Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Anatomy of a Feedback

Reading time: 9 mins 6 seconds.

The motorcycle instructor scowled at me. He stood there with his palms pointing to the sky. I could see the speech bubble on his head, with the text "WTF"? He was clearly exasperated.

A retired police officer with a no-nonsense air about him, he expected his instructions to be followed to the letter. By not making a U-turn in a box 18-feet wide, I was clearly not following his script. I could see why he was getting frustrated. I was making mistake after mistake, and in every attempt, I was making a different mistake! I suppose if I made the same mistake every time, it would be easier to correct. On the other hand, making a different mistake meant I had corrected the mistake he had pointed out, but that nuance was lost on him.

Surprisingly, I felt no anxiety, all I felt was his compassion. I could see he was trying to transfer his energy to me, urging me on, lest I do the unthinkable--give up. As is my habit, I had to analyze why his style of giving feedback was effective.

The instructor followed all the mechanics of providing proper feedback:

  • He was very specific. “You are holding on to the clutch too long”, “You are not building the momentum you need to take the turn,” and “If you increase your speed while turning, you will improve your balance.” As a result, I knew what I needed to change.
  • He was very clear. His choice of words were simple, unambiguous, and easy to understand.
  • He was very direct. He did not mix positive and negative feedback, and he provided genuine encouragement.
  • He was action oriented, meaning, his instructions were to do something tangible, such as “increase the throttle”, “don’t apply so much rear brake”, and “stay off the front brake in the curve.”
  • His tone of voice was neutral or encouraging. He did not have the slightest tinge of negativity, sarcasm, criticism, and he did not talk down to me. Thus, he created no barriers to communication.
  • He built rapport with humor. When teaching us how to brake, he explained how not to do it thus, “Don’t raise your right leg past your ear and slam down on the rear brake!” Nothing like a good laugh while learning a concept!
During the training, the instructor kept us entertained with stories from the police training programs. One story sticks in my mind, “While riding down the street you glance at the store windows, and admire your shiny motorcycle, polished boots, and clean uniform. Your eyes linger on that sight longer than it should. Your attention is drawn back to the road ahead just in time for you to spot a parked truck in your path of travel. Your instincts need to kick in as you apply the front and rear brakes. If you are lucky, you will stop before you hit the truck. If you can’t, it is better you hit the truck at two miles an hour, not 35 miles an hour.”

He made his point with sobriety and humor. We were not laughing as the lesson was not lost on us.

Another reason the feedback was effective—I kept my part of the bargain. My actions were to:

  • Listen carefully to the coaching and feedback and attempt to correct my riding technique.
  • Not blame the motorcycle. We were riding Kawasaki 1000 motorcycles which were well past their prime. The clutch and throttle needed extra love before they functioned, riding these on the street would be definitely a danger to the rider and to others. I would be justified in complaining about the motorcycle, but I did not waste even a moment thinking about it.
  • Not look for excuses or alibis. Thoughts such as “I am just a beginner” or “There is too much waiting, so I lose momentum when it is my turn to perform an exercise” were banished from my mind even before they came up.
  • Not treat the instructor as the “bad guy.” As far as I was concerned, he was super competent at his job and was accurately describing my riding behavior. I was going to hang on to this assumption until it was proven incorrect.

And yet, I did not complete the drill per the instructions. There was clearly a gap between the course requirements and my ability. I describe my problem as follows:

  • A motorcycle needs momentum to turn, but my body was reacting with anxiety when I increased speed while turning the motorcycle. My anxiety would win every time and I would slow down in the curve.
Unless I am able to overcome this gap, my riding skills in a curve will not improve. The solution is for me to keep practicing till I overcame my anxiety. No amount of cajoling or coaxing will hasten this process.

The instructors ability to diagnose riding skills was impeccable. What was gratifying to me was his ability to differentiate between “inability to change” versus “unwilling to change.” I was clearly willing, I was just unable to change as quickly as we wanted. Recognizing that, he backed away, and did not push me hard. He saw that I would improve, perhaps not as much as he or I would like, but improve nonetheless. How did we communicate this to each other?

