Tag Archives: Feedback

When Did Opposition Become Obstruction?

In today’s political climate, there has been a focus on the “oppositional” party. How the “less represented” party tries to push their agenda forward has always been a talking point. The difference is in the tactics that have been used during the previous Presidential administration and have continued into the current one. It’s the difference between opposition and obstruction.

By definition, oppositional parties tend to be against the policies of the “ruling” party and/or person(s) in power. This is an important part of a democracy. Through debate and discussion, they ensure we retain checks and balances. The ruling party is held accountable and the views of a broader range of constituents are represented.

While oppositional parties work against those in power, traditionally they have also been willing to work with their foes to some degree, while retaining the focus on their agenda. That is the key differentiator between opposing and obstructing.

The duty of the opposition is to oppose.—Winston Churchill

Obstructionists are those members of the opposing party who refuse to not only work with those in power, but purposely block their opponent’s progress. It does not matter whether the decision is justified and reasonable, which it often is. It does not matter whether they agree with the progress being proposed, which they often do. And it does not matter whether the majority have the right/ability to make the change, which is often the case. An obstructionist’s goal is to stop the rival at whatever the cost.

The obstructionist knows that to give a little is to concede. The fallout is irrelevant as are the consequences of their actions. Even if an obstructionist loses, they can show that they are not complicit in the outcome. Could they have made the solution better with their insight? Sure, but then their supporters would think they’re weak and without core principles.

If there is a nuclear tactic being used here, I submit it is the use of that obstruction where a willful minority blocks a bipartisan majority from voting on the President’s judicial nominees.—John Cornyn, U.S. Senator

This was not always the case. Politic use to be about compromise; it use to be about taking part in the process without an instinctually defiant stance. When you disagreed, you argued your points. You bargained for your agenda. You helped shape the solution so it included some of your party’s input. But this only happens through participation…and obstructionists refuse to participate.

This is a lesson for leaders. If you want to make an impact, if you want influence within your organization, don’t allow your feelings of opposition to transmute into obstructionist behaviors. Removing yourself from the discussion does not mean you are more ideologically pure, it means you are giving others a valid reason to cut you out of the decision making. While you may not like what others are proposing, a willingness to compromise will allow your concerns to be heard and may shape the end-result in a way that makes it more palatable for those who oppose it. Or, you can cover your ears and repeatedly yell, “NO.” I’m sure your opponents didn’t want to hear your views anyway.

Constructive Criticism and Feedback Sandwiches with Bruce Springsteen

Let me give you a hypothetical situation. An employee comes into your office with a performance issue. You a) Boost his confidence so he has the self-esteem to do better in the future or b) Provide a gentle critique. OR, if these routes don’t work for you, maybe you need option c) Be more like Bruce Springsteen.

When Springsteen’s legendary saxophone player Clarence Clemons died, Bruce gave Clemons’ nephew Jake the opportunity to audition for the E Street Band. Jake was dreadfully close to blowing the opportunity. First, he was an hour late for the tryout. Then when he finally arrived, Jake told Springsteen that he only “sort of” knew the songs. Springsteen’s response is a lesson for any leader presenting constructive feedback.

Let me get this straight. You are coming to audition for Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons’ seat in the E Street Band, which is not a job, by the way, but a sacred f–king position, and you are going to play Clarence’s most famous solos for Bruce Springsteen [referencing himself in the third person], the man who stood beside him for forty years, who created those solos with him, and you’re gonna ‘sort of’ know them? Where … do … you … think … you … are? If you don’t know, let me tell you. You are in a CITADEL OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. You don’t DARE come in here and play this music for Bruce Springsteen without having your S–T DOWN COLD! You embarrass yourself and waste my precious time.”

When Jake walked out, he knew exactly what he did wrong. There was no ambiguity or uncertainty. That’s the problem with many performance discussions today. We are so concerned with being nice and politically correct,  we lose the benefits of frank criticism.

