The Discomfort of Improving

Warning: This post involves self reflection. If you’re looking for PR or social media best practices, check back in a day or two when normal service will resume.

Change can be tough. Change at home; in our personal lives; with our families. Changes at work is no different. Perhaps the most difficult change, though, is changing ourselves (oooh, deep…).

I try to constantly strive to be better at everything I do. Sometimes I fail, but I’m fortunate to work with a team of people who push me to be better on a daily basis (people like Joe, Michael, Terry and Andrea). It’s a great thing, although it’s certainly uncomfortable at times. There’s nothing like having your assumptions questioned or your work scrutinized and picked apart (in a constructive way, mind you) to make you squirm a little as you realize they’re right.

As our social media team grows, while I continue to learn from my colleagues on a daily basis I’m increasingly finding myself on the other side of the equation, being the person driving others to better themselves. It’s a tough adjustment – I often worry about the risk of communicating feedback poorly to team members, especially knowing that I can be about as subtle as a steamroller at times.

I constantly wrestle with the temptation to avoid giving difficult feedback. I think it’s a natural instinct to shy away from things like this. After much internal wrestling I’ve re-affirmed to myself that I owe it both to others and to myself to push everyone (especially including myself!) to grow. Likewise, however difficult it may be, I will always try welcome push-back from others on my ideas and approaches – it forces me to improve.

However, it’s one of my favourite things about where I work – every day I’ll have at least three or four conversations where we leave the room having moved the yardsticks forward, not just on a specific project but more broadly.

The pay-off of those difficult conversations that we have? We produce better results for our clients. I can see the results daily. For example, looking at the conversation audits we’ve produced over the last 18 months, I see a continuous evolution. The analyses we produce now is a noticeable evolution from those which we used to produce. I suspect that in another 18 months, I’ll be able to look back and say the same thing. That’s the product of hours and hours of self-reflection within our team – and of conversations where we’ve challenged our ways of doing things (and challenged each other) – with the result that we’re better at what we do.

The challenges are two-fold – pushing people to be better in a constructive, reasonable way, and reacting appropriately when people push you. I think a large part of that comes down to knowing yourself and knowing the person you’re communicating with – whether you’re giving or receiving feedback, it makes all the difference. As for best practices on this one, I’m still figuring them out.

How have you approached these conversations? What tactics do you use to ensure they go smoothly?

  • One of your best posts, yet, Dave : ) I’ve been struggling with having someone in my life to guide and mentor and push me as you have been responsible for. Definitely having similar thoughts.

  • Well said, Dave! Growth and change are always accompanied by challenges and a little discomfort – which is why the vast majority are willing to settle for the status quo.

    What they fail to appreciate, but which you and your team are obviously well aware of, are the ultimate benefits that can be gained by overcoming that inertia and making the effort, as uncomfortable as it can be, to grow.

    As for best practices communicating difficult feedback, I sense you’ve already picked up on one aspect I’ve found crucial – it has to be non-personal, from both sides of the table. That takes it from “I’m telling you what you did wrong” to “Here’s what we can do to improve on what we did before”.

    It’s also useful to include the positives that happened in a discussion of what didn’t go so well – it brings balance to analysis and keeps everyone from focusing on blame and negativity.

    Here’s to always being just that little bit uncomfortable 🙂

    • Thanks for the pointers Rob – good tips, although I think perhaps keeping personalities in mind can be beneficial (considering peoples’ sore points, for example)

      • Oh, absolutely, Dave!

        Personality and personal are different things – I’ve always tried to gear my message and presentation to the audience, whether that’s one person, a relatively homogeneous group or a highly diverse crowd. Failure to communicate can often be the result of not taking the audience’s perspective, experience and, yes, personality into account.

  • Indicating or singling out what is a learning experience doesn’t go over well – even though, as the mentor, you need to be actively seeking out opportunities to coach. Don’t make it look like you are teaching or preaching – but instead collaborate and problem solve together. Work through a problem, but in doing so, impart the experience that you have and thought process you follow needed to solve the problem.

