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I have been helping develop better managers for more than 20 years now. And experience has led me to the firm belief that eventually our strengths become our greatest weaknesses.
I am a very occasional and very poor golfer. My golf bag has 12 clubs in it.
Of those 12 clubs I can hit about 6 with any degree of control. The others are a complete lottery. I should really take them out of the bag to avoid temptation.
So, almost whatever the situation I find myself in, I will choose a 5 or 3 wood, or an iron between 6 and 9 (inclusive).
Often I find myself in situations where these clubs won’t work. In a bunker for example I will reach for one of the clubs that I really don’t know how to hit – my sand wedge – and hack away. On a good day I will eventually make it to the green, where custom and practice suggest that I should reach for the putter. Another club I have never been taught to use.
Why is it like this?
Because 15 years ago someone gave me a series of 6 golf lessons as a present. For an hour a week for 6 weeks I stood on a plastic tee on the driving range with someone showing me how to hit an iron and eventually a wood. An hour a week spent smacking buckets of balls into the shrubbery until a semblance of control was achieved.
Then the lesson stopped and I was invited to play a round on a course. I stepped out onto the first tee and watched my partner hit a driver more or less down the middle. Now I had never hit my driver in my life – but how hard could it be? Its not that different from a 3 wood.
I actually hit the ball OK. True it did ricochet off the roof of the clubhouse before finally ending up in the light rough 100 yards short of my partners ball. But at least I was on my way. I vowed at that point to leave the driver in the bag until I knew how to hit it.
I scrabbled around in a hundred and a bit shots with about 6 lost balls. But I completed a round. The first of about 12 that I have completed over the last 15 years.
Because I can manage to scrabble around with the few clubs that I know how to hit – I have NEVER bothered to go back and learn how to hit a driver, a sand wedge or a putter. I have also never learned what to so when the ball is lower, or higher than my feet. I have never learned how to keep a ball low into the wind or throw it up and let the wind carry it. I have never learned how to shape the ball right or left. And that is what I have become a ‘better golfer’. Because the few strengths I have got somehow get me by.
And I think many managers are the same. If you are lucky you get a short introduction to management course when you start out. And then you are left on your own. Using whatever strengths you have to get by. And when you find yourself in a context where you don’t know what you should be doing – well you just do your best and hope that before long your strengths will come back into play.
Our strengths stop us from having to learn new techniques and skills.
And if we are not careful, they trap us into mediocrity.
They can certainly stop us from getting better.
And, unless we are especially careful, we convince ourselves that this is OK.
So, we need to be honest in our self assessments, work out what it is that we need to learn to do better, and then give ourselves permission to once again do those things badly, in order that we might eventually learn to do them well.
We need to find ourselves a good teacher. We need to find somewhere we can practice safely. And then we need to put what we learn into practice.
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It might even help you with your golf!
I recently had a meeting with a manager that I had worked with and he asked me about a challenge he was facing in putting feedback into practice.
We had worked on helping him to use both affirming and adjusting feedback.
- Affirming feedback is given when an employee exhibits a good behaviour at work and the manager wants to show that it has been noticed, recognised and appreciated in order to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will be used again.
- Adjusting feedback is used when the work behaviour or product is not up to organisational standards and the manager wants the employee to consider ‘what they could differently next time’. They are looking to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour re-occurring.
Providing more affirming feedback than adjusting feedback will build a culture that is open to feedback and builds relationships that means adjusting feedback, when given, is more likely to be accepted constructively and acted upon.
This manager was fine on spotting opportunities to give adjusting feedback but was finding it much harder to find opportunities to give affirming feedback. He was rightly worried that if he did not keep a healthy balance then his feedback would become ineffective, and he would be seen to be seen as overly critical and negative, driving the organisational culture and the moral of staff in the wrong direction
There are several reasons why some managers struggle with affirming feedback:
Many, perhaps most, managers are ‘tuned’ to look for, and sort out, problems. Good performance is taken for granted (indeed barely noticed) while any performance issues are recognised and corrected. This ‘management by exception‘ can be effective and efficient in the short term. However in the long term it leads to an unhealthy focus on performance problems and a culture where employees feel under-valued and taken for granted. Discipline yourself to recognise, value and feedback on good work – reject the philosophy of management by exception.
Managers who are very task oriented and dominant tend to undervalue the power of affirming feedback in building relationships. Discipline yourself to recognise and celebrate employee success with affirming feedback. You may not feel that this is helping with the task at hand – but it will help, if done well, to build a better relationship. And this will have a direct impact on achievement in the longer term.
Some managers find it hard to recognise the kind of behaviours that should trigger affirming feedback because they have lost touch with the values, vision and mission of the organisation and their role in supporting them in practice. If the organisation ‘values’ innovation and risk taking then it is vital that managers give affirming feedback when employee behaviours support these values. Using affirming feedback to recognise employees who are supporting mission, vision and values and letting them know that their work is recognised and valued is important in building a performance culture and ensuring that those desired behaviours are repeated and spread. This style of ‘appreciative management’ is incredibly effective in engendering a positive culture of performance and ensuring that organisational mission, vision and values are brought to live in day to day work. Look out for behaviours that bring mission, vision or values to life and provide affirming feedback.
Some managers have become detached from the people management aspects of their role. They manage task lists and performance metrics – but they don’t invest the time in seeing what their employees and team members actually do. Tom Peters popularised the term ‘Managing by Wandering About’ – or MBWA. If you are struggling to find examples of employee behaviour to provide the foundation for affirming feedback perhaps a little more time out of the office and working with the team might help.
There are no rigid rules on this – but most managers give way too little feedback. Many give none at all outside of the formal performance review process. For each report that you have you should be aiming to give on average at least 4 pieces of feedback each and every day. Affirming feedback should outnumber adjusting feedback in a ratio of 3 or 4:1. If you can develop the volume of feedback that you give to this sort of level I guarantee that team performance will develop rapidly.
If you would like to use feedback to improve morale, culture and performance in your workplace then please do get in touch.
Many managers spend a lot of time worrying about how they communicate. Often they focus on what they say and how they say it. They tend to spend less time focussing on how well they are listening.
I was recently taught a simple mnemonic, CARE, that I find helps me to think about the quality of my listening. You might find it helpful too.
C = Concentrate – pay them your full attention, avoid distractions, pay attention to what they are saying and not saying.
A = Assist – help them to tell their story. Resist the temptation to say what comes to your mind until they have finished speaking. Ask gentle questions to help them tell their story more fully
R = Rephrase – rephrase what you have heard them say and ask whether you have heard them properly. Do they feel that you understand their perspective?
E = Empathetically Respond – now you can take your chance to share your thoughts and responses. Make sure they are relevant, respectful and kind.
I know that in conversations I can often respond too early, keen to interrupt to share my own insights and knowledge.
This acronym reminds me to let them fully tell their story first. To really listen, knowing that when the time is right I will find better words with which to empathetically respond.
Of course there are many other ways to listen….