I started in management at a pretty early age. Mind you, not because I was some management wunderkind, but likely because of a rare trait I have to distill complex technical topics so anyone on a team could understand. When I first started as a manager and had my first employees, I honestly did not know the first thing about managing the “right” way.
Recognizing managing was new to me; I took some courses, held regular team meetings, and held monthly one-on-one sessions with each team member.
I am the perfect manager. Right?
But here is the thing with employee feedback: unless they are outspoken, they very rarely won’t tell you that one real thing that bothers them about you. That is why it was hard for me to understand why my employees would give me great feedback to my face, then when it came time to do quarterly 360 reviews, my ratings were much lower than expected.
Willing to admit it now, I was young and kind of thought that I learned all that was needed to be a great manager. At one point, I spoke to my director about the difference between the way my employees shared their feelings about me and how they rated me. He shared that he had the many of the same issues, so we did something you would not usually see either of us do back then. We put our tails between our legs, contacted HR and our VP, and discussed the concern.
We had some pretty open and frank discussions on the topic. We had a fantastic HR specialist who offered to do confidential interviews and then share the general feedback with us, and we listened. Maybe it was me, but I think my director and our VP were also uncomfortable with the resulting results laid out before us by the HR specialist.
To this day, I remember the HR specialist sharing the three categories of feedback from my employees:
- Seems like he is listening, but in reality, is forming his own opinions.
- Overly aggressive in his plans.
- Gets too detailed planning our work.
Listening to that feedback from someone I hardly knew and hearing it in front of my director and VP in real-time was a sobering experience. I felt embarrassed and also thought I was failing my employees.
More importantly, I was confronted with the reality that the inflated brain of my younger self still had some learning to do.
The outcome of that meeting was for all of us to shake off what we learned and do a reset. It was time to have an off-site meeting to focus on listening and learning from each other. We hired a professional meeting coordinator and a coach to lead us through exercises to improve how we work together.
Learning about myself and others
If you ever attended a team building exercise, you may have taken a personality profile test. In our case, we took a survey; then the coach mapped our answers to the Myers-Briggs personality type. You can give Myers-Briggs a Goog if you want to learn more, but the idea here was that everyone had an opportunity to not only share their type but understand how each of us reacts to it and how we might change our habits.
My Myers-Briggs was an ESFJ (a blueish shade). It means I like to please others, being helpful, and enjoy being productive. That sounds great, right? Well, my approach to being “helpful” was to micromanage (#3 in my feedback list). Being “productive” meant I cared more about getting things done than hearing my team’s warnings about overly aggressive plans (#2 in my feedback list).
Hearing my team members review their Myers-Briggs opened my eyes. I had not realized some of my team members were not as open to communicating in front of a large room. Some people were much more sensitive, and others were so action-oriented it turns out I did not give them enough work.
Empathy in the workplace
My employees said they liked me, but felt I had some changes to make as a manager. As a matter of fact, everyone agreed we can all make improvements. The results were dramatic. I was able to let go of my grip (as best I could, anyway), opened up to others driving schedules (which, as a project manager, you would think would be apparent to me), and listen with intent, rather than listen to form an opinion. With work, the team started to gel. I cannot stress enough how much better individual team members worked with each other as they learned a new appreciation for how they work together.
To be sure, it was humbling to go through my personality traits right there in front of my peers, employees, and managers. Getting past that to learn how you can improve is so important that it could mean the difference between loving your work or hating it.
If there is nothing else I learned through that first exercise, and many more over the years, is that you can improve yourself and help your colleagues by listening and accepting the differences everyone brings to the table. How obvious, right? Not until that first experience, which I will forever appreciate.
Coaching empathy with Andrew Lawless
One last little note on that first offsite. After we took the Myers Briggs test, my analytical (and former programmer) mind immediately thought, “Hey, let’s build a website so everyone can take the test.” Do not fall into that trap. The point of taking a personality test is not to get some number or color or distilled trait and post it on your LinkedIn profile. The real point is for everyone to learn each other’s traits together and talk through it and spend time understanding how to work together.
In a break from the traditional T-Suite podcast, I want to introduce you to an inspiring coach I recently met.
If you saw Andrew Lawless from across the room, you might think, “This guy is going to be intense.” In fact, he was one of the friendliest people I have met who is refreshingly honest about his personal life and career. Okay, he is a little intense, but in uniquely fun and quirky ways.
I hope you enjoy our conversation about how empathy can improve how teams function, especially during times of fast-paced change.