I have been failing our company and failing you – personally. I withheld valuable feedback. To say that feedback is essential is an understatement. All human progress comes from experimentation, analyzing results, and tweaking the actions, one small challenge at a time.
I would even identify the most significant societal challenges as breakdowns in feedback cycles:
Obesity would not be an issue if a tasty cookie did not deliver faster ‘positive’ feedback than years of exercise and proper nutrition,
Climate Change is a result of quarterly profit cycles providing more immediate data than decade-long weather pattern changes,
We do a thing that we think is good, we get a consequence three decades later and are surprised what exactly is behind this result. Humanity is not built to work at this scale.
But let’s get back to business and the case at hand. Lack of feedback UP the „chain of command” is how companies fail. On paper, big organizations have every advantage. But as the company grows, „The franchise blinders harden” – as Safi Bahcall phrased it in Loonshots. Ben Horrowitz agrees, and in Hard Thing about Hard things identifies that „The biggest problem is the one that blindsides you.”.
No wonder that effective leaders not only shy away from feedback but crave and ask for it. I know you are the same way. You ask for feedback, you act on it swiftly and everything is better after the exchange. And yet, I haven’t been giving you enough feedback to you, and I find it hard to pinpoint why.
Following reasons come to mind:
I consider myself a competent professional. As such, I pride myself in taking on challenges and solving problems. My default is to take your suggestions as a challenge and run with it.
I noticed it’s easier for me to disagree with “two levels up” than with you. I am not sure what is causing this. Maybe I am afraid of bringing this up so you won’t retaliate on my performance review? I know this is ridiculous!
I am pretty outspoken and have publicly passionately argued with the company direction. Everybody (including you) assumes that I will have the same force in private conversations, but it’s not true. Privately, I tend to concede much faster.
I optimize my career to work with smart people on exciting projects. You can teach me a lot, and I always assume that you know a little more (or a lot) than me and have stuff figured out way better than me.
Lastly, we all work remotely. I know blaming this on the remote environment is a noob move, but it’s tough to catch the misunderstandings early. When we are not on the same page, it’s really hard to see if it’s a communication problem, or we have different points of view.
Because of these points, I have robbed you of valuable feedback. There were situations where we disagreed, and I conceded when I shouldn’t have. I did not want to introduce more tension or come off as stubborn because I have behaved so in the past.
What can I do?
I don’t think being more outspoken is the way I want to pursue. I am plenty vocal already so that I will try a different route:
Whenever the „I don’t think he’s right” thought appears, I will note it diligently and set time before our 1:1 to make sure my opinion still has merit. If that will be the case after a few days, I will bring this up on our 1:1. That’s what they are for.
I know this feedback is valuable for you, and I know you will act on it. I need to be better at giving you the opportunity to improve.
PS: Dear commenter, if you have any tips on how to be better at giving feedback to your manager, please share!
When Peter Diamandis stood under the arch of Saint Louis, with 20 astronauts behind him, he announced a 10-million dollar prize for developing commercial space flight.
The prize was called X-Prize because he did not have that money, nor did he know where it could come from. X stood for the name of foundation or individual that would finance this.
And yet, without the money, without really means to pull it off, X-Prize has renewed the interest in developing the commercial space flight industry and sparked the imagination of other entrepreneurs.
I urge you do do the same in your organization.
Doing the hard things is both the best thing for the company, for you and counterintuitively – your lifestyle.
Corporate environments and more established companies tend to be risk-averse. Everyone tries to be in the middle – do a little more than enough to be considered a good employee.
But surely in your workplace, there is a couple of things to tackle that are considered too hard, way out there, maybe not now. It is my long-standing career strategy to go after those things with guns blazing.
It’s possible because of Super-Credibility.
Peter Diamandis says his stunt was only possible because he used Super-Credibility. He tackled a venture so outrageous, bold, and out there, that people stopped evaluating it in terms of logic.
This bold claim jumped over the usual evaluation straight to emotion. People wanted it to happen, so they believed it without a proof.
Warning: this is a mechanism that can-and-is used for evil as well. Please don’t be a fake news jerk.
You can use super-credibility at work without rebuilding one of the toughest industries in the world like space transportation.
When you tackle something considered extraordinarily hard at work:
Everybody knows your attempt is outrageous,
People like to see outrageous endeavors succeed,
Focus helps you judge what is essential and what is not,
It’s a bullshit remover. And bullshit is one of the biggest momentum killers out there.
