The Compartments We Devise

 

We never know the full story when we look into someone else’s eyes. It doesn’t matter who it is. Our spouses, our children, our friends, our business colleagues—we all have chapters in our stories that are as yet untold or never told. It will always be that way. The best we can do is get better at listening, remain open to compassion, and craft compartmentalization strategies to balance the myriad conflicts that attempt to overrun us even when we appear to be at our best.

Appearance is always deceptive. It’s why writers have something to write about. It’s why most of us like to read stories, see plays, and watch movies. We trust storytellers to reveal to us the points of backstory we need to piece together a coherent narrative. Sometimes we call that entertainment. Other times we call it the awakening inspired by a cautionary tale.

Life instruction is much harder. Think about the people you will encounter this week. Which of the following might they be experiencing and trying to integrate into the disjointed career demands of their workplace and the to-do lists filling their calendars:

  • Might they have a dear friend in the hospital with a terrible disease?
  • Might they have just learned one friend is getting divorced and another divorced a year ago in silence?
  • Might they be looking for ways to support people living far away whose lives are being devastated by a natural disaster?
  • Might they have bet heavily on a seemingly safe investment and lost enormously in its bankruptcy?
  • Might they have heard from the IRS that no matter how careful they were on their tax filings they are being audited?
  • Might they have recently discovered their retirement savings will not sustain them as they had planned for decades?
  • Might they have signed up for a critical deadline at work that is no longer achievable?

Don’t fret; odds are not all of this is likely to happen, at least not at the same time. Yet no matter how well things may be going or appear to be going for someone, you can be assured strife of some sort is lurking behind the curtain. None of us are invincible. None of us can entirely hide from adversity.

You never know any of this is happening to someone until it is revealed—and often it is never revealed, or revealed so long after it occurred you can be of no help. Other times it is you who are overwhelmed by the conflicts hidden from others. Life’s twists and turns find us all. We all have stories no different from tales we read, built on conflict, secrets, revelations, and resolutions.

Some people are better at maintaining the status quo no matter how hard they are being side-swiped in the dark. You know that person at work who seems superhuman, who just keeps delivering and never utters a peep about any kind of distraction or digression. You ask yourself how that person pulls it off. You wonder if such stoicism is sustainable.

Often these “superheroes” (or robots) are not as bulletproof as you think. They might just be very good at separating their life into components, ruling out clouding aspects of conflict to focus on the task at hand. That’s a skill, one that can be developed. Those who are particularly good at it know one thing for certain: it is not a magical power. It does not come with unlimited gas in the tank. It’s a bridge, and while it can be a long one, the beams supporting it are not infinite in strength.

Devising compartments is a coping strategy. Almost everyone figures out how to do this to survive, some better than others. When someone is too good at it, we might think them cold-hearted. That may seem an apt critique in the throes of emotional exhaustion, but it may not be a warranted conclusion.

When we segment our lives into compartments, we attempt to deal with difficult things separately, one at a time, one hour and one day at a time.

The problem with these compartments is that no matter how well we think we construct them, they all have not-so-secret wormholes connecting them. They send messages to each other through an impenetrable network. They shares walls of the same real estate. Those walls are thin by design.

Compartments are awkward. The storyteller knows this, which is why we listen to the storyteller. When the storyteller is ourself, there is all the more reason to listen.

Sometimes I think of song lyrics that have resonated with me and helped me develop perspectives on the compartments of my own life and those I observe in others. In his first solo album in 1984, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd wrote a very simple phrase that has stuck with me:

I recognize myself in every stranger’s eyes.

These simple words of reflection and contemplation put us all on the same playing field. When you take in the faces you pass along the street, each one constitutes a life that likely contains the same levels of success and failure, bonding and betrayal, health and illness, triumph and capitulation. The same holds true for school, for work, for community service, for the organizations you join for camaraderie and insight.

You don’t know the stories of the people around you any more than they know yours. Those stories are difficult and complex. The question is whether the obstacles in those stories will be overwhelming.

Sometimes you can help. More often you really can’t. When you integrate the compartments of your life with theirs, you can always move toward a path of shared understanding.

If you recognize the breakdown of artificial deconstruction in tales of fiction, you can recognize it in the real people around you. More important, you can trust yourself to see it in your own machinations. When you acknowledge the connections in your own compartments, they cease to be traps. That’s when compartments become shared spaces. That’s when real character building begins.

