August 10, 2008
I have been thinking a lot lately about the concept of transparency. There are projects going on, new people joining the staff, changes in policies and procedures at MPOW that require good communication and a level of transparency in order to make things go smoothly and to keep everyone as informed as they need and would like to be. I believe that transparency in communication, decision-making, procedures and policy is ideal and I support any effort to improve in this area.
However, more and more I am starting to think that an important and essential first or pre-step needs to happen and is often overlooked. This being: creating a climate of open communication. What I mean by this is a work environment where people are comfortable being honest and direct, sharing their opinions, without the fear of, not retribution, but of offending people. I know that someone will always be offended by something, I’m not that naive. We spend a lot of time coaching people on how to communicate more effectively and how to be better at giving feedback, but we don’t spend enough time on the other side of that equation; receiving feedback.
Receiving feedback is a skill. It takes a great deal of self-awareness, self-control, self-confidence, and self-esteem. It is something that with practice we can improve. I don’t have a 5 step improvement process for this, but I do have some key points that I try to keep in the back of my head.
1. I am secure in the knowledge that I am good at what I do. This is not conceit or arrogance. This is recognition that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing, what makes the best use of my skills and talents, and what I enjoy doing on a daily basis. It is reinforced by positive feedback from my staff, my colleagues, my supervisors, performance appraisals, and the fact that I still want to get up and go to work every morning.
2. What happens in my professional life does not necessarily have much, if any, bearing on my personal life. When I receive feedback about my work, it is just that. It is not a remark about my soul, personality, morality, intelligence, character, or who I am at the core of my being. If it was, I’d have a lot more issues that need to be addressed.
3. The people I work with are my colleagues and collaborators, not my enemies. There is no hidden agenda or conspiracy to see me fail. I consider what I am being told before I react. Is it relevant? Does it make a valid point? How can I change or improve the issue? What is the desired outcome and how do we get there?
4. I can’t please everyone. Being a manager puts you in the undesirable position of having to hear feedback that you sometimes can’t directly address or comment upon. You just have to hear it. We sometimes have to make decisions when there is no time to consider all outcomes and possibilities. A decision has to be made and we deal with the fallout later. Sooner or later someone will disagree or be unhappy. That is just the way it goes.
5. 9 times out of 10 it is not going to be catastrophic. There are very few decisions or actions that cannot be reversed or modified. We are not performing brain surgery, we are trying to help people. We are fortunate that we have rules that can be adjusted depending on a situation. This is not a military operation, we have many options and we can try as many as needed.
Through a lot of practice and self-improvement I have become someone who accepts and solicits feedback from my peers, colleagues and staff. I want to know what’s going on and how things can be better. I’m not going to be offended by what I am going to hear, no matter how bad someone thinks it is. I can guarantee that I have thought worse about myself than what I am going to be told.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we are there yet in our work environments. I think it has improved greatly, but I still see people getting emotional and personal about issues that are purely professional. I recognize that sometimes people care so much about their work that it is hard for them to not identify with it, but I also think that in cases like that too much can be a bad thing. You want to be open to what people have to say.
Another important point to consider is that not all criticism is equal. Is it coming from someone you really admire and respect or is it coming from a person who is always negative, never has anything positive to say and never has a solution to a problem; just the list of problems? If it is the latter, why do you care? Our most important critics are the people we admire, respect, and care about. When they stop giving you feedback, wake up, you have a problem.
I have no answers about how to change an environment into an open one. I think it is something that can be approached on two fronts: the first being locally, on a department or unit basis. A manager needs to create and foster this climate and model the behavior themselves. The second is from a top-down strategy. An organization must commit to becoming a haven of open communication. Everyone must practice what is preached.