It’s easier than you expect
Imagine you are just joining a team that has a hard problem to solve. When you ask about the Elephant in the room, you usually get:
This is just the way things are
This part is just too hard.
We tried once, and it ended badly.
The original decision to not touch the Elephant may have been not as clear, but as any great story, it grows in myths and legends.
With every new teammate, the story is retold and how it usually is with humans, gets more exciting because:
This is how human memory and tales work. Yes, the fish was thiiiiis big.
The current team has to justify – in front of you and each other – why they didn’t tackle this problem yet. To reduce cognitive dissonance, if they haven’t addressed it – it must have been too hard.
And that is not only the perception – when you are working against or around a particular piece of code or business process, you are introducing cancer growth processes – something that should not be there but is contributing to the state of brokenness.
But the Elephant in the room is much, much smaller than previously thought. His most threatening quality is that he is unknown, fuzzy – a maverick.
Why you are providing massive value
According to Ray Dalio (the most successful hedge-fund manager currently), the simplified way to solve any problem goes as follows:
Identify the problems in front of goals
Solve /work around problems
When you have an untouchable problem, people will work on other stuff. The problem is that sometimes the “Elephant” will be a prerequisite to solving other tasks.
In the ideal world, the organization would throw significant resources at this issue, because solving it will unlock tremendous value. But resources are people – often the same people who have repeated for a long while that this cannot be tackled. Doing the thing now will hurt their egos.
Good people get sometimes emotionally invested in issues being unsolved.
So when you actually take the Elephant out of the bottle, you unlock all this fantastic realm of possibility. When a company does that, we call it disruption. The whole industry is changed because bottled-up ideas are now reachable.
Benefits to you
I value my quality of life. The hardest problems are interesting, but I do not want to work crazy hours or sacrifice my happiness on the altar of the company’s bottom line.
And yet, taming elephants has become my go-to strategy for more leeway and a happier work environment.
As previously mentioned, super-credibility is a bullshit remover. You get VIP passes to get around conventional processes – aka “bureaucracy.” ( Sidenote about Bullshit: I recommend “Life is too short” essay by Paul Graham ).
People are used to ignoring the Elephant. It’s quiet near him, no micromanagement, a lot of autonomy and space to work.
When you have a huge, audacious goal in front of you, it’s tough to wander and lose motivation. Procrastination is your brain refusing to waste resources on your lack of decision. Without this uncertainty, your productivity is easily 10x.
In his New York Times bestseller Drive, Daniel Pink describes what motivates us:
All of these three things are immediately given to you once you volunteer to take the Elephant out for a walk.
Continuing to support my point with famous New-York-Times bestselling authors, I’ll touch upon Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
Trying to dissect the story behind success, Gladwell discovers, that the extraordinary people:
Have a certain, but not disproportionate amount of innate ability – aka Talent,
Have put in over 10 000 hours of practice during their ascent to stardom (the famous 10 000 hours rule)
What is very often overlooked, that was deliberate practice. Always on the edge of ability, always challenging themselves.
Most of us have some innate ability that we utilize in our careers. Most of us have access to 10 000 hours to be extraordinary. The hardest piece to arrange is a steady stream of ever-more-challenging problems to solve.
The Beatles honed their craft on the Hamburg club scene, and Bill Gates used (illegally) his school’s computer to get better at programming.
If you can go after the Elephant during your work hours, without breaking the law or going to Hamburg, then you are in a unique position!
Tackling the most challenging issues at your organization will not only result in more leeway but is the most effective way to advance your career.
Long workhas a storied history. Farmers, hunters, factory workers… Always there was the long work required to succeed. For generations, there was a huge benefit that came to those with the stamina and fortitude to do long work. Hard work is frightening. We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is a risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up. You fail at hard work when you don’t make an emotional connection, or when you don’t solve the problem or when you hesitate.
The Fantastic Seth Godin.
The Elephant – the hard work I am urging you to tackle is the task that is unknown, complex, and emotionally challenging. Your Ego can be hurt, you can be ridiculed, and you can fail. That is the hard part.
Copy-pasting spreadsheets or tackling something that should never be done in the first place is safe but tedious and time-consuming. This is dead-end, laborious, and unfulfilling work. Avoid that. Or Automate.
Once you deal with the Elephant, everybody will marvel at your skill, even if you don’t have any extraordinary talents. You have seen my drawing ability and it only goes downhill from there.
Go take that Elephant out for a walk. It’s really friendly, it really needs to pee, and the weather is beautiful out there.