Feedback, Performance & Workplace Relationships

'A Small Problem of Size'

27 February 2023
Effective Storytelling - Podcast
Short stories with key learning points for personal development and professional development. Often to make you smile, and always to make you think.
An example of how what’s wrong is easy to put right, if only there’s appropriate feedback. If someone doesn’t know, how can they be expected to improve?

you'll like this story if you're interested in...

A manager phoned me, to ask if I could come in to talk to one of his supervisors.

A couple of the supervisor’s team had been to see the manager, separately. They were both upset, claiming the supervisor had bullied and intimidated them. The manager could not understand this. He knew the supervisor, and knew him to be a hard working, conscientious man “who wouldn’t harm a fly”. The manager had spoken to the two staff members, asking for evidence.

They’d both quoted his overbearing manner, and harsh way of speaking to them. The manager next spoke to the supervisor, and neither could see any evidence of a belligerent manner or use of language.

So the manager asked me if I’d speak to the supervisor and the two staff members. I agreed, and made an appointment to see the supervisor.

I knocked on the supervisor’s office door, and as he opened it, I knew straight away what the problem was likely to be. The supervisor was a giant of a man, at least 6' 4", with a sallow complexion, and with big black bushy eyebrows and moustache. He invited me into the office, but stayed at the door, after closing it, leaning on the top of a 4-drawer filing cabinet! He asked me to sit down, and continued to stand, talking to me from behind my back. I turned to face him, and asked if he would sit too, which he did.

I then asked two questions. Firstly, did he typically talk with people in his office while standing? He did, and said it helped him concentrate if he walked around… Secondly, I asked for his estimate of the heights of the two women who’d complained. He said they were both quite petite – about 5'3" or 5'4"….

As we talked, his voice was deep and booming, and sounded gruff, though again there was no intent to be so. And as he got agitated (for example, about a lack of resource) he raised his voice…in frustration – though it could easily be interpreted as shouting. He also tended to jab with his finger or a pen. It was easy to see why others might feel intimidated and threatened in his presence.

The solution was simple, and consisted entirely of raising the supervisor’s self-awareness.

We agreed he’d be better sitting for all conversations (to equalise the height differences), and to consciously work at speaking in a softer and slower tone – and keeping his hands folded in his lap….

This story beautifully highlights the power of blind spots. The manager (himself about 6' in height) and the supervisor were both unaware of the intimidating power of the supervisor’s physique and behaviours. It didn’t matter that the supervisor had no intent of intimidating – his physique and tone were enough, combined with his unconscious pattern of standing and prowling when talking, and jabbing a finger for emphasis…

The solution was simple, and consisted entirely of raising the supervisor’s self-awareness.

There are several take-aways from this story:

  • Self-awareness & blind spots
  • Meaning matters
  • Intent and interpretation
  • Little things make a big difference
  • Feedback & motivation

Self-awareness & blind spots

Quite simply, the supervisor was not aware of the impression created by the combination of height, expression and tone. What is very apparent to others is not always apparent to the person concerned. And if there is low self-awareness, then it is difficult, if not impossible, for that individual to change the way they speak and behave. Such lack of awareness is sometimes called a blind spot: the individual is either completely unaware of a particular tone or behaviour; or they are aware, but have no understanding of the way it impacts on others. An example of the first might be playing with a piece of jewellery or jabbing a pen, and an example of the second might be interrupting someone, because they think it’s just adding a contribution and keeping things moving…

There are really two remedies to lack of self awareness and blind spot behaviour. The first, and most obvious, is for someone at the receiving end of this behaviour to mention it to the individual. Many do not want to do this, because it sounds critical, and might worsen their relationship. But we think offering blind spot feedback is, and ought to be seen as, a gift: if you were doing something that had a negative impact on others, but you didn’t know about it – would you want to know? Then if you are receiving unhelpful blind spot behaviour, recognise that what you are offering is information that the receiver might very well value. And if you receive such feedback, make sure you recognise it as a gift. Because everyone who has a blind spot is inevitably trapped by it…and often only blind spot feedback can set them free…

The second option is to be observant, to watch and listen for the response to your behaviours. These responses may indicate all is not well with what you are saying or how you are behaving.

Meaning matters

No situation, event, conversation is neutral. Everyone will give a meaning to that situation, event or conversation, and that meaning will differ according to the background, beliefs, experiences and assumptions made by each person involved. So there is a real danger in assuming that everyone present has the same meaning, and worse still, that they have the same meaning as you!. So it can be useful in any interaction to be open to the possibility – perhaps likelihood – that everyone involved will have some different meaning to give to what is happening. So, in this example, it is difficult for someone who is 6’4” to appreciate how he looks and sounds to someone who is much smaller. So a useful piece of advice might be to always attempt to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and consider how what you are saying or doing will look or sound to them – especially if you have some awareness of their background.

Intent and interpretation

It is easy to assume that what we intended by what we say will be exactly received in that way; but there is plenty of evidence to suggest this is often not the case. There’s a famous saying: “the meaning of the communication is the response you get”, and in that sense, the intent is far less important, and far more vulnerable, than the interpretation – because it is the interpretation, not the intent, that will be taken away and acted upon.

Little things make a big difference

Often it’s the small things that matter. In this scenario, staff were unable to dissect the particular behaviours and tone of their supervisor, and simply generalised their anxiety as ‘how they were managed’ – which of course is open to massive interpretation, and could mean a number of things. But what was producing the anxiety were actually small things: unequal height; body language; tone. All easy enough to fix. So two things follow: firstly, beware of generalisations, and don’t base assumptions on them, which might be invalid; and secondly, drill down for the specifics – because they are usually the cause, and also easiest to fix.

Feedback and motivation

In this story the supervisor acted immediately on the feedback, and relationships immediately improved, In order for that to happen, the supervisor not only needed to get the feedback, but also to see its justification and importance. So in giving feedback, particularly feedback you want the other person to act on, make sure it provides the motivation for action, which usually means minimising the negative consequences of current behaviours, and/or benefiting both themselves and those affected by current behaviours.

Effective Storytelling - Podcast
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