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Photo: Pixabay

The Little We See

I discovered the NBC television series This Is Us in summer reruns this year and I have become obsessed with it. If you enjoyed shows like Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, you’ll not only recognize the tone and structure in This Is Us, you’ll see familiar names pop up in the directing credits. It probably won’t surprise you that what has most attracted me to this show is the writing, both the quality of dialogue within episodes and the structural connections between episodes. Series creator Dan Fogelman has framed a milestone achievement in word-to-screen translation.

If you are a student of fiction you know that narrative has the highest emotional impact when story and character are revealed on equal footing, one reinforcing the other. Whether you attempt the craft professionally or as an avocation, you know how immensely difficult this is to do, particularly consistently. Characters matter more when the story advances as a result of their arcs. The depth of characters is more fully rendered when plot points drive their change. It’s enormously challenging. Try it sometime. Or you can just watch This Is Us.

I certainly don’t want to give away any spoilers surrounding this show in case you decide to binge on it after reading this post. At its core it is the story of three people born on the same day circa 1980 (the year I graduated from high school, go figure). The storyline follows them from infancy to adulthood with all of the many tangents in their lives around family, friends, loved ones lost and found, career highs and lows, and personal discoveries. The emotional complexity of the characters is what makes it powerful, yet surprise twists in their interwoven journeys jump out all the time, making it the kind of serial that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more.

What consistently blows my mind in this show is how character development is revealed in snippets that link forward and back in time, particularly replaying events with increased detail layered into the unveiling of previously hidden moments. It is these hidden moments that led me to write about the show. What continually strikes me as gripping drama is how little we know about any one character or event at any moment in time, and how adding onto the storyline sheds light on the “why” of every moment. I think about this in life every day as I encounter people, not so much in what I do see but in the stark reality of how little I see.

“The little we see” is the mystery of real-life human drama. Someone could be standing next to you in line at Starbucks with a thin smile, but she may have just come from the hospital visiting someone in critical condition. Someone could run into you on the freeway wildly distracted, when an hour ago he was turned down in his marriage proposal. The person next to you in a bar watching a baseball game might be ordering the beer that sends him tumbling off the wagon. We barely know what we see. We usually have little idea why it is happening, what meaning or consequence it may have, or what life fork in the road it may represent. Good storytelling fills in the blanks. Compounding life events don’t snap together as Lego blocks nearly that solidly.

Returning to my obsessions, in my early writing career when I was learning the craft and reading much more than I was writing, I found myself consumed with the question of what happens to characters when we don’t see them. I spent a lot of time immersed in stage-play texts and repeatedly asked myself purposefully unanswerable questions. What are these characters thinking and doing when they are offstage? What were they doing before the play began? What will they be doing after the final curtain? Certainly writers have to think about these things, but the time-limiting constraint that they never can fill in all the blanks is what can elevate a story from entertainment to a more lasting form of art. The elements of a character’s life that are left open-ended are the entry point where the reader’s imagination can come alive. It is in that synthesis that a work becomes both personalized and shared.

Why might this matter to you even if you aren’t particularly enamored with fiction? Perhaps you are like me and find yourself wondering throughout the day about the backstories and masked details in the lives of the people who walk into and out of your contact each day. When you are in a meeting and the presenter is struggling, what was he doing an hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, a year ago? When you hear a co-worker arguing on the phone in the hallway about something that sounds personal and know that you are about to review a business plan together, will that person be paying enough attention to make good decisions and what will happen to resolve the argument by the time you meet again tomorrow? When a co-worker’s child visits your office, what does she see and how will it possibly affect her future decisions about her career?

All of this fascinates me both as a writer and a businessperson, because the long and winding roads of our lives are filled with invisible forks where we choose a path and don’t necessarily know at the time that the decision was of immense consequence. I will be writing more about these invisible forks soon because I think the resonance of our decision-making becomes more consequential when we pay attention to the impact it has on those around us. We can never chart our own fate entirely, but we can think now and again about what might be going on offstage as well as onstage before we act.

One of the best pieces of advice my dad gave me in business was that unless you are in the room where a decision is made, you will never know why that decision was made. My trepidation has gone further, because too often I have been in that room and I still don’t know why many decisions are made. To me that signals what happened in the other room where I wasn’t present and didn’t even know there was a meeting, or what happened in someone’s living room that morning, or what might be happening in some hotel conference room that night. We see what we see and it’s never enough. We see too little, yet we still have to make decisions.

