When people work closely together, there's bound to be friction and irritations. Some people find it difficult to bring up these issues directly, so they hint and hope. And when the hint doesn't help, the irritation can grow out of proportion. Team members' ability to give peer-to-peer feedback both about work and interpersonal relationships is critical to developing a highly productive team. Esther Derby tells us about a team torn apart by an unattractive personal habit and offers some advice for talking about touchy interpersonal issues.
Not long ago, a developer approached me for advice about a problem team member. The developer reported that one team member was causing resentment, alienating other team members, and generally making life difficult for all. No one wanted to work with him.
"What is he doing to cause all this?" I asked.
The answer surprised me. "He picks his nose," the developer said.
"He picks his nose? Have you talked to him?"I asked.
"Of course," my developer friend replied. "I talked about the importance of manners at our team meeting. And I talked about how we all had to be careful about spreading germs.
"He still picks his nose," he continued. "It's gross. The only thing I can think of is to start picking my own nose to see how he likes that."
Nose picking is an unattractive habit. But the real source of this team's problem isn't nose picking. The real problem is that team members don't know how to have an uncomfortable conversation peer-to-peer.
How to Talk About a Difficult Subject
Remember, the over-arching goal of feedback is to improve working and social relationships. When you think of it that way, it's easier to find a respectful way to deliver a difficult message.
Use "I" Messages
Talk about what you see, and what you feel. Start your feedback with a sentence that starts with "I," rather than with "you."
Describe What You Have Seen and Heard
Stick to the facts of what you have seen and heard. Describe behavior rather than applying a label. For example, "Yesterday in our team meeting I heard you call Sara an idiot." rather than "Yesterday you were rude." Labeling the other person only puts him or her on the defensive.
Own Your Own Feelings About the Situation
Some people advise using this formula to give feedback: "When you do X, I feel Y." But this construction implies that one person is the cause of another's feelings. No one else can make you have feelings. To remove the implied cause and effect, you might say, "When I hear you call Sara an idiot, I feel like you are disrespecting her," or "I want to tell you about something that you do that's a problem for me." Then describe the behavior.
Talk About the Effect the Behavior Has on You
People often don't realize the effect their behavior has on other people. Explain briefly how the behavior you are talking about effects you. Explaining the impact gives the feedback receiver information so they can choose what to do with your feedback. If there's no impact, then a request seems arbitrary. The conversation could start with "When I hear you call Sara an idiot, I feel like you are disrespecting her. I worry that you talk about me that way when I'm not in the room."
Ask for What You Want
If you have a specific change you'd like to see, make a request. You can make a request for behavior to stop, start, or change. For example, "I want you to treat our co-workers with respect and stop calling Sara and our other co-workers idiots."
It's not always easy to give feedback. I still feel anxious when I prepare for a difficult feedback conversation. I have almost always found that the pre-conversation anxiety is worse than the actual event. And the pay off for having the conversation is well worth the effort.
So What Happened with the Nose-Picker?
I advised the developer to have a private conversation with the offending team member. "Give him the benefit of the doubt," I said. "What if he's unaware he's picking his nose? It may be an automatic habit. And even if he's aware he's picking his nose, he may not be aware of how if affects you and other people on the team."
The developer agreed reluctantly, and we worked out a little script. Here's what he decided to say to his nose-picking colleague:
"Joe, this is really awkward for me. I want to tell you about something that you do that's a problem for me."
"I've noticed that during our team meetings, you pick your nose."
[Pause and wait for a response. This may be all you need to say.]
"I have some judgments about nose-picking. I was brought up that it's not appropriate. When I see you picking your nose, I feel worried about you spreading germs. My reaction is getting in the way of our working together."
[Pause and wait for a response. This may do it.]
"Would you please stop picking your nose while we're working together?"
The next week, he reported back.
"You'll never guess what happened," he said. "You were right, he wasn't even aware he was picking his nose. But it was really awkward," he continued. "He was embarrassed but he was also grateful I told him. I guess I shouldn't have waited so long."
It is hard to address interpersonal and work issues directly—even when the issues aren't as awkward as someone picking his nose. Respectful feedback can improve working relationships. And handling issues directly keeps little irritations from growing into major divisions.