Frank advice: can you take what you give?

The fact that you needed to know was not known at the time that the now known need to know was known… and therefore there was no authority for the authority to be informed because the need to know was not, at that time, known or needed. (Bernard in Yes Minister, Episode 8). 

Yes Minister is a brilliant TV satire that pits the conflicting desires of numerous players in the British government against each other. The battle of wills between bureaucrats, staffers and the political incumbent generates much humour and head nodding on our parts.

Inevitably though as reform goes head to head with perks, prestige and pragmatism only one winner emerges; as reflected in the trademark closer of the go-between who predictably defers with the obsequious: yes Minister.

But it’s not a show about politics as much as life, which is why we relate so readily to the power and control dynamics.

These games are played all the time in our professional and personal lives.

We witness it with bosses, colleagues, partners, friends; perhaps we do it or are having it done to us. For reasons that are hard to understand, we tend to reinforce the accepted (though frequently unvoiced) expectations of those around us.

But the cost can be high, for those who refuse input, as well as those who feel gagged.

Most of us would like to feel safe giving frank advice and believe we are good at receiving it. But it’s not always the case.

There can be a price to naming the game and we’re constantly weighing if it’s worthwhile.

Sometimes it’s a small deal – we stay quiet in a meeting for fear of exposing ourselves to disagreement, or nod although we’re flummoxed by jargon because everyone else seems to know what is going on. (This is seldom the case by the way, as evidenced by the cacophony that erupts once the first stone is thrown.)

Sometimes though, they’re potential deal breakers. We suspect a teammate is taking drugs. The books don’t add up. Our partner makes frequent trips to the toilet with a mobile phone. Now the consequences of speaking up are high.

At the same time, we all have blind spots, or no-go zones where we dismiss inputs that conflict with our deeply held views. As parents we can struggle when others don’t see our children as we do. If we grow up with a particular idea about a culture, for example, we might defend it in the light of evidence that suggests otherwise.

That is why it’s important, if we want to live authentically, to raise our consciousness. But it takes willingness, and work.

Professionally a known tool that shows up those parts of the self that others are aware of but we can’t see is the Johari window. Personal effectiveness tools offer insights into our comfort with self-disclosure or feedback. While 360-degree evaluations can reveal as much about others misconceptions as perceptions of who we are, they are still another source. Personally, we can write, take time out or invite direct feedback to help us live more mindfully.

If we’re fortunate enough to have people around us who say it as it is, what we risk by refusing to hear them out is that they will stop being so gracious. Direct input may turn into subtle hints and eventually give way to silence as they step away and watch us grapple.

It’s key though to distinguish valuable insights from others’ agendas or gossip, which is a go nowhere negative force.

One way to sort the wheat from the chaff is to look at the source of information. The town gossip is unlikely to have ours or others’ best interests at heart, compared with someone who has nothing to gain or acts out of integrity.

However, this can be dangerous if the source itself is where the issue lies. Sometimes a trusted 2IC is trusted only by the person they are busy shafting. Or a partner leaps to defend their other half against others who may have a different view, but for good reason.

Does this mean we should defer to other people? Of course not. It means we need to be open enough to take in other views and still make up our own minds.

It’s vital to establish conditions that create clarity and ultimately support us to back ourselves. Even with respect to blind spots, if we pay attention, we soon realise that when the dial skyrockets, there is something underneath (whether positive or negative) that is driving reactivity.

With respect to what we let in, we can do this by learning to look at the facts, rather than from emotion.

By approaching difficultly with detachment and taking a pseudo-scientific approach, we weigh up what we know, what we don’t and if we need to go deeper, what to do. If we don’t, we risk deferring or being deferred to and while this might make us temporarily more comfortable, ultimately it will thwart our growth.

10 tips:

  1. Do not automatically accept or reject information that you are given – this is difficult if you are predisposed to dis/trust the person you are talking to.
  2. Listen closely to what they are saying and listen all the way through. Thank the person but do not commit to anything.
  3. For a day (unless it’s urgent) do nothing – just let the information sink in.
  4. During that time ask yourself: if this information is false, what is the impact?
  5. Also ask yourself: if this information is true, what is the impact?
  6. Write it down. Writing helps you identify patterns in complexity. Processing is personal so allow yourself to explore detail. Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to question someone or something because we feel disloyal even thinking about it. Make sure you work in a safe space and feel free to destroy your meanderings afterwards; they are helping you get clear that’s all. By considering the issue from both sides you will get a sense of its importance and consequences of your in/action. The fact that someone does not like us for example, may be completely irrelevant. Suggestions however that someone is directly misrepresenting you may require formal discipline.
  7. Write out the facts as if you were a scientist documenting data from an experiment. My sales manager has reported an increase in profit but a team member has suggested s/he doesn’t approve of the way the manager does business with suppliers. Or so and so says we give a top-notch restaurant service but complaints are high? I’m told the management fees for this project are standard but they appear to be 25% of overall costs. S/he says they were just talking work but it seems a strange thing to do at 7am on a Saturday. You can’t address an issue unless you acknowledge what it is in the first place.
  8. Now, consider how you could get more information without reference to any of the personalities involved. Profit and loss statements. Inventory reports. Benchmarks. Facts speak louder than words, at least to begin with.
  9. If it’s a complex technical issue or one for which data is not readily available, explore whether you can get what you need from a neutral party. A specialist firm. Neutral is important; you are not going to get the low down on a cheat from their friends. If you’re using consultants, make sure their work is proven and relevant.
  10. Now you are ready to ask the people involved direct questions. Most importantly by having gone through this process, you will know what to ask.

Sometimes what we uncover reassures us that we see clearly and have made the right judgements. At others, we reel in shock.

Challenging personal blind spots can be difficult. And it’s often easier to shut down than to open up and take in information we don’t like. But for the sake of our own development: we must.

This way of operating, which can be learned and strengthened through repetition, makes us the kind of person who others feel safe speaking to but also, importantly, conscious enough to know personally when to speak up and when to stay quiet.



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