The little we see is a subset of any story. Think about it that way and you might make different choices when you are in the scene. Onstage or off, the story is part public, part private, part secret, part personal, and always conflicted. That is what makes a great television series like This Is Us. What it says about our lives and our business dealings is something else entirely.

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Photo: This Is Us Gallery, NBC.com

Three Arguments Against Performance Reviews

sb-2015-blog-top-10I don’t like performance reviews. I never liked giving them, and I never liked getting them. They are like school report cards, only less well-meaning and more poorly formed. They make the workplace more political, needlessly enforcing nerve-wracking centers of power. They serve a legal function much more than a creative function. They don’t make products better and they don’t serve customer needs. They are obligatory, perfunctory, dreaded time sucks for both giver and receiver, putting a check mark in an annual rite of passage that is largely ignored until the Earth completes another full orbit around the Sun.

On the other hand, I love feedback—really good, thoughtful, useful, timely, focused feedback. I love to give it and I love to get it as part of a regular routine.  No check boxes, no check marks. Feedback, sometimes known as coaching, requires relevant substance to have impact. It needs to center on step by step improvement in how an individual is doing against goals, how a team is advancing by virtue of an individual’s progress, how innovation is being served by attitudes and decisions on a daily basis, and how an individual’s achievements are translated into outcomes valued by an employer.

I don’t believe anyone can effectively coach, empower, and bolster an individual’s workplace contributions sitting down once a year and filtering a list of positive and negative attributes. The best you can hope for is polite-speak that doesn’t upset anyone too much—unless you are marching someone to the door—and the worst you can muster is demoralization that shuts down all future hope of trust and collaboration.

Here are three thumbnail cases against performance reviews that you should find terrifying.

Argument 1: Performance reviews can put off for up to a year what needs attention now

Performance reviews can be a passive-aggressive haven for managers afraid to lead in the present. You know something wrong is happening, and you know it’s going to be uncomfortable to deal with it. Rather than do the right thing and jump on a concern in real-time, you kick the can, deluding yourself into believing there is a chance the issue will sort itself out. While it’s not sorting itself out, considerable damage is being done. You tell yourself if the individual doing wrong doesn’t figure it out by the next performance review cycle, you will deal with it then. This is pain avoidance up the ladder at the cost of pain induction everywhere else. It’s not leadership. It’s cowardice.

Instead of keeping notes for the big annual summation of all that has gone wrong, how about a simple human conversation today around what is and isn’t working for an employee. Start with an easy question: “How are things going?” If you don’t like the answer, offer your own opinion. Start a dialogue. Make it specific, give-and-take, and optimistic in nature. Do not catalog a set of ills. Begin with previously discussed goals and work forward from those to observations and measurements. Instead of feeling evaluated, an employee is likely to feel directed, supported, and knowledgeable about where he or she stands.

There is no greater fear in an employee than worrying about what the boss thinks. There is no confidence greater than knowing the truth of that opinion right now, while there is still time to do something about it.

Argument 2: Performance reviews are largely clueless  on the value of failure

Imagine this scenario: You are an executive with significant profit and loss responsibility. One of your most promising managers has just led a two-year late-to-market death march on a brand extension that has launched and failed. The team that worked on this product is angry and exhausted. Boatloads of resources, including millions of dollars of investment capital, have gone up in smoke. You have lost market share, customer service complaints are up, and your own boss is pissed off.

In most corporations, you can guess the review would be harsh. There would have to be accountability for the downside, the losses, the ceding of momentum. In the event you chose not to put the manager on a “performance improvement plan” (which both you and the employee know is a scripted formality), the mandated gravitas of your critique might get you the intended outcome—the employee’s resignation. If the employee doesn’t resign, what are the real chances he or she will bounce back and give their all on the next go around? Aren’t they more likely to tread water until they find a way to navigate to a new job elsewhere?

