On Waiting

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Recently I was asked to write and speak about the topic of waiting. I thought I’d share it here. 

So here’s how it works: each employee gets 30 minutes. I introduce myself as a consultant, we sit down and I assure them confidentiality. I tell them that I’m there to look for patterns across all employees, to see what’s working well with the team and what aspects of the company could use polishing.

Then I ask how work is going. Literally. “So… how’s work?” I say.

“Fine!”

“Good!”

“Yeah, it’s pretty great.”

Any of these are accompanied by an optimistic head nod. Rarely do I get a different response right off the bat, regardless of what company I’m working with. My boss is fine, my coworkers are great, this place is grand. And then, 11 minutes in, a tiny glimpse of the underbelly. “… yeah, well, that’s another story,” they say.

AHA. Always, always, 11 minutes into the conversation.

I call this kind of project an Employee Experience Audit and the first few times I did this work, I got a little panicked. Wasn’t there a way to be more efficient here? We’re talking about BILLABLE HOURS, people. Must we wait until 1/3 of our time is up to get to the heart of what really makes this place solid and which cracks need to be fixed?

“Tell me about that other story!” I say. “That’s the kind of thing I’m here to learn about.”

And the stories emerge. The phrase “in deep trouble” spoken by nearly every member of the team. A coworker who consistently stays late to help her teammates, whose value to the company is more than anyone in management knows. Hurt feelings from 6 or 7 years back that are still held onto, still causing friction in meetings and impeding progress. The best and the worst; it all shows up.

I love this work. People are fascinating to me. And yet, I have a hard time spending those 11 minutes to get there.

I’ve tried other things. I tried to speed up the trust process, writing introduction emails ahead of time. “Hey! I’m Jen! We’re going to chat tomorrow over coffee about your experience at Company X!” I tried sending drafts of questions I might ask. Who’s the most stressed person in your office? What’s your favorite part of your job? I tried being funnier, tried being warmer, tried looking deeper into whoever’s eyes were across from me.

11 minutes. It still took 11 minutes.

And then one day, I realized something. The waiting is not inefficient. The waiting is not fluff to be sped through. The waiting is also the work.

In many cases, waiting is about hope. It’s about a pause before the action, the anticipation of something coming… and frankly, it seems kind of slow. I’m a New Yorker and I admit that waiting is frustrating for me. I’m generally not very good at it.

But sometimes the waiting is the work, the active buried in the passive, a tiny seed gearing up to sprout. And I can appreciate that, this silent work in the background. As a consultant, I know well what silent work looks like.

After I’ve interviewed everyone, I sit down with all of my notes. I circle things and use highlighters to underline. I throw post-its around and set up a small whiteboard in our living room. Even though I’ve spoken with every member of the team, it now becomes my job to listen to the team as a whole, to let the plural fade into the background and feel the singular emerge. How is work at this company?

At first it seems like a bunch of gibberish, one complaint here, a compliment over there. But I wait, I keep at it and eventually a picture starts to emerge, a few key truths about the culture I’ve been observing. I write it up, giving leadership strategies for the short, medium and long-term.

No matter how broken the org, no matter how dysfunctional the team, there is always a way forward and there are always emerging leaders who will build the road ahead. This has become my favorite part of the whole thing, finding again that no place is truly unfixable.

So whether it takes 11 minutes or even longer, I try to remember that there is a path towards betterment that will emerge in the end. And truly, no matter where I am, this reminder is always worth that wait.

Dear Plucky #2: Team Player

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Dear Plucky,

What’s a good approach to doing performance reviews at a very small company? There is a sense among all of us that we want performance reviews, because we want to improve. But also that it’s awkward at best and dangerous at worst. Dangerous, meaning, changing the nature of a friendship or uncovering something that hurts more than it helps.

-Team player

——-

Hey Team Player,

I’m going to make two initial assumptions based on your question and the way you wrote it:

  1. Your team is really small (maybe 5 people or less)
  2. There’s no obvious leadership structure (aka the team is flat)

The reason I’m making these assumptions is that it will change the way I guide you on this topic. Because even though your question seems to be about performance reviews, the heart of your question is about relationships, a concept that has huge stakes on small, flat teams.

