Capture Ideas and Connect Better with Information on Paper

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Q: We have a very sensitive engineer who is key to our startup. My partner and I have to be very careful how we phrase anything regarding his work. I’m not even talking about constructive criticism; it may just be something said in passing. We try very hard not to say anything that may be misconstrued, but you just never know what is going to be misinterpreted. How do you suggest dealing with this employee?

For many, fear of feedback (including compliments) is a problem. The most common reason for someone to be this sensitive is that in their past they were severely and frequently criticized, so even the mildest suggestion is painful. They may express this fear of feedback in several self-sabotaging ways: denial, procrastination, rigidity, avoidance, jealousy, brooding etc. It’s extremely self-limiting burden to bear, personally and professionally. Any slight suggestion is interpreted as failure or rejection. An extreme fear of feedback is a condition called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) and improved only with medication.

Your employee’s sensitivity to feedback may require some outside coaching or some clinical help, but here are things you can do:

1) Increase trust. Schedule a short coffee break with him a couple times a week to talk about his interests or how the startup is moving along. Point out general areas of improvement that are needed within your startup (marketing, beta testing, quality control etc.) and share the remedial steps that others had to take.

2) Get his perspective on ways to make the company better, and how to implement those improvements. Let him know you appreciate the perspective sharing. This is a good way to model how positively feedback can be received and put to work.

3) Gradually, I would point out a change that he needs to make in order to make the company better and possibly to incentivize him. Use numbers and benchmarks. Avoid making any direct attacks on his performance; keep it more “big picture.” Break it down the change into do-able steps with opportunities for regular updates.

4) Verbally reinforce any progress made toward change.

If that fails, coaching is a good next step. As a coach, I would help him identify the emotion behind his reaction, and help him re-frame the criticism to loosen the grip of the negative association. Next, I would help him approach the needed change by breaking down the task to small, satisfying and manageable chunks. In my experience, this results in decreasing the fear of feedback, and in most cases, creating a healthier attitude around feedback.

If the fear of feedback prevents you from advancing in your career and in your relationships, let’s have a talk. Contact me at [email protected]

Theresa B. from Pittsburgh, PA writes:

“My mind is a jumble of ideas, and when I have a great one I want my exec team to get to  work on it ASAP. ( I probably have ADHD or something like that.) They roll their eyes, sit back and make me feel like a child. There have been times when my ideas cost us,I’ll credit them with that. But other times the company lost out because my team wouldn’t take me seriously.  Here’s the kicker: when they come to me with an idea, it’s almost a done deal. I’m just supposed to sign off every time! So frustrating. What can I do to get them to listen to my ideas with an open mind?”

It is hard to curb your enthusiasm when you can see a promising idea so clearly in your mind. You’re struck by the potential and the long term gains. However great the idea, it’s absolutely essential that you and your partners stand back 30,000 feet and examine the proposition carefully. Your brain, Theresa, the visionary’s brain, is a mystery to those with a more linear way of thinking.  As Dr. Ned Hallowell says, “You’ve got a race car brain with bicycle brakes.”  (It’s good they are not like you, can you imagine the chaos with an exec team made up of nothing but visionaries?)

To get heard, you need to step into their world and ask yourself a series of questions before you present your idea. I suggest you have 5 or so basic questions answered before you present a new idea to your exec team. Get these 5 questions from your partners. What kind of facts do they need to consider your idea?  They may be something like: What resources do we already have to make this happen? What resources do we need?  What will it cost? Does this idea support our brand or confuse our customers? Is anyone else doing this? Chances are, your partners address these kind of questions before they ask you to sign off on their projects. That’s the difference.

You may save yourself a lot of embarrassment and frustration if you take a step back and consider these questions first. Keep them handy so when a idea strikes you’ll ensure a captive audience.

Having trouble being heard, respected or appreciated for your contribution? Perhaps it’s your presentation that needs work. Let me help. Contact me at [email protected]  

When teamwork is lacking at home or at the workplace, a common complaint is: “I don’t feel heard.” Children and adults speak it differently, using a wide range of emotions ranging from anger, sadness, frustration, indignation and resentment.

I probed deeper into what exactly “feeling heard” means to people. Over the last few months I took a survey of eight families (including the kids who say this) and four businesses (10-30 employees). I asked what they meant by “not feeling heard.” The most common responses (exact wording or paraphrased) were:

I can’t get X to agree with me.

X doesn’t respond; it’s as if I’m talking to a wall.