I said to him after the exercise, “Looks like my head will be on your trophy wall, but for the wrong reason.” (As a student who could not complete the drill). He looked at me, and doubled up in laughter. We had instinctively found a way to engage in a productive manner.

The net of it was, we were both happy! If only we could have this in the workplace.

Feedback is the lifeblood of progress and a key capability for happiness and productivity in the workplace. Think of feedback as “course correction” to achieve two outcomes.

  • Communication via shared meaning. If two parties are partnering to achieve a goal, each one has to communicate their point of view and request certain behaviors of the other. Until they are “on the same page” they have to constantly exchange information. This communication is another name for “feedback.”
  • Learning and a change in behavior. Most people do not show up in the workplace with the knowledge, skills, and attitude they need to perform their roles. Even if they are very experienced, they have to adapt to the context of the organization, changes in customer expectations, and change in assumptions (such as the political climate, competition etc.). Until people know what to change and why, their behavior will not change. Feedback is a way to “learn” and change behavior for alignment and success.
I’ve observed three barriers to giving feedback in the workplace:
  • Lack of skill—lack of an ability to diagnose the problem, unable to choose the right words, not timing the feedback properly. Destructive emotions will be introduced in the workplace if feedback is given without skill.
  • Withholding of feedback. The previous point describe why feedback is given poorly, this point is about not giving feedback at all. This happens when you or your co-worker do not provide feedback to each other, arrive at a conclusion, and proceed based on that conclusion. Withholding feedback raises ambiguity and anxiety, and leads to confusion as people behave randomly, hoping to elicit a reaction from their co-workers. This is not necessarily a lack of skill, this is passive aggressive behavior.
  • Lack of conflict management skills—feedback is sometimes withheld due to a desire to avoid conflict. When disagreement arises, stands harden and the conflict is escalated, the problem drags on unresolved. When tempers cool, both parties realize they have not understood what they are disagreeing about!
An appropriate level of planning must go into giving and receiving feedback. To make an impact both parties have to assess the common outcomes, current skill levels, ability to improve, willingness to improve, and establish a rapport. The more complex the feedback, the more the preparation required for it to be effective.

It is critical to separate ego from results, because ego will stop you from giving and receiving feedback in a productive way. This is not easy, because results are important and ego is tied to whether the results are achieved or not. This attempt to separate ego from results causes an inner conflict, it is perhaps one of the hardest barriers overcome. I’ll have more to say on this in future blogs.

Action on the feedback is crucial to measure. A “Yes, I got it" is not as useful as an impartial standard for measuring improvements in knowledge and skill. I told the instructor, “You probably won’t believe me if I told you I’ve done this before.” He looked at me and said, “You are right, I don’t believe you. You’ll just have to show me!”

Emotion can be distracting ("I feel good, so I probably know what I need to know and am proficient in this area"). While it is important to feel good, it is not always a reliable indicator of improvements knowledge and skill.

We all like to learn, but no one likes to be “taught.” When giving feedback avoid “teaching” and when receiving feedback, if you are being “taught”, overcome your resistance and pay attention to the lesson.

Occasionally, I get “feedback fatigue” when I am coached too much. In group rides, I consistently get the same feedback about my ability (or lack of it) in taking corners, and I’m reaching a point where I need to either improve my ability to take corners or avoiding riding in groups lest it becomes a sore point. Be careful about giving or getting too much feedback, it can become overwhelming.

A big lesson I learned when I failed to make the U-turn in every single attempt is “forgiveness”—the instructor forgave me for not making the U-turn, he forgave himself for not being able to teach me, I forgave myself for not making the U-turn, and I forgave my instructor for not being able to get me to make the U-turn. Forgiveness is powerful when you recognize that the goal is still unmet, and that is not okay, and that you will keep trying to improve. If you dismiss your low performance, and stop trying to improve, forgiveness is a cop out, an excuse for non-performance. 

In his closing remarks, the trainer said, "After today, you are better than 80% of the riders out there." No comparison with the "best" or "perfect" was provided or necessary. This is the application of “perspective” in giving and receiving feedback. In the grand scheme of things, not every motorcycle rider will be proficient per the standards set by the policemen. But every motorcycle rider needs to be safe, this is non-negotiable. 

