Welcome back to Building Creative Practices! In my last semi-regular installment, I discussed strategies for creating Psychological Safety in the workplace, which at a high level is simply a way to get your team to operate in such a way that no one on the team is scared to speak their minds. I talked about effective teams that evince lots of social sensitivity towards each other, as well as an egalitarian approach to conversation and brainstorming. I think we learned a lot from that article! I certainly did - be sure to check it out if you missed it.
Today I’m going to add some complexity to my previous advice by directing your attention to a few managerial reading selections recommended to the Filament director’s group by our colleague Jennifer Javornik. Specifically, these three articles from the Harvard Business Review:
Psychological Safety is a great ideal, but as we all know, life is often less than ideal. Occasionally we’ll find ourselves at some sort of communicative disadvantage in the workplace, whether it’s through an antagonistic interaction, imbalanced power dynamics, or an organizational culture that stifles even constructive criticism. These three articles outline strategies for dealing with each scenario.
Choosing the Right Words in an Argument
Amy Gallo outlines three simple strategies for this scenario: say nothing, ask questions, and own your part. What this means in practice is that you should let the other party vent their frustration before you start to guide the conversation. Rather than reacting or escalating, this defuses a potentially volatile situation. Asking questions builds on this - it’s easier to resolve a conflict when you have a full understanding of the other party’s complaint. This conveys respect for their frustration and builds a concrete path towards a solution.
Finally, owning your part is simple but critical. Arguments can persist and sprawl out of control because of the participants’ pride and assumptions about the other people involved, so set aside your ego, own your fault, and avoid making assumptions about someone else’s interior disposition and motivations. (Yet another reason to ask questions!) If this sounds pretty basic, it’s because it is, but these are things that are easy to forget in the heat of the moment.
How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You
Gallo goes into greater depth on this issue, which is likely because it’s a bit more complicated to argue with your boss than it is to argue with an equivalent. Fortunately for me, the executive team at Filament is invested in the ideals I’ve discussed in this article and the previous, but I’ve certainly worked places where a conversation with authority was not functionally different than a Sunday stroll through a minefield. What do we do in those environments?
There’s a variety of strategies in the article linked above, but I’m going to extrapolate on the quick list of Do’s and Dont’s that Gallo offers:
Explain that you have a different opinion and ask if you can voice it. This eases you into a dialogue, as opposed to creating a sense of conflict by stating your disagreement immediately and bluntly.
Restate the original point of view or decision so it’s clear you understand it. The advantage of this is that if you are simply mistaken, you have the opportunity to discover that before you make an argument based on a misapprehension.
Speak slowly - talking in an even tone calms you and the other person down. It helps to gently pat your boss on the head as well. (Kidding - this one could easily verge on silly if you took it to the extreme, so I would just recommend speaking in a calm and positive tone.)
Assume that disagreeing is going to damage your relationship or career. This is REALLY good advice for young professionals fresh to the workplace. Don’t be overly intimidated by the imagined consequences of speaking your mind, even in disagreement! If you go about it like a professional (confident, well-reasoned, open to critique) your boss will likely respect you even more than they would if you stayed silent.
State your opinions as facts. It is entirely possible that you’re right! But it is also entirely possible that you’re wrong. Paradox! Remember that the world is multifaceted and that you might be missing a key perspective that would entirely change your view of something. Operating with some humility about your own conclusions goes a long way.
Use judgment words. As Gallo recommends, avoid language that’s overly critical like “hasty” or “foolish.” Even if it’s true, it doesn’t add anything to the dialogue besides blame and bad feeling. Instead explain your view of the superior solution and speak positively about that.
How to Give Negative Feedback When Your Organization is “Nice”
Jennifer Porter rounds off this trifecta of business wisdom with an article about building candor and feedback into a culture that is traditionally “nice.” This is definitely a thing in the Midwest, where I’ve spent most of my career. I’ve had colleagues imported from places like New York who expressed their own culture shock and need to adapt when they realized that their typical rough-and-tumble work style was clobbering (and demoralizing) their Midwestern counterparts. But this isn’t just a regional thing - this can happen any time you have dissonance between the prevailing norms of an organization and the individual actions of its members.
So how does Porter think we should navigate this dissonance? Succinctly put - you need candor! This one simple trick will make you the envy of managers everywhere. She has seven recommendations to create candor in your organization, which are as follows:
Start with yourself. This one’s easy - just evince the behavior you’d like to see. Adopt an emphasis on feedback and candor, while balancing that approach with respect, humility, and the other virtuous qualities that make critical feedback easier to digest.
Ask for feedback and listen. If you’re going to offer more feedback to others, you can expect to field more feedback as well. Authentically soliciting and incorporating feedback sets an example for the benefits of this process, so you need to model both sides of the equation.
Focus on thoughtful, caring attempts towards improvement. Feedback needs to be balanced with an end goal in mind, and delivered in a way that isn’t dismissive or cutting. “I don’t like you” is not a valid piece of feedback because it is not a solvable problem and is more your issue than theirs. “I think we could do that differently” is much more constructive and targeted towards a shared goal of improvement. It also focuses the issue on the work and not the individual.
Expect discomfort and mistakes. Candor is like any other discipline - it takes practice. Introducing candor to an organization that has traditionally lacked it is necessarily going to create some misfires as people wrestle with that is and is not appropriate critique. It will require patience and vigilance, but I believe in you!
Clean up mistakes once you make them. Now that we know we can expect mistakes, we should also acknowledge our own errors and apologize for them. It’s simple, and it’s almost elementary - if two children are in a conflict, the teacher generally steps in and forces an apology on the parts of both combatants, which resolves the issue. Believe it or not, this rule applies to adults as well. Don’t be afraid to say you’re sorry - you’re only human, and believe me, you look worse when you don’t apologize. Wrong is an undesirable thing to be, sure, but wrong and obstinate is both undesirable and indefensible.
Understand when not to be candid. Remember Amy Gallo’s advice about not saying anything? The same rule applies here. Sometimes you need to just take a step back and reflect before you open your mouth.
Adopt a continuous improvement mindset. This is also known as a growth mindset. It employs positivity, a belief in the value of forward progress, and the acknowledgement that building a skill takes time. Candor is a skill like any other, so start practicing now!
Taken in concert, these articles can help you build a stronger, more adaptive workplace through thoughtful, carefully applied communication strategies. A powerful advantage of these strategies is that the more you build these ideas into your own behavior, the more natural and instinctive it will feel. See how you can incorporate some of these strategies into your own workplace, and let us know how it went over on our Facebook or Twitter!