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Challenging conversations in the workplace

Many of our most important learnings and career tipping points come from meaningful feedback. Yet you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone saying that an annual review is their favourite part of the job. No matter if you’re delivering it or are on the receiving end: we are often uncomfortable with feedback despite its importance. 

Can we criticise and still be a team?

You can- if you have a few rules in place. The government intelligence and security organisation GCHQ is a good example. Amina (not her real name) is a twentysomething who works for GCHQ. She went to a regular university and loves how the organisation deals with feedback. In an interview with The Sunday Times, she says, “We do quite well. There are various rules that you play by. One of them is ‘assume noble intent’. So when somebody is challenging you, you assume that they’re not challenging you for the sake of it. This is really healthy. Because when we’re making decisions about difficult things, it’s important that you’re willing to listen and to know what you’re actually saying. That is how you get to solutions more quickly.” 

The key here is that GCHQ has clear values around criticism and already shows in their recruitment process that they value individuals for their unique talents and strengths. The motto “assume noble intent” is accepted by everyone in the team. As Amina says, “we’re all here for one thing- to protect the U.K. Nobody’s out for themselves.” This kind of mission thinking helps create a bond within a team. It makes criticism not about the individual but about the overall goal everyone wants to achieve. 

Challenging conversations become much easier if a business can let its employees see the bigger picture and has clear values that everyone holds. 

How to give good quality feedback

No one likes to be criticised, no matter how well the intention. But most people find it just as difficult to give quality feedback without overly focusing on the negative. That can backfire and create more tension in the workplace. A transparent feedback process ensures that those negative voices don’t drown out the constructive message. Here’s what to keep in mind. 

Only give feedback at a review

“A quick word” on the corridor is convenient for the person giving the feedback but can seriously disrupt the flow of work for the colleague on the receiving end. The same goes for a chat during an important project. Here, the person doesn’t have the headspace to deal with another challenge and is likely to be annoyed. A formal assessment is the best time to voice any concerns about someone’s work or attitude. Both sides are prepared and mentally ready to discuss uncomfortable topics. 

It can be in both directions

360-degree feedback is one of the best tools to reduce rater bias and discrimination tendencies. Here, you get feedback not only from your supervisor but from four to eight peers, coworkers, and customers. This feedback tool tends to focus more on how someone’s behaviour affects other employees and not so much on their work accomplishments.  

Choose a good time for performance reviews

Make sure all employees are aware of when the performance review is coming. Most large companies have a schedule or process for when bonuses are paid or budgeting takes place. Many also have a high-volume work season (usually during Q2 and 3) that is best to avoid as everyone is already at their limit during this time. 

Only when asked and not built into the way of work

It’s a fact of life that some people can handle feedback better than others. Unrequested feedback is not well received and usually doesn’t help matters. If you feel the need to criticise quite a few people, ask yourself: is there a lot going on in your life right now? We know from studies that stressed people produce more cortisol. A raised cortisol level can lead to a heightened sense of danger. A person with a high cortisol level is more likely to interpret banter as mobbing or specific behaviours of others as an attack on themselves. If others seem to stress you out, see if your own perception could play a role. 

Stand-ups can’t replace an annual review 

If your company favours agile working, engineering stand-ups might be another form of feedback. These daily time-boxed ceremonies arent’ a replacement for annual feedback; they focus solely on the project at hand and should be seen as such. The same goes for code reviews. 

Yes, you can give feedback to the C-suite…

…but it should be clear and concise. Here more than anywhere else, it’s vital to point out the benefits of changing behaviour. DESC is a suitable method. “D” stands for describing the concern you have, and “E” is its effect on you. “S” is the solution you offer, and “C” stands for a positive consequence as a result. 

It should only be about behaviour

Criticising someone’s personality or character is not only unhelpful, but it’s also unprofessional. The goal of a challenging conversation in the workplace is to improve the performance of someone in a professional environment, nothing else.

  • Hold quarterly touch-base meetings

An annual assessment shouldn’t hold any surprises. 

It has to be specific

 “I noticed you’re very distracted lately, and it impacts your work” isn’t nearly as good as “I’ve noticed you didn’t hand in your last two projects on time and were distracted in the last meeting with the client.” Generic statements don’t give the person a clear idea of what they should change. And a vague feeling that someone might be doing it wrong isn’t enough to go on. 

How to receive criticism and make it work for you

No matter if you’re part of a team or leading one, we all face challenging conversations in the workplace at some time. See how you react to what has been said to you. Do you immediately feel the need to defend yourself? That might be a sign that sentence hit home. We’re often hurt when someone addresses our weak points. 

Don’t be confrontational, but ask for examples of times you didn’t get it right. Write them down and give yourself some time to analyse them. What was going on in your life at the time? Can you detect a pattern? 

Sometimes, the solution is simple. In “What’s your problem?” Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests looking at prior events to understand an issue better. He takes the example of a teenage daughter complaining about her teacher. The fight escalated to the point where she stormed out of the classroom. The best question might be, “did you remember to eat breakfast this morning?” There’s a surprising correlation between a fight between people and an empty stomach. 

So when you see that a particular behaviour comes up repeatedly, ask yourself first if there’s a simple reason for it. Maybe you’re skipping breakfast like that teenager, or you don’t get enough sleep. If you struggle with time management and get told you have to get organised, you’re in good company: the average person has tried 13 methods to manage their time. There are a few things you can do to tackle that. First, track your time with a time management tool like Clockify and conduct a time audit once you have enough data. That way, you can see where your time goes and why you find it so hard to finish your projects on time. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that whatever you want to change will take much longer than you anticipated. 

Give yourself a whole quarter to address that challenge and focus on it. Listen to a TED talk or find a friend or mentor who faced a similar challenge and found ways to improve in that area. If you are employed, ask if extra training is available. 

Don’t be hard on yourself if you find criticism hard to take in. If you struggle to accept yourself, you’ll perceive every assessment of your strengths and weaknesses as a threat. That can hinder your career growth. Meditation apps such as headspace also offer courses on self-care and self-love that can help you see the bigger picture and not zoom in only on your weak points. 

How does feedback look for different groups of people? 

You will have noticed in your daily life that attitudes towards work-related issues and views on society often vary according to age or social status. Generation X, who often find themselves in a leadership position, grew up with a different attitude towards things like remote working and mental health than Generation Z. Not everyone can be neatly put in such a box. Still, contrasting world views in different generations can affect how each gives and receives feedback. 

Class and ethnicity can also play a role here. So-called social class transitioners are people who moved from one social class to another. They are highly beneficial in the workplace as they understand different points of view much better than others and are very helpful for groups. But as they are few and far between, this can be exhausting. Class transitioners will often react differently to a challenging conversation in the workplace than someone who never had to leave their social environment. 

The goal should be to view the person as a whole and adopt feedback according to their personality and background as much as possible.

The most important point

Don’t take it personally. That’s easier said than done, but so many issues at work arise because we can’t communicate clearly or hear things that aren’t there. Your team and your supervisors aren’t out there to “get you”; they want to do a good job, and sometimes, they communicate that poorly. When things go wrong, the best way to steer the communication back to the issue at hand is to remember that we’re all biased and often struggle with the same problems. Constructive listening and a little empathy can go a long way to make difficult conversations less challenging. 

Are you interested in learning more about challenging conversations in the workplace? My newsletter addresses these and many more career issues. Get involved and sign up below. 

Challenging conversations in the workplace - Just Jaz

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