Here’s the problem with this exit: Your employee takes all the learning from the failure directly to your competitor. You have funded the education of your competition and put yourself further behind the curve by virtue of the reprimand. You got what you wanted, except you didn’t. A performance review codifies failure “for the record” as historical documentation of the negative case, and even where it might allude to the notion that learning has occurred, there’s something about those pieces of paper in our “permanent file” that never sits quite right with us. Talk with me as colleague, make me believe you embrace “mi fracaso es su fracaso,” and together we’ll put this learning to work. Mold my upside down experiment into a tombstone and you can forever bury me and all that might someday come of it.

Argument 3: Performance reviews require a level of mentoring expertise few managers ever master

It’s really hard to explain to someone how they can learn from mistakes and get better at what they do. I’m not saying it’s a little hard. It is one of the hardest things any of us are ever asked to do in a job function. Each time we blow it, we never get a chance to repair the enormous damage we create on top of whatever relatively minor damage has already been done. A career is a terrible thing to waste, yours or mine. Do you really feel up to the right to objectively assess where I’ve gone off the rails?

We need to be extraordinarily careful where we entrust the authority for talent evaluation in an organization. Too often it’s the battlefield promotion—or drawing the short straw—that puts an inexperienced manager on point for filling out these crazy forms. It’s a mistake to believe you’re ready to handle this delicate task simply because of where you sit on an org chart.

Let’s try that performance review about failure again in the form of higher level feedback rather than evaluation, from someone who has been at it several decades and really wants a winning outcome. The leader entrusted with course correction can ask a single question, and then shut up for about half an hour while listening to the answer: What did you learn from this failure?

If an employee has little or nothing to say in response—if the answer you hear lacks substance or authenticity in addressing what might come next—proceed to complete the performance review. It doesn’t matter what you write on the page. Your competitor is getting nothing but a disingenuous cost center. Lucky you. Yet if you like what you hear, you have the beginnings of a rebound, because all learning is valuable in a comeback. No one knows more than an employee who has failed what went wrong and how to course correct. It’s not about a performance review. It’s about what comes next, and how you get better.

A performance review is a task, feedback is a means

There are a hundred legal reasons your company wants documented performance reviews, every one of them sensible and with precedent. Sadly not one of them has anything to do with innovation. It’s not failure if it’s learning. Not many people ever learn to think this way. Any success subsequent to a failure can pay for the failure ten times over, a hundred times over. Any lost knowledge following a failed initiative is plain old sunk cost.

I write often about employer and employee loyalty and my sense is how employees are evaluated has a lot to do with their predisposition to hanging around for next year’s evaluation. Maybe you shouldn’t wait a year to communicate something that matters so much in a format that makes Human Resources happy. Remember, most employees don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. The really talented ones who have options are likely to despise performance reviews, but they love talking with someone who cares about what they do and how they can get better.

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This article originally appeared on SmartBlog on Leadership.

Photo: SmartBlog on Leadership

The Most Terrifying Job Interview Question of All

InterviewWe’ve all been there, on one side of the desk or the other, possibly both. You’re making the turn on the final few minutes of a later stage job interview. You’ve covered background, work history, strengths, interests, team compatibility, maybe even a few unnecessary logic problems tossed in so the interviewer can show you how clever he or she is. You’ve answered the all too predictable homestretch inquiry: Where do you see yourself in five years? You’ve even managed to answer it well, mixing ambition, humility, and a tiny dose of self-effacing humor. And then it comes, that one ugly question you thought surely the interviewer had forgotten to ask, but you knew was loaded deep in the cannon ready to be fired:

What would you consider some of your areas for improvement?

Gasp! There it is, unmistakable in its clarity, a full-blown cliché in its entrance, unforgiving in its existential presence. You must answer. Let’s play it out three ways that could happen and see what might land.

Scenario 1: I’m Okay, You’re a Meddling Schmoe

Interviewer: Are there any areas of personal development you’d like to improve on in your next position?

Applicant: Uh, no, not really.

Interviewer: None at all? Surely there is something you’d like to do better at this job than you demonstrated at another job.

Applicant: No, can’t say there is. Maybe when I was younger there were some issues, but I think I’ve long since put those to bed.

Interviewer: I’m curious, tell me about some of those areas that needed polish when you were younger.

Applicant: To tell you the truth, I can’t much remember. That was a long time ago, before I figured things out.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant loses on the counts of defensiveness, dishonestly, being unprepared, and shutting down the conversation. Interviewer also loses, may have eliminated a decent candidate from the queue by being strident and intrusive.

