Stepping Into the Abyss

by Jennifer Miller on January 26, 2010

in Leadership

It’s great when a fellow blogger inspires me to get revved up on a topic. And so it is with Mary Jo Asmus’ series on the role that employees should play in helping their leaders improve.  Last week, in response to her post “Bad Manager or Flawed Human?” the discussion on her blog was lively.  She followed it up yesterday with “Dialog with Your Manager”.

Mary Jo feels strongly about this topic.  She firmly believes that employees must “own” part of the process—they must be willing to step up and give feedback to their bosses.   She writes,

“Many of us want to be able to turn to one another in our communities and workplaces with dialog that will further the healthy relationships that help us, our leaders and organizations, to grow. How can this happen if we don’t take some personal responsibility for addressing the behaviors of managers that harm us and ultimately destroy  “the greater good”?”

I feel strongly about this topic too.  In an ideal world, we’d all be big boys and girls and would willingly and skillfully engage in productive conversations for the greater good.  As I mentioned on MJ’s blog, we don’t, however, live in an ideal world.

So how do we move towards that ideal?  It’s a matter of helping people be willing and able.

Willingness: Assessing the Reality of the Threat

I believe employees want to help make their workplaces better.  The reality of actually doing something about it makes people nervous. It’s like there’s this big, gray unknown territory in between what they know should do and are actually doing. If employees’ default response is “it won’t do any good” to provide feedback to their boss, then they conclude that inaction is the best choice.  Perhaps they believe that “something bad” in will happen: the boss will yell or there will be retribution of some sort.  Speaking up is like stepping up to a dark abyss and deciding to jump.  Scary.  And fear doesn’t typically foster risk-taking. So first, we need to help employees achieve the desire to move from “wishful thinking” (“I wish my boss would…”) to actually engaging their boss.

Those of us in mentoring or coaching roles (internal or external, formal or informal) must help our colleagues assess how real the threat is.  I find that people often exaggerate the perceived outcome.  “I can’t approach my boss.  Are you kidding me? He’d blow a fuse!” Or, “No way, I don’t want to get fired!” My colleague Bob Anderson calls this “Makin’ Stuff Up”.  People imagine an outcome that is possible and turn it into something (in their minds, at least) that’s probable.  Then they decide not to act because they perceive that the risk is too great.

Questions to help evaluate the reality of the threat:

  • To what degree are you comfortable approaching your boss with feedback?
  •  Have you ever given your boss feedback before? How was it received?
  • Consider the nature of the feedback—is it highly sensitive, or something fairly benign?
  • What’s the worst thing that will happen? How probable is that worst-case scenario?

Even if employees are willing to give feedback, they are often unsure of how to proceed. That brings me to the second point: once employees decide to act, they must possess the proper skills to do so.

Ability: How To Give Feedback That Helps?

Even the most well-intentioned feedback won’t have positive results if it’s poorly delivered. Giving feedback to someone higher in the food chain is daunting.  Equipping employees with a few tools to do so  helps them have a “recipe” for what to say.  My favorite definition of feedback is: “Information that lets people know whether or not their actions had the intended impact”. By positioning feedback as “information” the feedback giver keeps the conversation neutral in tone.

People need to know the basics of giving feedback:

  • Describe what you observed. Keep it specific.  Only describe something you personally heard or observed.  Otherwise, it’s just hearsay.
  • Express the impact it made. Talk about how that behavior made you feel, or the business impact it had (increased mistakes, decreased communication).
  • Ask for a change in behavior, if applicable. Say something like, “In the future, would you consider…”

Keep in mind that people have become conditioned to the phrase “I have some feedback for you.”  They may noticeably tense in preparation for what they’re about to hear.  That’s OK.  As long as they are willing to listen and the feedback giver follows the “recipe” above, the conversation has begun.  It may be bumpy and awkward, but it’s a start.

What’s Your Role?

What’s your role in this?  If you’re a leader, what are the ways you encourage feedback?  If you’re a team member, how do you work up the courage to give feedback to your boss? I agree with Mary Jo’s assertion that workplace dynamics won’t improve if we don’t talk with another and assume some measure of risk. The question is, how willing are you to step into the abyss?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Katy January 27, 2010 at 7:44 am

Wonderful post! I do think that employees avoid giving feedback out of fear, and it is a challenge to managers to create an environment where feedback is welcomed and respected. You are on point by saying that it’s a two way street – managers and team members all hold some accountability. I always suggest to my clients that if they are sharing feedback with anyone they should focus on specifics, offer suggestions for what they would like to see changed, and ask for feedback about their own performance at the same time.

J. Michael Thurman January 29, 2010 at 7:16 am

Thank you for approaching this topic. My wife and I just had a conversation related to this last night. She’s a training consultant and coach in an organization with a great vision and mission….

I experience stress on both sides of the desk.

As a member of a team/group/organization, I experience the fear of which you speak at times. If it’s at work, I’m sure many people ask this question: “Can I afford a job search…now?”

As a leader, I also experience frustration. I am frustrated because I ask … actively seek out … reflections from my family / team / group. The usual answer I’ve gotten over the years from staff members and board members alike is similar to that from our 13-yr-old: “IDK. Y?”

My wife expressed a frustration, too: needing to give feedback to positional leaders. That is, to leaders who don’t want it. Fear. Frustration. More frustration. Pity for front-line staff. Those are a few of the expressions I heard from her.

(cf. Mike Henry’s post: )

How do leaders feel about modeling this behavior? What do you experience when you think of asking your reports for an open assessment? For perspective on possible improvements?

Again, thanks for a great post! Lots of ideas flowing around my head, now.


Lisa Parker ~ Recruiter Uncensored January 29, 2010 at 10:18 am

Bingo! Couldn’t agree more. We ALL can be instruments of positive change. I tell my clients, most are unemployed, to focus on identifying ways to help the companies you want to work for become better. That’s how you stand out! In the end, companies want people willing to play an active role in that company’s success. This fear of exchanging ideas hurts us all. It’s a shame to think of how much stays buried and never makes it to the surface. Companies pay people for their knowledge and contribution. Finding a tactful way to put your knowledge to work for a company, so it can be better in the long run, is essential. Early on in my career I had a colleague, George, tell me I needed to rein in my impulse to point out ways things could be done more efficiently in our company. I was ruffling feathers, you see. “People don’t want to hear that stuff…they just want you to do your job.” A few weeks later George was gone. Fired. I have no idea what the reason for his termination was, but it crossed my mind his choice to ride the waves made by others versus being a part of starting a few of his own contributed. I love making waves. That sounds negative. Not so. Waves can be enjoyed by all and are a great source of energy.

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