By making us safer riders, the training met its goal. However, those who could not make the U-turn in an 18-foot wide box (like me), need to still keep trying to improve.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The genesis of unhappiness in the workplace

Reading time: 8 minutes 50 seconds.

Each motorcycle class was an experience to remember. My enjoyment and rise in skills and confidence had a lot to do with the instructors. They were competent, very sure of themselves, and warm. I was struck by how happy they were. Being a riding coach is not a lucrative profession, but it sure seemed to be satisfying. When teaching, the rider coach did not seem to be “working” and this realization led me to explore the reasons for the rider coach’s happiness. Was the happiness in the task, in their personality, or the fulfillment they feel when they improve riding skills of their students? To say “a little bit of all” is not incorrect, but it would be too simple an answer. 

I must confess, in the past, when I saw a happy worker, I would think about taking up that profession. Perhaps that would get me happiness as well. This is clearly a fallacy. Also, the advice does not scale. If anyone asks me, “What work should I do to be happy?” I can't very well advise him or her to become a rider coach. It is not practical to have everyone become rider coaches, so happiness has to be found at your place of work, in your profession, while doing what you chose to do.

There are a constellation of reasons to review before you can understand why you are happy or unhappy at work. These reasons are easy to understand when reviewed one at a time, but in real life, several reasons interact to cause happiness and unhappiness. When you are young, the reasons are few, but as you grow older, these quickly become complex, hard to explain and thus, difficult to understand.

Take for instance the task of troubleshooting a motorcycle defect. If you are a beginner staring at a manual, your process for troubleshooting will be linear and therefore, slow and frustrating. The experienced mechanic can diagnose the problem within seconds, but will be unable to explain how they did it. Thus, expertise in troubleshooting takes time to develop and is acquired by a combination of instruction, osmosis, and experience. As you reflect on your happiness levels at work, it is likely that you have experience, and perhaps instruction, and certainly a lot of learning via osmosis has taken place for you. That raises another issue, how many bad habits have you formed? How much “unlearning” do you have to do before you can “learn” and take on behaviors that will make you more happy or less unhappy?

So why is the workplace a petri dish for unhappiness? Let us begin by reviewing the facts.

Let us define “work” as any physical or mental activity with the intention of earning an income or meeting a goal. Since we cannot do this by ourselves, we have to collaborate with others, leading to the rise of “commerce”, where small and large organizations (including nations) interact to exchange value for money. “Commerce” is about making a "profit", defined as getting back more than what you spend. Non-profit organizations seek to increase "value" but still have to both work and to spend less than they raise from donations and contributions.

Commerce led to the need for “management” because to get back more than you spend, you have to control costs and raise productivity. Management need people to do the work and to supervise those who do the work, leading to “employment”. If you own a business, you are “self-employed”.

Now, the root of the problems begin to reveal themselves: paradoxical goal conflicts between employers and employees.

Employers want to achieve the vision, mission, and goals of the enterprise, while meeting their personal goals. Employees want to meet their personal goals (financial, safety, security, psychological, emotional, spiritual) while meeting their professional goals. When employees scramble up Maslow’s hierarchy, they become more valuable, but they also become more expensive. 

  • For employers, the ideal employee is one who is firing on all cylinders, and is low cost (both financially and emotionally).
  • For employees, the ideal employment is one which will help them meet their goals progressively, steadily, and in a predictable manner, with assignments and challenges that will inspire, not crush, energy and motivation.

As you know, finding this scenario is possible, but it seems to be the exception, not the rule. And it does not seem to last. Why is that?

For one thing, matching goals is not easy. It is hard for both parties to articulate what they need and what they are about. This creates needless goal conflict. Add to that sloppy hiring practices, leading to bad skill-position fit, and mismatched expectations, friction between the two parties is inevitable. If the matter is not resolved, employee turnover is the result, and both employers and the new employee have to start over.

Another reason is that skills take time to develop. But employers are impatient, and will demand higher productivity of those not ready to deliver. Employees are impatient as well, and will push themselves beyond their limit in unsafe ways. This leads to poor work habits, stress, and dysfunctional default actions to problems and pressure. The workplace abounds in poor role models, perpetuating the bad habits and ineffective problem solving. On boarding processes are conspicuous by their absence, it is sink or swim, with the survival of the fittest. Or, as the cynical will observe, survival of the ones with the most dysfunctional behaviors (big ego, aggressive Type A personality).