Scenario 2: I’m Not Okay, You Busted Me in Open Court

Interviewer: You really do seem well-qualified and a potentially excellent fit for this position. I was wondering, are there any areas of improvement you want to focus on that we haven’t covered that might be worth discussing?

Applicant: Well, to be honest, I don’t suffer fools all that well. When certain people on a team aren’t on their game, I can he a little harsh in my criticism.

Interviewer: That’s interesting. So by harsh, you try to rally those around you to give their all and make sure the team’s output is always at its best?

Applicant: I wish that were the case. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that when someone is an idiot, there isn’t much anyone on a team can do to get them to perform. The simple truth is, a team needs to weed out its weakest players. I know I’m at the top of my game, so I only want to play with people at the top of their games. You said your company was committed to excellence. We’re fully aligned there. I will do all I can to make excellence happen, but that can get messy, you know?

Interviewer: Right, so what I think I hear you saying is you’d like to focus a little in the coming years on tolerance and more productive ways of motivating your colleagues.

Applicant: Yeah, I’ve tried that, but it doesn’t work. And come on, tolerance? Do you want people who tolerate idiots on your payroll along with the idiots? That’s an expensive proposition.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant loses on the counts of self-centered obsession, lack of tact, lack of diplomacy, and potential sociopathic narcissism. Interviewer wins on the count of revelation, transparency, and avoidance of dozens of team sit-downs in search of collegiality.

Scenario 3: I Want to Grow, Together We Can Get to New Heights

Interviewer: I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you today. One question that comes up sometimes in interviews—and I know this can be a little awkward—but are there any growth areas in your career where you might want to advance from good to great in your next position?

Applicant: If you’re asking are there any areas where I can improve, the answer is most certainly yes. How could it be otherwise? Every job we tackle is an opportunity, and part of that opportunity is the chance to get better at what we do. For me, it’s about carving out the time to dissect the prior day’s work before continuing with the next day’s work, no matter how fast things are moving.

Interviewer: Are you saying that in the past you have been too spontaneous, too impulsive around getting more done before you have nailed down the details of what already has been accomplished?

Applicant: That’s an interesting way of phrasing it. I don’t think I have ever thought about it that way. No, that doesn’t really sound like me. But teams in high performance environments tend to feed off each other’s energy, and sometimes the tiniest details that didn’t seem to matter the day before really do open or close doors to the next phase of development. What I’d like to be able to do is take a leadership role in planning each day’s work more carefully, rather than just jumping in and getting stuff done because we’re on a deadline.

Interviewer: Around here we are always on deadlines. Do you think you’ll be able to get your teammates on board to devote the extra thought cycles to strategy before action?

Applicant: Actually I do, because I come to you with many examples from my past work where forging ahead without reflection cost us time instead of creating it. I think as I work on this myself, others will see the value, and together all our work will rise to a higher level.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant wins on proposing a clearly valuable area of self-improvement that isn’t so much a confession as it is a rallying cry for shared experience in an improved workplace. Interviewer wins because an honest relationship has been established where probing does not lead to indictment, but authenticity and leadership by example.

Can a Minus Be a Plus?

If a minus can’t be a plus, why would an interviewer ask the question? That’s the whole point of asking an applicant if they have any self-identified areas for improvement. In Scenario 1, the Applicant bats away the question, the Interviewer is immediately suspicious, and no relationship can be established. In Scenario 2, the Applicant is unnecessarily candid, to the point of celebrating a shortcoming rather than addressing it, leaving the Interviewer permanently fearful and unable to bridge to a relationship. In Scenario 3, the Applicant is ready for the question, hungry to embrace personal challenge as real opportunity, and the Interviewer’s imagination can blossom to a broadening relationship that benefits the entire organization.

Two key takeaways: First, once you’re past competency, an interview is about character and compatibility—in other words, forming a relationship. If you don’t use the interview to explore the underpinnings of a relationship such that the values of a candidate align with the values of a company, a real fit isn’t going to be there. Second, if you know an interview question has a 75% or better chance of being asked, don’t wait until the question is asked to form an answer, and don’t become defensive because you don’t like the question. Thoughtfulness and preparation are your best friends before you walk into a room. You’re going to get asked these things, so please think about them in advance and always answer with authority as well as authenticity.

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This article originally appeared on Beyond.com