even if you’re only going to like a half a percent or 1% chance. And I’m impressed. I think one guy, I did a big blogpost, I don’t know, on a different website. But he reached out to just tons of people, and say, “Hey, do you want to talk about consulting over coffee?” And he had a very detailed notebook about who to reach out to and what the results were. I was like, “Whoa! Tell me, how often do people say yes?”

And he had computed, because he reached to like more than a hundred people, it was like 28% of folks said yes to a total stranger to like chat with him about career stuff. And that was mind-blowing to me. Like, on average, if you ask four strangers, you’d expect one of them to say yes. That’s pretty cool.

Craig Dowden
It is. And I think, again, a wonderful piece of reflection for us around, “Okay, how much do I get in my own way of advancing the goals that are most important to me? So, if I’m okay with receiving a no, then that’s okay. Then I think that’s wonderful, and so why not, right?” And so, I would rather, I feel it’s important that we remind ourselves that it’s better for us to put it out there and then be told no, rather than not do it, and then you get zero percent, as you said, and 28% of people like to help. That’s the other really interesting thing.

When you ask people, “Do you like helping other people?” Most people say, “Yeah, it feels good and I try to do that as much as possible.” Yet, we can be really reluctant to ask other people just, again, to talk about consulting, or to talk about how to be an effective leader, or to build a great podcast, and then we’re eliminating particular potential resources for us to learn from and grow relationships with and thrive.

One quote that did come to mind, to be able to circle back to your question, I remember interviewing Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of Red Hat, and so they just finished, I think, the largest acquisition ever, multibillion dollars. And he talked about, during his time, he said, “People have an amazing capacity for forgiveness if you give them the opportunity to do so.” And I thought that was very powerful as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Craig Dowden
Oh, that’s so challenging. Every piece of research, to me, there’s just golden nuggets. I love the one which showed that empathy is the third strongest predictor of executive excellence. So, that was done by the Management Research Group. So, the third strongest predictor of executive excellence out of 22. And then it was the strongest predictor of ethical leadership out of the 22. And the top two were strategy and communication.

And so, I think what’s really fascinating about their research is not only is empathy the third strongest predictor of executive excellence, you can make a pretty compelling argument as to empathy informs our ability to think strategically as well as communicate effectively. So, I feel like the fact that empathy is either directly or indirectly related to what I call the holy trinity of executive excellence. I think that’s really, really powerful and, especially, considering how empathy is going down.

Our levels of empathy are reducing on a pretty substantial rate, and it’s been identified as a key competitive advantage for organizations and executives, so it’s this really powerful piece of research which I love to cite and talk about.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Do you recall the author, journal, article?

Craig Dowden
So, it was out of the Management Research Group, so they’re in the northeastern U.S., and they had a whitepaper attached to it. So, they sent me some of their individual data as well. So, they have whitepapers on their website. It was over a half a million people contributed to that. I referenced a study in one of the articles I wrote for the Financial Post. So, they have one internal whitepaper, so they have hundreds of thousands of 360 feedbacks of paper on, and that was a really compelling study that they put together.

Pete Mockaitis
Fascinating. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Craig Dowden
Wow! So tough. Anything by Dan Pink, Adam Grant, Marshall Goldsmith, I think is exceptional. One book that I love to refer because it’s relatively unknown is by William Ury who wrote “Getting To Yes.” So, a lot of people know that book. My favorite of the trilogy that he wrote was called “The Power of a Positive No.” And I just found the concept so really compelling in terms of its application and execution.

So, essentially, what his argument is, and he does a lot of the toughest international negotiations and crisis situations, and he talks about how people are generally awful at saying no. And because we’re so afraid of hurting someone else, and so either we do one of two things. We either avoid the other person, or ghost them altogether, or we just say yes to things we’re not prepared to do.

So, in his book, he provides this really awesome methodology to be able to deliver a positive no which basically goes, “Yes. No. Yes. Question mark.” So, essentially, “Hey, Pete, I appreciate that that’s really important to you. The timeline for me is not going to work because of these competing commitments. How about we do X?” So, it’s, affirm the other person, affirm my own position, and then propose a solution with a question mark, say, “Hey, I’m prepared to collaborate,” and it’s just absolutely golden.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Craig Dowden
Tool? I love StrengthsFinder. I find doing a StrengthsFinder is really powerful and I love having access, I subscribe to HBR, so I love, I have to say, I really enjoy getting the articles, blogposts that come through there.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Craig Dowden
Wow, a favorite habit. I would say there’s a great book called “The ONE Thing” that was written by Keller Williams, the real estate…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Craig Dowden
And it’s amazing. And so, I strive to, each day, say, “What’s that one thing that if I do it will move the needle more than anything else?” And so, really be focused on the one thing, making sure by the end of each day, I have done my one thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks that they say, “Yes, Craig, that’s brilliant”?

Craig Dowden
I think the power of the positive no is really powerful. I think, really, the importance of letting go. So, the power of “I know.” So, when I have discussions with people and they have a conflict with someone, again, personally or professionally, I’ll say, “Okay. Well, have you talked to Pete about this?” “No.” “Well, how come? Like, what was…?” And then they’ll say, “Well, I know how he’s going to respond.” And I’ll say, “Okay. Well, how do you know that?” They’ll say, “Well, I just know, okay?”

And I’ll say, “Okay. Well, have you tried to approach him about this topic and then he shut you down or a similar topic and he reacted this way?” “No.” “Have you ever been in a social setting where you’ve observed him react in that way?” “No.” “Have you heard third hand, like around the watercooler that he’s done this?” “No.” And then it’s, “Hey, you know what, are you sure that he’s going to…how do you know this?” And I think that’s really powerful in terms of challenging our own insights.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Craig, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Craig Dowden
CraigDowden.com is the best way, and also @craigdowden on Twitter, and you can use my name on LinkedIn.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Craig Dowden
Well, I would say to think about the impact that you want to have on the world and each day, both in any organization or community that you serve, and be mindful of what your core values are. And at the end of every day, sit back and see the degree to which you’re living your core values. And a lot of my coaching clients, I do it as well, do a quick five-minute take on, “Hey, did I do today what I set out to do? Am I living my values every day?” And a lot of research shows the better we are at accomplishing that, the more effective we are and the more likely we are to achieve our goals.

Pete Mockaitis
And happier, too, I imagine.

Craig Dowden
And much happier, yeah, exactly. An added bonus.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, Craig, this has been fun. Thank you and good luck in all your adventures.

Craig Dowden
Thanks. Well, I look forward to going back to our performance review and staying in touch. So, I’ll commit to that.