Recently I read a short little book called Lying by Sam Harris. It’s basically an essay in which Harris lays out his argument for never lying. Not even a little bit. Not even the little white lies about how delicious someone’s homemade pie is or how you liked a movie or what you thought of the way something at work was handled. Lots of the book made me cringe, which made me wonder: how often am I lying to people? How often do we use social graces to mask our genuine concerns or feelings? And what does this mean for the personal and professional relationships that we’re involved in, not to mention the quality of the work that’s held hostage underneath?

Not everyone was born blunt. In fact, the majority of us have a really, really hard time telling people what we think. On a good day I believe this is because we’re all vulnerable and sensitive beings. On a bad day I mourn the infrequency with which we trust each other.

And so, dear friend, I think you’re asking about trust. How can you be sure that your feedback on someone’s work or writing or presentations or punctuality won’t be misconstrued as aggression or an opportunity to tear someone down? It all comes down to trust.

The worst advice I can give you in this column is to “get your colleagues to trust you more” because it’s vague and not immediately actionable and takes two to tango.

So I’m going to advise you to work on yourself.

If you can make gains (even incremental!) in truth telling, you own a superpower. The superpower is that, no matter what, people know you’re not bullshitting them. Do you know what a relief it is to know that the person you’re interacting with is not blowing smoke? What value there is knowing they will not turn around as soon as your conversation is over and complain about you to the nearest ear? THAT’S the kind of colleague you want to be, the kind of person who can tactfully say “I can see how your project came to be in this state… but I still think you can do better.”

YOU, buddy, can become more honest — and you don’t have to wait for performance reviews to do it. Little by little, you can tell it like it is. Each time you do this and everyone observes that the office is still intact, that you’re all still friends and the sky didn’t fall, you earn a couple of trust tokens which you can leverage forever and ever. For example:

  • “Hey, you know, I’d have an easier time with my chunk of the work if you did XYZ. What do you think?”
  • “When you’re not on time for our meetings, I don’t feel like you care about this work. Is that the case? Can we talk about it?”
  • “When you put down other departments or colleagues that we work with, it creates difficult and negative tension on the team. Have you noticed?”

This is all fine and good, but how do you even know which feedback to share, especially if it’s been a good long while since you shared anything at all?

Have you ever cooked soup or gravy and followed the instructions for reducing the broth? You let it boil for a while until some of it evaporates and the rest reduces to the real flavor. Well that’s what you’re going to do with your feedback. First make a long laundry list of everything you feel you must say to the person… and then stick it on a shelf for a couple days. Seal it up if you must. Then pull it out and I bet one reread of this document starts to clarify things for you.

(Incidentally, if you pull out the document a few days later and it still all seems totally sane and justified, put it back and wait longer. Your gravy isn’t done.)

Next, take a literal red pen to the page on this. Cross out anything that seems totally childish and unrelated to the work at hand. Circle anything that comes across as your own issues coming through. (Often we’re triggered by someone at work because of something we’re trying to work on ourselves… while initially we think we have to give THEM the feedback, we actually need to turn it around and incorporate it in our own behavior). And then, at the end, there are going to be a few nuggets that remain.

Those nuggets are what you’re really after and the fascinating thing is that they really don’t have much of a bite. They sound reasonable, doable even, because you’ve removed the sting and the drama, the history and the fear hiding behind anger.

I would venture to guess that you even have a few takeaways of your own. (Get more sleep. Don’t schedule important meetings before 9am. Spend time connecting with these people so I remember why I like them and why I chose to work with them in the first place. That sort of thing.)

And remember that the follow-through to these conversations is almost the most important part. To create space for an honest conversation is a sacred thing. Never mock anything the person said later, never break confidentiality to your co-workers or go anywhere but to a healthy place with it. Because you’re proving that you can share feedback and that it won’t break the relationship. And that’s going to take a few practice runs before the trust starts to solidify enough to stand on.

Once it starts to do so, don’t mess with it. Just keep being honest and having real communication. The real reward of all of this effort is, of course, that you can move forward spending all of your energy on the work itself, rather than the dramatic distractions. And incidentally, being honest isn’t only about negative feedback — you should absolutely share feedback when it’s positive too!

You originally asked about performance reviews and I’ve given you a soul-searching mission. I know it. Will there be tears? Maybe. Will people get angry or upset, uncomfortable even? Probably. That’s ok. As long as you’re grounding the conversation with a healthy intention (to work better together, for example), keep pushing. You don’t need to introduce a formal review process to improve the work… focus on the relationships and the rest will follow.

Because this is what the real work looks like for a small team. And the only way forward is through it.

