Monday, November 5, 2012

Concrete Advice? Trying Staying Mum

I have come to learn that guest lectures from CEOs and other VIPs are often a waste of time.  Even though the people speaking may be incredibly interesting, and their jobs may be incredibly interesting, they sometimes succumb to the temptation of getting bogged down in platitudes (i.e. Always maintain integrity, stay flexible, keep a global outlook, etc.)  The worthlessness of these sayings can be proven by asking whether their opposites would ever make sense in a speech (i.e. Sometimes integrity needs to go out the window, be rigid and unyielding, view the world through a soda straw, etc.)

If they spoke in a frank way, and offered real "lessons learned" (i.e. lessons they found out about the hard way, after making major screw-ups) the speeches might be more interesting.  The problem is, when you have  $180 billion on your balance sheet, and another several trillion (with a t!) in custodial assets, maybe you don't feel the need to speak off-the-cuff 'just cuz' for a bunch of inquisitive late twenty- and early thirty-somethings.

Fair enough.

One useful lesson I've learned along the way is be extremely careful about saying anything remotely negative regarding others.  The basic supporting reasons are that good things you say tend to be 'lost in the sauce' whereas bad things tend to be repeated, that people often feel betrayed when they hear such criticisms through a third-party, and that your personal feelings about someone might change, but the 'out loud' comments you made are essentially frozen in time.

That last point is extremely important -- hence the italics.  If I'm angry about Person A today, and I go vent to Person B, that might be the only frame of reference that Person B has about my relationship with Person A.  My relationship with Person A might be very complex, however.  Weeks, months, or even years down the line, Person B could potentially poison the well by simply repeating something that was said in a context he or she never initially understood.

You could use other examples -- you get a bad first impression, you share that opinion...but YOUR impression evolves for the better over the course of time.  The problem is, unless you went back and covered your tracks, whatever you said initially is all that anyone heard at first.  If you make a habit of not saying bad things about people to begin with, you never have to worry about covering your tracks, or about who said what, etc.

You could do endless twists on this, but you get the idea.  To tie this entry up, I will explain that I think extreme caution is also needed whenever you are asked/forced to provide some sort of mandatory feedback that includes a 'constructive' or 'corrective' component...especially to peers or superiors.

My "Core Team" has to do an Intra-Team feedback session on Thursday, and let's just say I'm not looking forward to it.  After that initial hiccup (I tried to get some things clarified/organized, there was some pushback, I retreated to my shell) things have really smoothed out and gotten better.  I have actually kind of enjoyed my subdued's more of a learning opportunity, anyway.

If you really forced me, I could probably recall some occasions when people dropped the ball on something, or knocked down a suggestion without offering a better alternative, didn't listen clearly before offering a dissenting view, etc.  But that could be pretty obnoxious.  I wouldn't want to go through life having people critique me for specific incidents that occurred in the past, so I'm not going to do that in this situation.  Instead, I'm going to opt for much blander, more general themes (i.e. 'you could show more enthusiasm in presentations' or 'you could participate more in class').

I would do the same thing, willy nilly, if someone stopped me 'cold' and said something like, "I'm soliciting feedback about myself, and I want you to identify something that I need to work on."

If that comes off to you as being phony or disingenuous, I'll go ahead and accept the charge.  Seriously.  I'd rather plead guilty to possession of an ounce of conflict avoidance than have to deal with a pound of strife and hurt feelings for weeks afterwards.

Why am I so cynical about constructive feedback?

Because it's subject to the one of the purest Catch-22s out there:  The people who would be most receptive to it are the ones who need it the least, and vice versa.  

The world around us is constantly providing feedback -- some people can instinctively separate the signal from the noise, and really listen.  Others, not so much.  Anyone who takes it upon himself or herself to 'educate' or 'enlighten' the latter group is in for a long, uphill slog.  And a very lonely existence.

1 comment:

C R Krieger said...

So what about the enthusiasm for 360 degree assessments?  While an indentured servant at Raytheon in Sudbury I got to do my "boss" twice.  I didn't enjoy it.  And he was a good guy, someone who would be open to helpful criticism.

Regards  —  Cliff