Improving work relationships: the Empower Work coaching model

This week’s post is a collaboration with the Empower Work team – head to their website to learn more about their peer counseling services, to volunteer, or to donate.

With some time on my hands after joining the ranks of those impacted by COVID-19 layoffs, I decided to sign up as a volunteer peer counselor with Empower Work. I’d been following their efforts for some time and thought that the model showed promise as a way to help address many of the issues that I’ve seen my friends and colleagues encounter at work. Having been through the training program, I can confidently say that I was right.

Throughout the training process, volunteers are encouraged to bring what they’ve learned during training to their everyday lives, and I couldn’t agree more. Empower Work conversations are unique in a lot of ways: they’re anonymous, they’re completely about the person seeking help, and the peer counselor has only as much context about the situation as that person shares. This makes it absolutely essential to rely on a few skills in particular that are easily overlooked in our “real life” work relationships, but that can be especially valuable in a challenging conversation – say, one between a manager and their direct report.

While I’d recommend this for just about any work relationship, this kind of approach can be especially helpful for managers who are new to their team, or those who are starting to oversee the work of team members who are well established in their roles. Those folks don’t need their manager’s help learning to do their job – their manager may not even know how to do their job as well as they do – but they often need their manager’s help overcoming obstacles and getting through difficult situations. These are skills that can help the manager be an asset to their team, even when the details of the individual report’s work aren’t the manager’s best area of expertise.

Be aware that you don’t have the full context – and that’s okay.

By nature, an Empower Work peer counselor can’t possibly have the full context of the situation that a person texting in is facing. When we face difficult conversations with the people we work with, we have much more of the context, and can often establish a shared understanding of the situation before a difficult conversation happens… but it’s never complete.

As employees, it’s common to assume that our managers know everything about our work. As managers, it’s common to assume that what you see of your direct report is all that there is. When we make these assumptions, we lock ourselves into an idea of what any given problem is that may be wildly off base. That’s not because we were hopelessly wrong or are bad at understanding things! It’s because we never know the whole story. Ideally, it should be up to the manager to recognize when there isn’t enough context to make a decision or a plan, but there are times when an employee needs to take the reins (sometimes called “managing up”). 

Once you know that you don’t have the full context, how do you get enough to form an action plan? You…

Ask open-ended questions.

As your colleague describes a situation, you may identify moments where you think there’s more to be said. Listen to your instincts there; the phrase “can you say more about that?” is my go-to when I want them to elaborate, without inserting my interpretation of what they mean. I’ve often made a guess about what they mean before asking them to say more; asking in this way allows me to check my guess before it becomes an outright assumption.

Open-ended questions open possibilities for your colleague and that give them a chance to describe a situation in detail. The goal is to get more context, not drive advice or a solution. 

Aim to understand the impact of the issue on the person

Often, if someone is raising a problem to us that we weren’t previously aware of, it’s not because we didn’t know that the situation existed – it’s because we weren’t seeing it as a problem. That is to say, we didn’t understand the impact that the situation was having on our colleague. This is a key part of the context that we’re often missing.

It can be tough to recognize when we’re missing this part of the story. Some indicators that there’s more for you to understand about the impact on the person:

  • The question “what’s the big deal?” is sitting at the front of your brain. Find a way to let them answer that question earnestly, such as “how is this impacting you right now?”
  • Your colleague is from a marginalized identity group that you aren’t part of. Our identity shapes our experience in ways that may be difficult to communicate, so if they’re telling you about their experience, believe them.
  • You think you know what the impact is, but they haven’t said it. Say what you’re hearing to be at stake for them, and ask them how that lines up with what they’re feeling. 
  • You know how you would feel in their shoes, and are assuming they feel the same way. Let them have their own feelings!

Identify what feels important to them

As you learn more about the impact on the person, you’ll also be learning about the things that are important to them. This can help shape your approach to future conversations in ways that can make it easier to communicate candidly, fluidly, and with trust. Seeing and acknowledging what matters to your colleague is one of the clearest ways to demonstrate that they matter to you, which will bolster your team’s trust in the long run.

Empower Work volunteers are trained to use these skills and more to suss out what’s important to the person connecting for support, understand what the impact of their situation is, and to identify the right moment to work with the person seeking help on achieving an outcome that works for them. As different as those conversations are from our day-to-day work relationships, they can share key approaches: Whether you’re in an anonymous, one-time conversation with a stranger or in your regular weekly one-on-one with your manager or direct report, being curious and ready to set aside assumptions about the other person’s context, values, and impact are critical to getting to the heart of just about any workplace issue.

Receiving difficult feedback from your team

Looking up at a pair of joshua trees

Last week we looked at a framework for delivering feedback with clarity and equity. Now let’s examine the other side of the coin and talk about one of the toughest kinds of work conversation: when a report needs to tell you about something you’re doing (or not doing) that’s having a negative impact on the team.