No one arrives at work wanting to do a poor job. However, even as everyone does their best, mistakes happen. Feedback is often critical and harsh.  Those fortunate to get coaching and encouragement overcome their shortfalls and move on to success. On top of this self-critical behavior lowers self-esteem. Poor parenting is often blamed for lays the foundation for such behavior, but I digress.

Social obligations and pressures begin to take their toll at an early age. Parents may expect too much or not enough of their children. Friends and peer groups may set the standard for “cool” behavior. Before you know it, keeping up with the Joneses becomes a full time occupation and the rat race consumes us 7 by 24 by 365.

Finding happiness in the workplace has a definite process. The first step is "self discovery" and initially you may need to fund that journey by taking on jobs that you are not thrilled about. If you are fortunate, you will get a job where you follow your passion and it is no longer “work” but more like “play”. If you are less fortunate, you will “work” during the week to pay your bills, and spend the weekends in “play”, so that you can recharge yourself to get back to work on Monday. If you are truly unfortunate, then your life is filled with drudgery all the time, with no relief in sight. There is one level below “truly unfortunate” and that is the “drifter” who spends time in self discovery, may or may not turn to recreational pharmaceuticals, cannot hold a job down, spreads frustration and negativity, and is a burden to themselves and to society.

If self awareness is the first step, the building blocks are a calm mind and good habits. As mentioned earlier, it will take time to develop your ability to troubleshoot your unhappiness or understand why you are happy. Only then will you be able to change your behavior and take action to improve your happiness.

Regardless of your opinion on the matter, I am sure we can all agree that your happiness in the workplace depends on productive and meaningful interactions with co-workers and other humans (stakeholders, customers, vendors). Their sponsorship and support is like wind in your sails. Their resistance is like chains on your ankles. Their indifference will make your life like a desert without rain. Making a professional, personal, and emotional connection is crucial. Navigating this complexity is one of the prerequisites to finding happiness in the workplace.

If you buy into the above, the questions you might ask are:

  • Is work a source of income only or can it be a source of happiness?
  • Can I find happiness at my current place of work, or do I need a new job?
  • My situation is so unique, no one seems to understand me, can I get help or do I need to figure this out myself?
  • Is there best (and only) way to do find happiness?

To find happiness at work, you need a playbook. This playbook has three parts. The following is based on Dr. David Redish’s (a professor in the department of neuroscience at Minnesota) explanation, published in Sports Illustrated August 11, 2014.

One section will help you diagnose situations, identify the patterns in the situation, and select the right course of action. As Sid would say, “remove ignorance.” You will need knowledge of self (traits, values, preferences, habits) and knowledge of the context in your workplace. The most important parts of this section will help you explore the question, “What will make you happy?”

A second section will help you take decisions. “What do I do now?” or “What do I do in such-and-such situation?” The answer has to come quickly and instinctively and the solution has to work. You have to be strategic, make the right choices and take the right action.

A third section will give you the steps to execute your plan to find happiness in the workplace. Your plan is likely to require multiple projects, each with numerous tasks. Strong project management will help you set the goals and timelines for improvement, and track your progress towards your goal (happiness in the workplace). If you achieve your timelines and milestones, meeting your goal is assured. One key milestone to include is a check to see whether the project is still relevant. If you are pursuing an irrelevant project, then happiness will be elusive, even if your project is a success.

If you ask Sid, he will tell you that one of your biggest problem is adjusting to impermanence and change. Each life stage in the workplace presents a new set of scenarios and challenges. The faster you recognize, understand, and act, the quicker you will gain happiness in the workplace. In short, you have to become adaptable and flexible.

Pieces of this playbook abound. Just look at the number of publications (books, video, and audio tapes) on Unfortunately, there is no curriculum that will take you in a progressive manner from where you are to where you wish to be. Reminder: We are still talking about happiness in the workplace. The vision of VMM is to provide that curriculum and roadmap to find happiness in the workplace.