That’s just plain wrong…

In another life, I spent 2 years studying a pretentiously-named Masters course called ‘Process Consultancy’. It’s the art of consultancy. Being a consultant is a shit job. It’s the worst thing of all. You’re essentially there – an outsider – to tell them what they’re doing wrong. You might see 99.9% good things, but all they want to know is what’s wrong. No. Their bosses want to know what’s wrong. More often than not, they already know what’s wrong and the bosses want YOU to tell the people on the shop floor. The only good thing about it is that you can tell them and run away.

A life before that, a useless woman told me I was a ‘systems’ person. By this, she was insulting me and saying I was good with paperwork and computers and maths and finance, and not people. She meant she was a people person and I wasn’t. She was wrong. I can be a people person, but I believe work is work and I have no time for philosophy and moaning about it or being a dog in a manger or complaining or whingeing or unions. I believe in doing what I’m paid to do and doing it in the best way I know how.

I got better at being a people person. I learned all about shadow sides and blocks to improvement and emotional intelligence and hierarchies and all the reasons people have for NOT changing.

The best activity I did as a consultant was ask people to pair up. People hate interactive training, so I was onto a losing trend. I asked them to spend a minute looking at each other. They felt deeply uncomfortable. But this is what consultancy or appraisal or assessment is. And it’s not just a minute.

Then I asked them to turn their back on their partner and change five things about their appearance. They had a minute.

What you learn is that people take stuff off first. Off come glasses or shoes, ties or watches. You ask people to change, and what they do first are superficial and obvious things. Some people find it really hard. Some people enjoy it. Most people don’t know where to start and some people refuse to take part because they think it is a game and games are pointless. They couldn’t possibly learn anything from a game!

Then they have to turn around and spend a minute identifying the changes their partner has made. And I never tell them what’s coming next.

Most people, once their minute is up, change right back. They put their glasses back on, they put their tie back on. They roll their sleeves down. In other words, they just go straight back to where they were. That’s what happens in most companies.

“Change!” they say.

And employees do it.

And then when it’s all over, they go back to how they were.

Then I ask them to turn their backs and make five more changes.

Some people find this utterly impossible. Beyond rolling up trousers, taking off a shoe, taking a tie off, putting their glasses on their heads and pushing up a sleeve, they don’t know what to do.

It goes two ways. An innovator will start to pick things up. They’ll pick up a file or a book, or a handbag or put on a cardigan or jacket. And then others will copy them.

Then you turn round and notice the changes. Life is like that. Someone innovates and very quickly, everyone copies. And, at this point, people start doing things like taking new stuff on. The people who thought it was a rubbish game are a bit more excited because someone fun like Ms. Claire or Ms. Liz, my dear more-facebook-than-real friends, will have been the ones to have stuck a post-it on their head or picked up a chair and used it as a hat. Innovation and change can be fun, you see! It’s liberating. It’s freeing. It gives you permission to go a bit mental and think outside the box.

Finally, the third time you do it, everyone is innovative. Everyone is into it. No-one is embarrassed. People copy. People innovate of their own spontaneity.

This one game taught me a lot about change. Like there’s some stuff people just won’t change. Some people take off wedding rings or ties, but to others, that’s too much. I never saw anyone get naked. Social boundaries, personal beliefs and your own morals stop you doing some things.

But to change, we need a reason. Nobody really changes because they want to at work. They might evolve a bit. They might change or evolve at home. Girls say ‘I fancied a change’ and come home with bright red hair. We tend to evolve kind of slowly. We grow. Some of us, anyway.

Some people don’t. These are the people who like the status quo. Not Status Quo. That’s different, though kind of the same. They haven’t changed much either. Some people like things the same. They don’t want new phones or ipods or touch screens or job evolution. They like the security of knowing things are the same. They don’t even want to grow or evolve.

But few of us want to change because we think we could be better. It usually takes being told. And this usually involves a boss, because if a colleague says it, you’re just going to ignore it. Or it involves a consultant, who is essentially a mouthpiece for the stuff your boss would love to say but won’t or can’t.

And there’s a reason for this. Feedback is HARD.

Some people focus on the one negative and turn it into a crisis.

Some people ignore a really big negative and ignore your views.

Nobody, but nobody likes getting feedback unless it is feedback that says: “You’re fabulous. You’re wonderful. That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

But most people aren’t at the top of their game. Even £30,000,000 footballers need to get feedback.

Most people give feedback like Alex Ferguson is alleged to. They point out all the faults. They have no sense of how to do it in a way that makes people want to change or develop. They call Alex Ferguson ‘the hairdryer’ because his feedback is so virulent in face of failure. People call Simon Cowell for his feedback style, and yet he’s usually pretty fair. Sometimes, he gets his own personal issues into it, about Louis Walsh – and then it’s not so good. The trouble is, unless you say everything’s wonderful, people boo you and you upset the target of your feedback, when all you really want is to help them improve.

I’ve seen it myself. Most people – most managers, most people who have to tell you how to do a thing better – are absolutely and utterly useless at giving feedback. Often, they tell you stuff that’s actually their own fault, like you didn’t do it how they wanted it. This means they haven’t communicated with you properly – and yet it becomes your fault – as if you’re a mind-reader.

And my thoughts on the best feedback?

Say nothing. Let them talk. They’ll mostly tell you everything they did wrong and more. You can soften this by getting them to be a bit gentle on themselves. And your job is to get them to focus on the big changes that would make the most difference, and help them realise their evolution. Usually, they’ll tell you exactly what the problem is with their own work – and they might even tell you why those problems exist. You can start with:

“Well, you need to do this…” and put them into defensive mode or on the attack. Mostly they’ll hate you and never do it.

Or you can go with:

“So how did that feel?!” and they’ll spill on everything that wasn’t so good.

And the key question?

“So what would make the biggest difference?”

Sometimes, you aren’t going to like what they’re going to say. They might need more time, or three clones, or a slave, or more money, or a better computer – but the one thing that’s always true? The thing that would make the biggest difference is THEM, and if you allow people to, they’ll make the changes and the biggest differences themselves. This is why I’m not just a systems person.

Sometimes, though (and if you know about personality theory, that’s your X theory that people are essentially benign and good) they just need a gigantic kick up the arse because they’re lazy, bone-idle and the hand-holding does not a stitch of good because they’ve just not valued what they were doing. THEN they need the hairdryer.

I can do the ‘so what would make the biggest difference?’

but my favourite is when I have to say: “But essentially, you’re stealing a living.” I usually couch this with “I’m not being funny but…”

Sometimes, I add: “If you don’t have your whole heart in this, or your whole game, you’re cheating people. You’re affecting people’s lives. If you don’t do this right, they’ll suffer. I can’t live with that, even if you can.”

I wish all people were X people and you could just give them a little time for thought and they’ll tell you what’ll make the differences. But I like it when they’re Y people and I can just bollock them.

If you don’t read Dilbert, you should. He taught me everything I know about bosses, consultants, workers and dogs. My uncle says I’m like Dogbert. I guess I am.

This strip perfectly illustrates how feedback can go soooo, sooo wrong. It’s the kind of feedback I wish I could give to someone who really deserved it.

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