When your team members tell you candidly about things that you need to improve personally, it’s important for you to model the way you want constructive feedback to be received. Often, the first time a team member gives you this kind of feedback, they’re feeling pretty vulnerable; they might trust you generally, but don’t know how you’re going to react to this, so being candid about what needs to change can feel like a professional or personal risk. You want them to feel supported in that vulnerability, and for them to understand that this was a risk worth taking.

My own mantra about this is “don’t take it personally; do take it seriously.” I even repeat this to myself before responding to criticism. This is easy to say, but it’s very difficult not to take feedback about your work personally. As I’ve talked about before on this blog, we live in a work culture where our personal – even moral – value is often equated with how much we work, and how hard we work. This is harmful for a number of reasons. For one, it makes it difficult to separate your fundamental worth as a person from your need to improve at some particular task or your need to pay more attention to some particular thing. That may sound overstated, but in many cases it’s what it feels like to receive negative feedback at work.

To help keep those feelings from getting the best of you during the conversation, I find it useful to return to start thinking about it in terms of the feedback structure we talked about in the last post. When you’re on the receiving end of critical feedback from your direct reports, you have an opportunity to reinforce your feedback structure, and to use it to help establish the parameters for how this difficult conversation proceeds. Just as you would try to do when delivering difficult feedback, you want your report to describe what the behavior they’ve seen is, tell you what the impact of the behavior is on them/their teammates, and if they’re clear on what they’d like to have happen in order to resolve the issue, make a request.

If you don’t fully understand the behavior they’re describing, its impact, and the request that’s being made of you, ask clarifying questions once your report seems done sharing what they’ve had to say. Practice approaching your questions from a place of curiosity instead of defensiveness. Framing them with “help me understand…” or “can you say more about…” can remind you of the tone you want to set and help you focus on the end goal of the conversation, which is identifying the areas in which you need to improve. Asking these questions before offering any reasons or justifications for your actions can also help reduce real or perceived feelings of defensiveness. If it feels appropriate, go ahead and offer context when you’ve demonstrated that you understand the impact of your actions, particularly if your report is asking you to change behavior that needs to remain in place for a specific reason.

Receiving difficult feedback about someone else

If you have more than one direct report, it’s also important to encourage candid communication among your team members, and to understand when it’s important for you to step in during a potential conflict. If Colleague A comes to you with a concern about the behavior or work of Colleague B, there are a couple of questions for you to consider:

• Are you the right person to deliver this feedback to Colleague B? Sometimes, receiving difficult feedback from a third party can trigger feelings of defensiveness – the person receiving the feedback ends up focusing on “why didn’t A just tell me themselves?” rather than on the behavior they need to adjust.

• Is this feedback really for Colleague B, or is it for you? It may be the case that your team members don’t have accurate expectations around each other’s job responsibilities, and it’s your job to help make that clear.

If you think the feedback is something that Colleague B needs to hear, and that Colleague A could reasonably/safely approach B about it directly, go ahead and ask: “is that something you’d feel comfortable talking to B about directly?” Often, the answer will be yes, and the report may have come to you because they were unsure about protocol or worried about overstepping boundaries. Make it clear that even though you’re encouraging them to have that conversation, it’s good that they brought the concern to you, because sometimes that feedback really is for you and not the other person.

In many cases, Colleague A may just need to hear a little encouragement and permission to provide that direct feedback to Colleague B. Remind them of your feedback structure as a way to guide them through the conversation; if they haven’t brought the concern to you already formulated in terms of behavior-impact-question/request, work though the structure with them to make sure they can do that before sending them off to talk to Colleague B.

If the person reporting the behavior wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it directly with their colleague, you’ve got a little more digging to do. In this kind of situation, the person reporting the issue to you is not responsible for coming up with a specific request for how the issue gets addressed. You need them to tell you about the behavior and its impact; following the rest of the feedback process is your responsibility.

If the issue is more along the lines of a serious concern about the individual’s job performance, you’re likely the right person to handle the feedback conversation. If at all possible, keep the name/role of the person who reported the behavior confidential; if you can’t reasonably provide the feedback while maintaining confidentiality with Colleague A, make sure to tell A that before you talk with Colleague B.

Maintaining your curiosity and your commitment to using consistent, structured feedback when you’re on the receiving end will help build trust with your team. You’ll need that trust to get through the current moment of uncertainty, and it will serve you well as the world continues to change in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

Note: In situations where the behavior being reported is harassment, or potentially illegal, you may need to rope in human resources, your board, or another oversight authority (up to and including your organization’s legal counsel, your local or state employment commission, or if you’re in the U.S., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, depending on the severity of the issue) to identify next steps. If you’re not sure about your situation or what the right course of action is, WorkplaceFairness.org may be a good place to start learning more.

Delivering feedback with clarity and equity

I don’t think I need to lecture you on why clarity is important here in May of 2020; we’re all starved for it and are looking for it in whatever corners of our lives we can. What I want to do is call out a couple of ways that you can use an everyday manager process – providing feedback – in a way that improves clarity and helps your team operate more equitably.

