Last week I had my annual journey into the world of HR. I attended the conference for the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM. Which is pronounced like “sherm” and not “shroom” like my boyfriend thought.
One thing that has struck me in the years of attending is how sincere everyone is about making their workplaces better for the humans. They actively deride the HR people who are there simply for compliance and avoiding lawsuits. At least for these conference attendees, they are thinking about the people day in and day out and are often up against the capitalist drive for higher and higher profit and the nature of humans trying to change.
I attend this conference every year because I often work closely with HR and I like to see what’s going on in their world. What are they concerned about? What is the hot topic? What are they trying to learn about to better their workplaces?
One word that came up over and over again was courage. It came up when discussing burnout (another big topic at the conference), implementing new initiatives, coaching leaders, taking a seat at the table, and, mostly, about giving feedback to employees.
Feedback is an important part of accountability. I preach that accountability is not punishment, as is often associated with it, it’s about love. It’s about telling someone, “You said you were going to show up in one way and then showed up another. What’s up?” Accountability and feedback happen in formal ways like performance reviews, but also informally like when responding to meeting invitations, looking at writing and design work together, building agendas, deciding who leads what on a project, and then the actual completion of that project. “Hey, just checking in/circling back/wondering about the thing,” is a very common accountability measure many of us use almost without thinking.
When you hold someone accountable to their ideas, values, and contracts they have made, this is love. If you don’t love someone, you don’t care. You don’t pay attention to them. You don’t care what they do, so you have no reason to hold them accountable.
Some of us learned accountability through more punitive measures like cruelty, pointing out mistakes, “tough love,” and discipline through removing rewards. But I work with people a lot around making accountability this incredible opportunity for connection, growth, and trust building. If you learn to give feedback in a way that is full of positive regard for someone, that asks what they need and then provides them the resources, this is still accountability, but it is rooted in love/caring/respect rather than old notions of needing to push people into a particular kind of mold. Accountability in this way allows someone agency. They can forge their own path, make their own choices, and that boosts confidence in their own ability to solve problems.
At SHRM, many of these speakers were talking about the moment when you have to give feedback and you just…don’t. When you falter at getting the words out of your mouth so you sugar coat it, or don’t say it at all, thus allowing the behavior to perpetuate to yours and the person’s detriment. I heard many say “You need courage at this moment. Get the courage and do it.”
But, it’s not that simple. Or easy. Courage is not just something you can pull off a shelf in your cabinet. It’s something that comes deep from within. It requires emotional and spiritual fortitude that can be stifled fairly easily if not handled with care. Sometimes what looks courageous can come from lack of intelligence or understanding. True courage, the moment where it would take less energy to take one path and choose to take the other harder one, that requires some deep knowledge of yourself.
So, let’s take this example of giving someone feedback. You want to hold someone accountable because you love them or it’s your job, but you have a hard time. These folks from the conference would say “just get the courage.” But I say, don’t do that. Summoning courage in this muscling through way is not courage, it is muscling through. When you have to push something out with that much force, it comes out messy and often harmful. Think about when you’ve had to get something out and you forced it. It probably came out much harsher, meaner, harder than you wanted it to. You likely had to walk it back or repair from the way you gave that information, rather than the information itself. And the information itself was what mattered.
I don’t want you squeezing something that feels hard to you out of the narrow opening you have for yourself to get it out. I don’t want anything forced. I don’t want your feelings to come out like play-doh being squeezed through your hand. I want you to feel as good as you possibly can when giving feedback or when saying something hard.
So, instead. I need you to do something different. I need you to check in with yourself about what you are actually afraid of. What is preventing you from saying or doing the thing? Where does it live in your body? What is the concern here? Because chances are it’s a good concern, born of something really awful that happened to you. Find out from your insides what we’re bracing against, what we’re worried about. Because once you can identify that, well then you know what you’re actually working with.
Then, play out the worst case scenario. Go ahead, do it. See how your body responds. You give someone feedback and they respond in the worst way possible. What is that? . Do they yell at you? Do they throw something? Do they call you names? Now, we think about what we need to do to keep you safe and what your next step is. What is your response to that worst case scenario?
Here, I’ll give you some options:
“I absolutely can hear that you’re upset, but I will not be yelled at. Should we take a minute so we can come back and talk about this more calmly?”
“Do not throw something at me. Leave my office right now. I am going to get HR/a senior manager to help with this.”
“I will not be called names. You can be angry or upset, but you cannot call me names. Please leave and come back when you have had a moment to calm down and can continue this conversation.”
What if the concern is internal? Do you think if you have to give this feedback it’s an indication you’re a bad leader? Does it mean you’re a bad person? Did you miss something important about your job? Are you behaving just like that one person did one time when they were really awful to you? What do you do about that?
Here, I’ll help:
Review their job description and see where are the areas for improvement and what resources you can provide for that.
Unless you are actively killing puppies, you’re not a bad person. Likely just overwhelmed and overworked.
And you’re not that person, you’re you. And you’re examining their actions so you can do better than they did.
What do you need to do to make a structural change so you can have more space to be a better boss/co-worker/partner?
What structural changes need to be made so this doesn’t happen again?
Remember, most issues are because of faulty structure that needs to be changed, not any one person’s failure. So figure out what that is from your end.
Ok, we’ve figured out what the actual concern is. We have some ideas for the worst case scenario. Now think about the best case scenario. Best case, do they thank you? Do they sit there and start a conversation about what to do differently? Do they show that they appreciate you noticing them and wanting them to be better?
Both the worst and the best are equally likely. It’s just statistics.
Now, think through what you need to keep the worst case scenario from happening. Is it a public space? It is a reminder of intention, that you’re there to work together? Is it another witness? Is it to practice what you’re going to say and ask for help finding the right words?
Now, go get that; set it up to practice, get some help, get the conference room, have a safety plan.
Now you’re more prepared. And likely calmer about the whole situation. It didn’t take an explosion of courage. It took actually examining what you need, listening to yourself to know what you need, and making that happen, you know what that is? Accountability–to yourself.
And that’s the most important kind of accountability we need. We need to know we can listen to ourselves and respond to our needs. Because that is love. And as the great RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
Can I get an amen?