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The Accidental Podcaster: Lessons
I had my annual performance review for my day job the other morning. I never worry about these things - for me, they're more of a formalized recount of what I've learned over the prior year and what I need to get to where I want to be. I've been very fortunate over the past ten years to have worked for a place that actually challenges me in a way that leads to self-growth, and been managed directly by a succession of women who have each been exactly the mentor I needed at exactly the time I needed their particular contributions. Each of them brought something very different to the table that contributed to the overall picture, so if I get to be called an operational badass now, it's in big part to the lessons and perspectives each one brought me. Today's lesson was one that's been bugging me for a while, something I've been working at diligently for some time but still feel I've been failing at miserably.

Let me start by saying that I have a very analytical approach to tackling problems. When a challenge is presented, emotion takes a backseat while I focus on how to first stabilize the situation and then move forward with the plan for whatever needs to happen next. Sometimes that course is pretty clear, other times I need data to form a better picture of what's needed, but the core process is always the same: finding the paths to get from the present situation to the desired outcome, then presenting the possibilities to assess the best course of action, and then putting that plan into motion. Results are clear - was the objective met or not?

But the same does not necessarily apply to management of people. It isn't always clear what, if any, tangible progress is being made. You can't ignore emotional factors when dealing with people, and the most logical way isn't always the best way of handling people issues. This has led to a number of faux pas over the years which make me very, very anxious about the reactions of others, particularly in a working environment. It wasn't that I was trying to be callous or cold (though in the past I've certainly been accused of both, and worse), but my focus was on solving what I was understanding to be the problem. When it was brought to my attention that this approach was alienating, I started second guessing ALL of my interactions - would this criticism hurt the other person's feelings? Was what I wanted really worth the argument? When I corrected people, how were they receiving the message? Did I need to be warmer and fuzzier, and if so, how does one go about that?1

As a result, from my perspective, when I did start supervising others I felt like I was all over the place. If I gave detailed instructions, I worried my people felt I was talking down to them; if I gave less detailed instructions, I worried I was too ambiguous and not giving them what they needed to succeed. In critique, I always worried whether my honesty came off as harsh, or if I overcompensated and avoided certain critiques to spare feelings at the expense of helping the individual grow. Further, I've always been a highly motivated self-starter with very high standards for everything I do - it's the reason I've never HAD to worry about my own reviews. I expect others to be the same way, which often leads to frustration if their interpretation of "good enough" doesn't match mine, even if technically they followed exactly what I asked them to do. This last bit is a character flaw, I know, and one that I struggle with daily.

What all this led to was a long conversation with a very skeptical Boss about why I felt I was failing in that particular aspect of my training, and her using her substantially more polished balancing skills to explain to me in a feelings-saving way that I was seriously overthinking things.

The key thing to remember in dealing with people is that everyone has their own unique set of motivations, which include goals, fears, and values. Sometimes these motivators are extrinsic - we do task X because we want to earn reward Y - but more often these are hidden, instrinsic factors that require some coaxing to uncover. Life lesson: People will not always tell you what their actual problem is. It isn't necessarily because they want to mislead you, but usually a combination of either not articulating well, trying to save someone else's feelings, or not wanting to seem like they're making a big deal out of nothing. Same goes with motivators: too often people hide their goals or fears to avoid the potential for negative reactions, especially if one's goals aren't the same as another's.

Further, there's no set science to uncovering these factors. Where I'm trying to set formulas for gathering and acting on information, in this case, things aren't a science so much as an art. Two identical looking situations can turn out to be completely different once one starts taking those invisible factors into account; we see this with our students' stuations all the time. It takes a lot of practice and experience to learn what factors and signs to look for and experiment with different approaches to solutions. And from that perspective, she told me, I was doing just fine - the mere fact that I internalize and worry and am generally self-aware of my own limitations shows I am on the right track.

The other thing I had to consider was scope - while I'm always thinking beyond the expectations, the measure of success lies with whether or not, within the scope assigned, set goals were achieved. From that measure, yes, we hit everything that we defined as our primary goals; anything beyond that was gravy, but not hitting 'above and beyond' doesn't mean the exercise was a failure.

Did this pep talk quell all of my concerns regarding my abilities to motivate and manage others? Let's be honest, no. I'm always going to have that heightened sense of what I think things should be like, so meeting expectations won't be enough. But to Boss's point, everyone comes to situations at different levels. My motivations2 for going beyond initial expectations in the vast majority of scenarios are not going to match the motivations of others; there's a reason 'good enough' works sets the basic level of success or failure.

The point here isn't whether or not I'm doing a good job by my standards - the point is that I keep caring enough to want to.

*****

THREE SONGS I'M LISTENING TO THIS WEEK: Reliant K, Be My Escape; Paloma Faith, Upside Down; Seether, Tonight

TONIGHT'S READING: Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate, The Book of English Magic

1 My friend and former work partner had a theory at one point that if I had more casual physical contact with others, it would boost my empathy, and so made me go around hugging people and assigned designated people to hug me under specific circumstances. It sounds odd, but she had some solid science behind it - numerous research studies have shown the power of touch in creating deeper connections in relationships and also its effect on an individual's physical and mental health.

2 More honesty: I have more emotional baggage than an airline hub's lost luggage counter. BUT I'M TRYING DAMMIT.
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