Provide structured feedback

Providing corrective feedback is one of the skills that’s most important to develop as a manager, and it’s also one of the scariest for a lot of people, because it can feel like initiating conflict. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we don’t really need to tell people explicitly when they’ve done something that isn’t right or has caused problems; we may think “oh, I’m sure they know what went wrong and it won’t happen again.” We may think “I don’t have the full picture here, so I’ll just keep quiet rather than jump in where I don’t belong.” We may worry that the recipient will take the feedback personally. If we’re a member of a privileged identity group relative to the direct report, such as a white person providing feedback to a person of color, we may think “I don’t want them to think that I’m holding them to a different standard because of their race, so I won’t say anything.” Any of these thoughts can hold us back from doing the right thing.

One of the reasons corrective feedback is so scary is that we often aren’t sure how to say it in such a way that it will have the intended effect: allowing the person receiving the feedback to improve their work, while maintaining a sense of proportion about the impact of the mistake or errant approach. As author and management coach Lara Hogan puts it in her book Resilient Management, “[the] best feedback is specific, actionable, and delivered in a way that ensures the receiver can actually absorb it.” That last bit – ensuring the receiver can actually absorb it – can involve a number of different factors, including how quickly you deliver the feedback relative to the occurrence of the behavior, how emotional you feel about the behavior, the severity and scope of the behavior’s impact, and the broader context of your report’s general standing in relation to their job – if they’re new or already having trouble at work, a more minor mistake might feel like a big deal.

Having a consistent structure for delivering feedback, and providing feedback regularly, helps to avoid the pitfalls of conflict avoidance and unequitable approaches to criticism at work. I try to use a method that combines the one Hogan outlines in her book with the one outlined in Managing to Change the World by Alison Green and Jerry Hauser. By the way, this works for positive feedback too:

  • Decide on the timing for the feedback. Is it urgent enough that your colleague needs to be made aware of it immediately? If so, reach out to them via chat or email first to say “Hi, let’s talk about X, because we need to make a plan – can you meet me in a video chat at Y time?” If it doesn’t require immediate attention to fix, could it wait until your next scheduled one-on-one so that you can integrate it into a consistent pattern of providing feedback? If so, add it to your shared agenda (which you’ve got, right?) so that they know to expect the conversation.
  • Describe the behavior – stick to what you’ve seen occur, and avoid making assumptions or conjectures about why the behavior is happening. If you’re giving feedback about a pattern of behavior, have concrete examples of recent instances to refer to.
  • Share the impact of the behavior – wherever possible, tying the impact to the goals that you’ve already set with the team and the individual, if not back to the mission of your organization as a whole.
  • Request/recommendation and/or question – if there’s a specific action that you need to happen in order to rectify the issue, ask for it. Regardless, ask open-ended questions to make sure that you understand the context around what happened. Sometimes it’s appropriate to let your direct report come up with the next best action, but the question part is critical to establishing trust with them. Assume that you don’t have the full picture (you don’t!), and that there may be factors that you weren’t aware of causing the behavior or preventing the report from fulfilling the request that you’re making.

In addition to considering the best way to deliver the feedback so that the recipient is prepared to receive it, you may also need to think about how you’ll prepare to receive their response. If you’re feeling especially emotional – particularly if you’re feeling angry or frustrated – it may be worth giving yourself a bit of time to distance yourself from the immediacy of the event before discussing it with your direct report, so that you can be prepared to take their perspective into account and so that the meeting can stay focused on identifying what your report needs to produce the desired outcome, not on their fear of your feelings.

Use the feedback structure for everyone

I mentioned earlier that managers who are of privileged identity groups relative to their reports can sometimes be wary of providing feedback because of a fear of being seen as racist, sexist, etc. This fear harms both parties.

Not only does withholding feedback prevent your team from improving at its ability to achieve your mission, failing to give your underrepresented colleagues feedback that can help them grow and develop is a surefire way to keep them from achieving their growth potential and perpetuate the cycle that keeps underrepresented people out of positions of leadership and power. Withholding critical feedback sabotages their growth, and it is incumbent on you, their manager, not to do that.

Conversely, you might be a member of an underrepresented group relative to your direct report, such as a woman of color giving feedback to a white, cisgender man. In that case, you may be concerned about how to deliver the feedback in such a way as to ensure that you’ll be taken seriously. Holding to a consistent feedback structure like the one outlined above – maybe even making it a written company policy – can help you ground that feedback conversation in the impact to the organization, making it less “about you” and how seriously anyone takes you personally, and more about the team as a whole.

By keeping your feedback about the behavior, not the person, by using the same structure for corrective and positive feedback, and by making both part of a routine that everyone who reports to you can come to expect, you’ll be able to impart a little corner of clarity into your colleagues’ lives, and to do it in a way that supports equitable development across the team.