    • Thanks Brett. You’re right – it can be really wearing if it feels like someone’s constantly beating down on you. I’ve certainly fallen into the ‘preaching’ trap in the past (hopefully not so much any more – you probably know better than I do, though!!) and you’re right about working through things together.

      The great thing is that around here, I learn from conversations with you guys every day, which makes things easier…

  • Dave, I’m right there with you…

    There’s almost nothing harder or more rewarding than helping someone become the professional they should be. I have a little quote by Lao-tsu tacked up on my desk to remind myself that “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!'”

    And, sometimes you really can make a difference. On the other hand, I’ve put my foot in my mouth more times than I care to admit. But, if I had to boil down what I’ve learned:

    1. Start by listening, end by listening again. Identify their verbals “clues” to shape and sharpen your own messages. You are essentially building “empathy bridges”
    2. Be kind, but do not shy away from being direct and honest
    3. Remember the best leaders are servants to others
    4. Only tell them 3 things. This one may sound a little silly, but that’s as much feedback as anyone can retain. If you need to tell them more than that, then you probably aren’t communcating often enough.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  • Good post Dave. I think there is a culture and style aspect to this.

    Style:
    One of my early bosses was very abrasive BUT very supportive. I did M&A work at the time. When reviewing an opportunity with him you would come in and argue your case during which he would tell you that your idea was absolutely idiotic because… and that he expected better analysis from you around…. and that your idea was absolute garbage because….

    This was his “style”, it was NOT personal in any way it was how he communicated. Initially I was hugely intimidated, wanted to quit, etc but in the end I learned from this guy BECAUSE he took the time to tell you WHY he disagreed with you. He actually wanted to mentor and guide and this is how he did it and he actually respected you pushing back in the manner. This is clearly NOT for everyone but I think it is important to look at Substance more than Style.

    Culture:
    Company culture often dictates how this things go and that can be really good or really bad. I have been at places where you NEVER challenged someone senior and you never confronted peoples ideas and thoughts head on, or at best did it very casually which took much longer to get to the right outcome. If a company culture is one when good healthy active debate is encouraged with a view NOT to be right or wrong but rather to get to the RIGHT outcome for the client THAT is a healthy culture that should be supported.

    There is no right answer except that whatever the style and the culture the DEBATE and the IMPROVING must be constant and frankly the more the better!

  • Steve O’Halloran

    I find myself going through many of the same challenges you seem to be having currently in my new role manager. It’s a very different landscape indeed giving feedback and inspiring those to constantly raise the bar. A timely article for me as I dive into my first real staff performance review season. These challenging conversations are ones that I need to have that in many cases due to culture and inertia are long overdue. My challenge is now to achieve the right balance of clarity in communicating the improvements that need to be made and inspiring those to achieve those improvements. You’re right, it’s only when we face these difficult and uncomfortable conversations that we grow in our achievements, and the achievements of our teams. Great post Dave.

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  • Great article Dave. Helps put back in perspective how dire regular meetings with team is.

    The issue is creating structured tasks to easily implement into team members daily routeens which can facilitate growth in our company when we are already very workload heavy.

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  • Personalities and style have so much to do with it, on both sides (the improver and the improvee? LOL). I’ve worked with and been mentored those who, by all accounts, were “tyrannical” and “impossible to work with” as well as those who are well loved. The approach and the tactics are important, but truly, I’ve learned that it’s the dynamics in the relationship that holds the key.

    And in case you’re curious, the so-called tyrants turned out to be my best mentors.

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  • Giving feedback can be a little awkward at times, but I find it especially difficult when you’re just new in the work world. How do you tell somebody who has 25 years more experience than you that you’re unsure about one of their ideas?

    The way that I approach the situation is to either a) Don’t say anything at all. This might not be the best way but I’d rather not risk seeming out of line, you know? Being new and young I’m still trying to figure out where my place is.

    Or b) If I think an idea is way off I suggest other things by starting with “Well maybe we could do this,”… or “You know what might work?”… I find suggesting things means you’re into the project and want to contribute great ideas, where as flat out saying you don’t like or agree with something may come off as offensive.

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