We need to embrace the truths that hurt

I’ll start off by explaining why I do the job I do. Simply, I want people to have a better experience of work, to feel safe at work, to be fairly rewarded in exchange for their efforts. You can call it making work better, making work human or any other nomenclature that is in the current vogue.

One of the downsides of my role is that no matter how hard I work, no matter what improvements and changes we make, there will always be challenges and questions about where we could have done more. That’s just the nature of the work we do in the society that we currently live in. The challenges will be different, but we have to accept that no matter what we do, it will never be enough.

One of the downsides of this is that we can homogenise criticism of our practice as always being unfair. “That’s employees for you, never happy” or, “If managers just did their jobs, we wouldn’t have to deal with any of this”. And the danger of this is we fail to see the truths that we need to embrace.

Just because we will always be the focus of challenge doesn’t mean that some of it isn’t justified. Just because we are doing our best and trying our hardest, doesn’t mean we don’t get things wrong. Just because we want to do good, doesn’t mean we sometimes don’t wrong.

Knowing how to separate out the noise from the real issues is critically important and incredibly hard. Listening to the truths that hurt is at the heart of exceptional practice. If we want to be better, if we strive to be the best, if we believe in creating something that can be called a legacy, then we need to recognise that sometimes we get things wrong.

Ours is a profession that has the ability to transform lives and bring out the best in people, it has the ability to make society a little bit better and to impact on generations to come. But with that power comes the potential to do the absolute opposite – and that is the truth that we should always hold close to our heart when we evaluate our impact and work.

Sometimes you need to let go

Last week I was thinking about a conversation at work that had really got my goat. It was one of those conversations that happens without warning, that you participate in and then when you walk away you stop and think, “how on earth did that happen?” And the more you think about it, the angrier you get and the more unfair the situation becomes.

That conversation happened over ten years ago.

I can remember it clearly, the room, the time of day, the individual involved. I can remember coming away and tasting mustard in my mouth – a sure sign that I felt distressed by the experience. And to this day I hold a feeling of unjustness about the circumstances.

I’m quite clear that I need to let go.

I should probably listen to the advice that I give to my kids when they tell me about someone saying something unfair – you have a choice, you can say something and challenge the person about what they’ve said, or you can move on and let it go. There’s nothing in-between that will  help you.

I often see people at work who are still hung up on a conversation or situation that happened in their work history. They hold onto it but fail to do anything positive about it, instead it becomes a limiting reminder of how the universe is unfair. It becomes an anchor, unhelpfully holding them to a specific moment of time.

Being able to let go and move on is critical to remaining open-minded, to learning and growing, to progressing and developing. It is key to our mental wellbeing. So if there’s something that is holding you back, talk about it, get it off your chest, put it in the ground and then tramp the earth down. You’ll be better for it, believe me.

 

If it walks like a duck

The connection between self belief and outcomes can be one of the most powerful drivers of performance. When an individual or team truly believe in something, they can often deliver results greater than the sum of the parts. That’s why we often seen teams deliver incredible, unexpected outcomes – “against the odds”.

At the same time, the connection can also be one of the biggest inhibitors when we fail to see or listen to the feedback that surrounds us. Not all of our efforts will bear fruit and the ability to realise this, see where we are falling short or can improve and recorrect is critical.

That’s one the beautiful things about creating a team that operates as an open system. Open systems listen to the feedback in the external environment and respond and develop accordingly. They are, to some extents, the epitome of selfless, ego less organisations. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t the need for process or procedure, but that these are constantly developing in relation to the external environment in which they operate.

In the book “Black Box Thinking”, Matthew Syed gives a number of examples of open systems, but the one that struck me the most was the airline industry, where feedback and information is shared across companies and used to deliver improvements industry wide on all aspects of safety. When someone shares something they’ve learnt because of an incident or a near miss, you don’t hear anyone respond, “but that’s not how we do things here” or “we’ve always done it that way”, they listen and learn.

It begs the question, in our organisations how much do we really listen to the feedback that is around us and how willing are we to adapt and respond as a result? Too often we talk about the reasons why things are as they are, or why they’re too hard to change. But wouldn’t a more engaging, energetic and profitable way be to listen and address?

If we see the work that we do it and the way that we do it as an ongoing journey of improvement rather than a fixed deliverable, we can use the feedback that we hear and see as a positive means of continuing on that journey, rather than as a means to critique what we’ve just done. And from that, we will only ever see better results for everyone involved.

Nobody needs feedback

Of all the sickening management constructs that we’ve introduced into the workplace, the industry around feedback is perhaps the most pervasive and unhelpful. We are living in a world with a constant pressure and need to seek and give feedback but without really considering to what end.

A quick Google search for “feedback at work” shows just shy of a billion articles. A billion articles written about something that didn’t really exist until the middle of last century. And in that time, have we seen workplaces become happier? More productive? More enjoyable? Or have we seen the reverse?

The problem is, that over 90% of feedback is unhelpful. It doesn’t actually make anything better, doesn’t make anyone improve, doesn’t facilitate learning or enlightenment. If you don’t believe me, consider this:

What is the most useful piece of feedback you’ve received?

I bet you can think of one, an incisive and helpful moment. Now, place this piece of feedback in proportion to the entire amount that you’ve been given over your life. And quite frankly, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t fall into insignificance. You will have been given more pointless, unhelpful and sometimes dangerous pieces of feedback than helpful ones, probably to the power of ten.

The other issue with feedback is that it is, by nature, entirely subjective. And therefore is subject to bias. When you receive feedback you’re not getting the truth, you’re getting opinion. And that opinion is only one set of data. So on any, genuine, scientific basis it would be completely unreliable. There are no controls, there are multiple variables, it simply would not pass muster.Yet in organisations, we treat it as a means for development.

Here’s the thing. If you want feedback on something, or from someone then fine. Go and ask. But if people start telling you that you need it, or your organisation starts telling you that it wants to develop a feedback culture. Run like the wind. Or simply put your headphones on. You’ll end up wasting time, being confused, getting contradictory messages and choosing to believe only the information that supports your own confirmation bias – whether positive, or negative.

Feedback in organisations? Its something nobody needs to “see more of” and we could all do with “doing differently”. “Stop” the obsession with it, “Start” thinking more creatively, “Continue” getting on with your jobs.