Scott is a long standing manager and someone that everyone in his organization, all 35 employees, look to when something goes wrong. He’s been with his manufacturing company for 32 years, and he has served in almost every role in the organization, from machinist to management. He’s on the leadership team now, but still makes his daily rounds into the machine shop and through the halls to engage with the employees.
On the exterior, Scott is tough. He’s got a deep voice and carries a no “B.S.” aura— he’ll give it to you straight. On the inside, he is a deeply caring, committed and loving person. He’s invested in the well-being of his employees and wants to create an environment where everyone feels supported and can get their work done.
In the last 2 months, his company has rolled out a new project management system and CRM.
It’s not going well.
The project has been under-supported in money and resources, and the employees keep creating work-arounds of the system because it doesn’t work well and they don’t have the training they need to be successful. It’s frustrating clients who depend on their services and product, and the tension in the organization is palpable. Scott has about 5–10 employees in his office everyday, and the tissue box is now his primary tool for support.
The staff are angry. They are afraid of what will happen with this system as it’s not allowing them to be able to do their jobs, and it’s creating fear. It’s a difficult place to be for the employees, and Mike is doing what he can to find ways to lift spirits and re-energize the group to get through this problem. But he often feels helpless.
This isn’t a unique situation
Difficult situations arise all the time, and good people who want to do their jobs and care about the work get caught in a difficult spot. The systems aren’t working, and it’s harming the people that work there and want good things for each other.
Managers and leaders are often left to pick up the pieces, encourage resiliency and progress, and make sure that all are cared for and moving forward — this is easier said than done.
So, it raises the questions: In a toxic environment, what can be done to lift spirits and validate employees? How can you keep people moving forward and feeling safe at work despite the difficult conditions?
For most managers in this situation, they rely on the old “you can do it!” stand-by. The pep talk. The motivational and inspirational approach. This tactic often ignores important aspects of team morale and validation, and throws personal connectivity to the wayside. This approach is akin to the automatic and often empty email response: “Good job!” The first time that email is used, it may feel pretty good for the recipient. When it becomes the default and automatic response, it becomes empty and banal. It means nothing, and, after a few times, it actually creates the opposite response.
The same is true in an organization when you’re experiencing a long and hard challenge. The pep rally approach may work on the first few days (we can do it team!), but when the problem persists and the challenge remains, the pep rally approach begins to lose it’s validity and doubt sets in. If that’s the only tool in the toolbox for managers, it’s going to get ugly fast.
Often in these difficult situations, the managers and leaders of the organization feel like they need to have all the answers to the problems. They need to fix it. While there are technical elements and systems that need to be fixed, it’s the fix it mentality that gets in the way of what is really needed for employee morale. The employees may need you to address the technical problems, and what they really need is to be empowered and validated. Often, the effectiveness of the task gets in the way of the effectiveness of the people.
They need to know they can do something, and their frustrations need to be seen and heard.
Giving feedback that moves employees through difficult times involves:
Character compliments speak to the character of the person — not the traditional compliments that focus on aesthetics or results. Instead of focusing on how someone dressed, how they acted, or what they accomplished, a character compliment focuses on the base personality traits and beliefs that led to the positive actions and results. For example, a standard response to good work can sound like this:
“Hey Jena, great job on that report! It looked really good and served our clients weel. Keep up the good work!” That’s not a bad approach, and adds value.
A character compliment takes that approach and makes it personal — where you really see the person for who they are, not just what they do. Here’s how you can add a character element to the same praise given above:
“Hey Jena, great job on the report! I see your commitment to the details, and your passion for serving our clients well. I appreciate how you show up in your work, and the report you gave our clients is a reflection of that. Keep up the good work!”
By naming character, you are acknowledging the person, not just the action, and you establish a connection that goes beyond the transactional, forming a stronger social contract with your employees.
The first approach is to move from a fix it mentality to one of generosity. Generous feedback shifts the paradigm from having the answers to asking questions, praising effort, probing into the challenges, and seeking insights from the employees.
When employees are coming to you because of frustration and difficulty, they are looking for validation and for a map and vision for how to get through it. If you just give it to them, it creates an ongoing power dynamic and pathway that perpetuates the challenges moving forward. The employee’s often are the ones who can create the change.
Generous feedback is about process — it’s about inviting the employees to push through the difficulty with your support and encouragement (not the empty pep-rally style, but honest and genuine encouragement).
Here are the philosophical components of generous feedback:
For example, if an employee is discouraged with a technical process and is reaching out, the generous feedback could sound like this: “Hey Scott, thanks for your efforts on this project. I know it’s been frustrating not to see the results you’ve been looking for, but your effort is not in vain. What have you tried so far? What are some additional steps you think you can take? What’s a new approach that might move this project forward? Who on your team can help you see this more clearly? You have the skills and knowledge to push through this and get it done. Thanks again for what you’re doing. Let me know if I can be supportive moving forward.”
Why is this “generous?” The generosity comes from a willingness to let them answer the challenge on their own — with questions that offer direction and support. This approach invites thinking — how to think about the problem and solve it on their own — giving the power back. Ultimately, this is empowerment in action — that’s where the “generosity” kicks in.
When you lead people, that’s exactly what you need to do. Lead people. As a manager, it’s easy to get caught up in leading projects and focusing on results. The key reframe here is that in order to get projects done well, you have to lead through your people so the work gets better.