Happiness: Communication vs Reality
How it begins
If you’re not honest about how you feel it could lead to disaster. Often people don’t raise issues early because they’re “not a big deal”. But that usually means nothing is done to correct them and they become a big deal.
Eventually you’re so angry that you do raise the issue, but by this point your frustration has exploded, you’re seething and things are getting worse at a critical rate. Not only is the issue still there, but no one seems to care. So you storm into your lead’s office, in person or via email, and, emotionally overwhelmed, you burst with negativity.
That’s where things go from bad to worse. The dotted line shows the reality gap; the disconnect between how you feel and how your boss thought you felt. Up until now your boss thought you were ok, so they’re probably going to have two thoughts:
- “Steve’s obviously just having a bad day.”
- “Sarah’s clearly over-reacting!”
In the first case, they think you’re having a normal reaction, but it’s not about this problem, you’re displacing. In the second, they’ll think you’re misunderstanding the scale of the problem. In both cases, their belief in you has dropped and they’re not solving the problem.
This starts the spiral of doom. You didn’t communicate early. So they don’t appreciate how big a problem it is. So they don’t address it. So you get more frustrated. So you communicate even more poorly. Which reinforces their belief that you’re over-reacting… and on and on.
Sadly, for poor communicators by the time your boss really understands you’ve reached your breaking point it’s too late. Feeling dejected, unsupported and unheard, you believe leadership doesn’t know what’s going on, doesn’t care about solving problems and definitely doesn’t care about you. You’re gone. There’s nothing they can do about it and everyone loses.
In Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s excellent book Thanks for the Feedback they explain how you can’t control how other people communicate; you can only control yourself.
Yes, your boss should have regular checkins . And yes, they should be aware of what’s going on in the business. And yes to 100 other things, but you can’t rely on that, you can only control what you do. So you need to take responsibility for this.
Here’s one safe way of having those conversations:
It’s not a big issue yet, and I don’t need you to take any action right now, but I wanted to give you a head’s up…
- “It’s not a big issue yet”: Shows that you’re not over reacting or reacting emotionally. Even better, describe why you’re bringing it up: the impact it has right now and the impact it could have if unaddressed.
- “I don’t need you take any action right now”: This gives your lead clear guidance on the issue; showing them that you’ve take ownership at this stage, while also setting the stage for them joining in later if needed. If you haven’t been a great communicator up until now, this is a great way to stop your lead from rushing in all guns blazing.
- “Give you a head’s up”: This answers the question: if it’s not a big issue and you don’t need their help, why are you telling them? So that if it becomes a big issue and/or you need their help in the future, they’re ready for it – it’s not out of the blue.
Building your relationship
Having these sorts of conversations on a regular basis is the key to their success. If you’re assessing the issues correctly and communicating at the right junction you should find that some of the issues
- end with you resolving them yourself
- need more support from your lead
- and some just peter out.
If you can start to build on this, letting your lead know how things resolved, while ensuring not all of your conversations are about (potential) issues, you’ll be well on your way to ensuring reality matches perception.
A note for leaders
If your team isn’t raising issues: that’s a problem too. Consider the environment you’re creating and the challenges you’re giving them and see how you can improve things
- If they’re really not facing any problems, then maybe they aren’t being challenged (which will become a problem in time).
- If they’re not communicating problems, they might feel you don’t care about them. They’ll be spending a lot of time solving things you could help solve better/faster. Time which could be spent on core business. Open those lines of communication.