Springsteen did not personally insult Jake or say anything out of line. He simply made it clear that 1) this job matters, 2) preparation is a requirement, and 3) Bruce is the Boss! That’s not to say we need to deliver the message exactly like Springsteen, but it’s a step closer to enacting real change. If Springsteen’s approach does not mesh with your style, consider this easy-to-implement method, the Feedback Sandwich.

With a Feedback Sandwich, also called Positive-Improvement-Positive (PIP), criticism is broken into three segments:

  1. Start by focusing on strengths
  2. Then provide the criticism
  3. Lastly, describe the positive results that can be expected when the criticism is acted upon

Beginning with a positive statement lets the receiver know you are on her side and you are not there to attack her. It lowers defenses and is more likely to ensure they are receptive when the criticism begins. And by ending on a positive tone, the employee leaves on a high note, knowing the potential advantages and consequences.

The Feedback Sandwich is a little softer than what Springsteen said (he skipped the first segment), but he did master segment two and segment three was covered when Springsteen ended the disastrous incident with the opportunity for one more audition. This time, Jake arrived early, thoroughly learned the material, and got the job. Hopefully you’re next encounter will result in the same happy ending.

James Corden and the Three Ways to Be a Larger-Than-Life Leader

james-cordenWhen people think about the “ultimate leader,” there is a tendency to consider the larger-than-life individuals who invigorate a room with their charisma, omnipotence, and swagger. While these people exist, they are extremely uncommon. Many managers try to emulate these characteristics only to find that they are unable to sustain the energy required to constantly be “on.” That’s why I like the distinction made by James Corden.

In a recent interview with James Corden, the Tony award winning host of The Late Late Show, he discussed his theory that there are two categories of actors. As he describes it:

There are two types of actors—aliens and humans. And neither is better. Genuinely, there is no better. We just watch them in different ways. So your aliens are Daniel Day Lewis, Mark Rylance, Ray Fiennes where you look and say, ‘I don’t know how they are doing that, that’s amazing.’ You look at them on a pedestal and go, ‘this is astonishing to me. I don’t know how they are doing that.’ And then there are actors where whoever they are playing and whatever they’re doing, are representing us, the audience. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great example of someone who is astonishing and amazing and yet finds a humanity which is always representing you.

You can watch Mark Rylance or Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet and then you can watch one of my favorite actors in the world, Simon Russell Beale, with the text and one you are watching saying, ‘I don’t know how this is happening’ and the other you’re going, ‘whoa, that’s me up there.’

Aliens and humans. That is how we classify ourselves. In the leadership realm, aliens include such luminary favorites as tech maven Elon Musk, sports legend Phil Jackson, media icon Oprah Winfrey, and entrepreneur extraordinaire Mark Cuban. The rest of us are humans.

There is nothing wrong with being a human. As Corden said, these are the people who we can see in ourselves. There may not be much hero worship, but their draw is in their relatability. “Human” leaders inspire because they can connect on a personal level. They are less intimidating, more approachable, and more replicable.

There are plenty of humans who would like to become aliens. Unfortunately, the ways aliens practice leadership are aspirational, yet ultimately unattainable. There’s no harm in trying (depending on your level of authenticity), however a more realistic goal is to incorporate their habits in a seamless, natural manner that matches your style and the culture of your organization. Try a few of these tips:

Aliens are vision-oriented. An alien leader is renowned for their focus in a particular area. They have a clear, uncompromising vision and use it to set expectations for their team. With this understanding, employees are largely empowered to complete initiatives on their own. The leader remains involved to the degree needed and, so long as the vision remains intact, they can cede control knowing that the direction of the organization is in good hands.

Aliens innovate. Those who have risen to the alien-level of leadership did so by transcending the status quo. They are obsessed with finding new, inventive solutions and surround themselves with self-motivated people who are also willing to take bold risks.