Good luck out there,

Jen

Do you need some work advice? Send questions for an upcoming Dear Plucky column to: dearplucky@beplucky.com. Or sign up for Plucky’s monthly newsletter here.

Dear Plucky: Leader of the Pack

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Dear Plucky,

I’m managing a new team, and they’re not exactly getting along well. We’ve had some tense meetings lately with lots of passive aggressive remarks. How can I help them trust each other and communicate better together? They’re all pretty different and don’t have a lot in common. I’m worried that we won’t be successful if we don’t fix these issues.

Leader of the Pack

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Dear Leader of the Pack,

Have you ever seen that show called “The Dog Whisperer”? It featured a guy, Cesar Millan, who would show up at a client’s house and turn their snarling, ferocious dog who peed incessantly on the floor into a docile, well-behaved pooch by the end of the episode. I’ve never owned a dog but I loved catching the show every so often. It was a little like watching magic.

Some episodes featured families who owned 2 or 3 dogs. In those cases, Cesar would work with the pack (his word) to establish rank and bring peace to the dynamic. Your question reminded me of these episodes. (Don’t tell your team members we’re comparing them to canines! Ha!)

What you are worried about is group dynamics – and specifically, the relationships between the members of a given group. I’ve been there. Leading a group of mixed skillsets, differing years of experience and various personalities can feel dicey on the good days – and nearly impossible on the bad ones.

Cesar would start by establishing a “pack leader.” That’s you, leader person! It has to be. A “pack leader” is someone whose energy sets the tone and dynamic for the group. Often in our organizations, “pack leaders” are chosen for us. We join a new company and we’re told who we report to. Sometimes that “pack leader” has earned the trust and respect to lead… and other times they are merely “pack leader” by name, lacking the confidence, self-discipline and courage to naturally attract team members to their vision and leadership.

The first thing I would ask is how you feel about leading this particular pack. Your energy matters most. Do you provide a safe environment for team members? Are your employees empowered, productive and motivated? These qualities fall to your guidance and leadership. If you’re not feeling great about the tone you’re setting on the team, you’ve got to come in tomorrow with a new energy and see what happens.

But sometimes you’re doing everything right. You’re showing up with a healthy and supportive energy, yet the members of your team seem to hold tension or resentment with each other. In this case, we look to Cesar yet again.

Cesar’s philosophy starts with the idea that all dogs need enough exercise. If they aren’t burning off steam, they end up bored with pent-up energy. Are your employees underallocated? Is there a fear that there’s not enough work to go around? (This can lead to mega-competition vibes…) Or is it also possible they’re playing out of role, asked to do tasks or jobs that don’t play to their strengths? This leads to another kind of boredom, feeling undervalued and overlooked, which often sends them to the doorstep of another welcoming employer.

If you’re leading with the right energy and your team members genuinely have enough of the right work, then the only thing left is personal stuff. Maybe one team member is triggered by the personality or attitude of her colleague. Someone’s humor or sarcasm comes off the wrong way. The client is playing favorites and pitting them against each other. In all of these cases, the solution I’d propose is a long walk with you – their leader.

Giving someone the space and time to share how they’re feeling is one of the most generous things you can do as a manager. Take your most troublesome one of the bunch out for a walk to grab a coffee; ask how work is going lately. Mention that you’ve noticed some tension between the group members – have they noticed too? What do they attribute it to? Participate in this conversation, using it as an opportunity to reinforce healthy team dynamics and patience. Play out scenarios in which they confront (however gently) the person who has got them riled up… help them see that they’re fully capable of giving and receiving feedback. Because with your guidance and support, they are.

Lately I’ve been talking with leaders who are pretty burned out themselves. They don’t have a spare minute or dollar to put towards employee satisfaction and this stresses them out. In those cases, I give this simple advice: increase the amount of times each day that you say “thank you.” It costs you nothing and takes no time at all. Thank the employee for her upbeat tone in the meeting. Thank the teammate who stayed late to finish – or who rallied the team to do so. It’s a tiny way to create meaningful change and cultivate a culture of gratitude… this matters more than you think.

So care for your pack. Lead them, get them some fresh air and make sure they’re fully allocated. Then see how feeling accomplished and fulfilled in their job changes the success of the group. Because when an employee is challenged, motivated and fulfilled? There’s truly not much else for them to complain about.

Good luck out there,

Jen

Do you need some work advice? Send questions for an upcoming Dear Plucky column to: dearplucky@beplucky.com. Thanks!