 X interrupts me all the time.

X thinks it’s all in my head, that I’m wrong or nuts.

X acts like he/she is listening, but then X goes and does what I was complaining about.

Conversely, when asked how they know when they have “been heard,” people said:

When X makes the change I’m asking for

When X tells me back what I said and says he/she will do something about it

When X makes me feel like I’m the most important person in the room

When X is not looking at his/her phone while I talk


This survey pointed out two misconceptions and one expectation about “feeling heard.” One misconception is that a good listener agrees with the speaker and makes the changes the speaker wants − false. It is also a misconception that it is responsibility of the listener to do all the communicating − false again. The expectation is that a good listener shows value and respect for what the speaker has to say − true. It’s important for all parties to come to a consensus of what “being heard” means. It includes the following:

1) listening does not always mean agreeing

2) as a speaker, be responsible for helping the listener listen by stating facts and feelings in a calm, clear and concise way. It means collecting your thoughts before sharing them, toning down emotions and avoiding expletives or loud talk.

3) as a listener, try to limit distractions, pay close attention and tell back what the speaker said in your own words as evidence of your effort to hear them and to clarify that you heard them correctly.

Building teamwork is a relatively untapped activity because it’s hard to measure. There are other worries to attend to in the early stages of a startup that may seem more important – funding, customer satisfaction, marketing, technology etc. But without establishing a good sense of teamwork early on, you are putting your company on defense.

According to Patrick Lencioni the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “Teamwork remains the one sustainable competitive advantage.”  Lencioni describes “trust” as the bedrock of teamwork upon which commitment, accountability, constructive conflict and attention to results rests. If you haven’t read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002) already, I highly recommend it. It is timeless advice for companies on a race against time and competitors.   

At your next team meeting try out an exercise called the Personal Histories Exercise  for building trust. Whenever I offer this exercise at my workshops, the results are quite revealing and sustaining. For a team to work together successfully, a certain level of openness and vulnerability is needed. From hearing about each other’s childhood challenges and epiphanies, a team can better understand each other’s ways of thinking, communicating and getting things done. It’s also interesting to hear why each team member was drawn to entrepreneurship in the first place! It is a great way to create a better team connection and build trust. Give it a try!

Communication is a COREageous element of any successful team. Let me know how I can enhance your team’s communication. Contact me at [email protected]     

Transparency is one of the best ways to build trust with your team. Here’s how:

Explain the company’s strategic initiatives, short/long term goals, deadlines and the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). Do not assume your team understands your reasoning behind these objectives or that they understand how their roles specifically support these initiatives.

Share relevant financials along with explanations. Just because the company is bringing in money, doesn’t mean it’s time for pay increases!  The more your employees know about the company’s financial goals, plans, priorities, challenges and opportunities the more buy-in you’ll get from them.

In your leadership meetings encourage a ten minute How I Did It segment. An employee is invited to share a triumph – how their killer solution to a vexing problem saved the company time, money and/or valuable customers. Triumphant employees earn modest rewards like a gift card or an afternoon off.

If an employee intends to depart or is laid off, make their exit a friendly one. It’s never a good idea to burn bridges or leave on sour terms. Bad news travels faster than good news. Explain honestly to the group the general reason for the person’s departure w/o revealing personal details. If the departure was caused by some undercurrent issue, take action to address the issue immediately.

Encourage questions, concerns, fears, and new ideas at Monday morning coffee meetings and Friday team lunches. Give updates on projects. Come up with jolting questions that spark conversation and new ideas like: If you were the competition, how would you put us out of business?  Encourage the participation of the less chatty employees by welcoming their ideas in writing. Encourage them to contribute relevant articles, new books, podcasts etc.

Everyone makes mistakes, and some errors are more costly than others.  Encourage early reporting of errors. Help your employee to move as soon as possible from guilt and shame mode to solution mode. As a leader, admit the mistakes you make and what you’ll do to correct them.

Founders and other members of the leadership team can offer open door office hours for more private conversations.

Make clear to your customers what your team is up to and what directions you are moving to improve the customer experience. Create opportunities and venues for gathering customer feedback. Continually ask them how you or your product or service would make them happier customers. Show eagerness to hear about what they don’t like.

Finally, when staff come to you with an idea, a complaint, a problem or a solution, let them know they have been heard! It is a very common employee complaint. (See my October Mindful Communication Minute Newsletter on this topic coming out soon)

Capture Ideas and Connect Better with Information on Paper
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