To be more alien, you must increase your team’s threshold for taking chances. While your inner monologue may be conservative, to build a culture of creativity, others need to feel free to take calculated risks without fear of reprisal. To demonstrate how to fail, admit your failed attempts, including what you learned and how you will avoid making the mistakes next time. When someone else fails, use it as an opportunity to laud their risk taking. And, if you are feeling especially generous, incentivize failed attempts to motivate others to make their own ambitious attempts.

Aliens are involved. Whether they are interacting with employees, investors, or vendors, alien leaders are engaged and hands-on. They seek chances to network and are committed to learn as much as they can from others. Aliens also prioritize development opportunities where they can coach, mentor, and provide feedback. They handpick protégés and remain acutely aware of their responsibilities, challenges, and progress.

Attaining an alien’s level of involvement is a practice that all leaders (humans included) can easily grasp. Carve out time in each day to remain connected. Regular contact with employees positions you to be in-tune with the culture, the personalities, and the quality of work. You will also be more aware of the decisions being made and you’ll be able to enforce accountability in real time.

If you are torn between whether you’re an alien or human, just assume you fall in the later camp. After all, an alien is probably too removed to even consider this question. Once this reality sets in, it’s time to elevate the leadership of your mere humanness through alien-approved best practices. Set your vision, embrace innovation, and get involved. This may feel foreign at first, but by creating these preconditions for trust (a great term from HBR’s Sydney Finkelstein), you never know who will look to you as an alien.

J.J. Abrams on Establishing Boundaries

jj-abramsI recently witnessed a manager delegating work without any apparent limits or parameters. At first glance, this seemed liberating. The employee had total freedom to complete the task as she saw fit. Then she came back in the manager’s office for clarification, and back again, and again.

The next day, when I asked her about the experience, she stated all she wanted was a little direction. The manager had a different take; he was trying not to stifle her creativity and, per his ideology, “I hired her because she’s a pro. I shouldn’t have to spoon feed her.” So the question becomes, how much guidance should you give when delegating an assignment? J.J. Abrams might have the answer.

Back in early 2000s’, esteemed director, producer, and screenwriter J.J. Abrams was approached by a network to develop a new show. By this point in his career, Abrams had an impressive litany of successes— Armageddon, Alias, Felicity, Regarding Henry, etc. Regardless, he was not given free rein to present whatever was on his mind… and he prefers it this way. As he told Wired magazine,

I find that I am most happy when I have boundaries. With Lost, when ABC chairman Lloyd Braun called to say he wanted me to come up with a show about people who survive a plane crash, I remember thinking, ‘Well, I will come up with that,’ and I did—very, very quickly. What was great was he had given me a very specific assignment. So when I called him back and told him my thoughts, they were far weirder than what he would have ever expected. He was basically thinking about doing a kind of castaway show. But the constraint he imposed allowed the weirdness to kind of feel like fertile ground. Weirdness within limits, you know? If it had been un-limited—if he had called and said, come up with a weird show—I would have thought, I don’t know! What does that even mean?

“Weirdness within limits.” That might be my new delegation mantra. To provide these limits, leaders must be adept at delegation. This is more than handing off the tasks you don’t want to do. True delegation is an opportunity to build competences, experiment with new techniques, and grow confidence. When delegating, consider the following:

  • Provide context for the project. Explain why it matters, the impact it will have, and how it fits into the larger scheme.
  • Be specific. Your ultimate objective should not be a guessing game. Provide clear purpose for the initiative.
  • Resist the urge to micromanage. If you’re going to allow for freedom of expression, step back so they can express the freedom.
  • Offer focused feedback. If they are getting it wrong, that means they need more of your insight to guide them.
  • Impart positive support. When the project’s done, don’t be stingy with the compliments.

If established genius J.J. Abrams works best with boundaries, why shouldn’t we provide the same consideration to those on our team? You don’t need to present a detailed blueprint, but carte blanche doesn’t work either. With a little direction, you can save a lot of time and frustration, plus you’ll end up with an all-around better product.