Accountability in conflict

A large part of my job is helping people to understand their part in conflict. Conflict at work can happen at any time and it’s easy to for it to become a big deal.

Usually, but not always, conflict situations at work take two people for them to become a conflict. It’s rare that conflict is down to one person only, and when it is that’s likely disciplinary or grievance territory. This post is about two-person conflict.

What’s your 1%?

Accountability is hard. It’s hard to reflect on a situation where, let’s be honest, you maybe haven’t been at your best, or you’ve found difficult, or was downright unfair. Understanding your part can be pretty painful and that’s why it’s such an important step. I find it helpful to approach it from an angle of “ok, it was 99% on this person, but what small thing did I contribute to this situation”. In reality, my part has never only been 1%, but framing it like this helps me to start being accountable. I do this with people I work with to – their part might be 1% and it might be 99%, it’s not about divvying up the blame, it’s about opening up a conversation.

Maybe the accountability in a situation is 50/50, maybe it’s 99/1. An important step in resolving conflict is being accountable for your part – even if it’s that 1% – and demonstrating that by showing ownership, ideally with an apology. For me, an apology is a demonstration of accountability and it goes a long way to rebuild a bridge.

How do you apologise?

The following are not apologies:
1. I’m sorry if you felt I was being unfair
2. I’m sorry if you thought I was annoyed
3. Basically anything that starts with “I’m sorry if”

Take out the “I’m sorry if” and you’re left with statements that put the blame on the other person, and don’t show any accountability.

Instead try:
1. I’m so sorry that I worded what I said badly and that it’s had an impact on you. It’s not OK that what I did made you feel like that
2. I’m sorry that my tone was off. I was feeling frustrated by the conversation, but it wasn’t OK that I expressed it like that.
3. I’m sorry I reacted so poorly when you gave me that feedback. I found it difficult to hear and I had a hard time processing it, so I lashed out.

All of the above suggestions work fine without an apology too, it just depends on your level of conflict and resulting pain:

1. Reflecting on this, I can see that I worded what I said badly and that it’s had an impact on you. It’s not OK that what I did made you feel like that.
2. In hindsight, my tone was off. I was feeling frustrated by the conversation, but it wasn’t OK that I expressed it like that.
3. I’ve realised that I reacted poorly when you gave me that feedback. I found it difficult to hear and I had a hard time processing it, so I lashed out.

Apologising doesn’t excuse behaviour

It’s important to understand that apologising for your part in conflict isn’t the same as accepting the other person’s behaviour. Problematic behaviour is problematic behaviour, and that’s dealt with by feedback. Sometimes you can give that person feedback directly, sometimes you’ll need help from your manager, their manager, or someone from HR.

On seniority

Remember that the more senior you are, the more you need to model the behaviours you want to see in your organisation. Sometimes that means being the first person to show accountability.

Accountability in conflict

Thoughts on leading during a pandemic

A few weeks ago, I was adjusting to leading during a global pandemic and got some advice from my coach. I wrote up a post after my session, which I shared with a number of my colleagues – all leaders in technology. I’ve been meaning to write this up into a more comprehensive post, but that hasn’t happened. I think a slightly tweaked version is enough though. Perfect is the enemy of good, and all that

We’re all doing difficult jobs in difficult times at the moment, and I wanted to share some thoughts I’ve had about just how tough some of our challenges are right now.

Overnight, our priorities as humans and also as employees have changed. We need to recognise that and adapt to it. It’s important that we understand the context in which we’re working in these unprecedented times.

My coach shared a quote with me that’s really illustrated that for me. I find it extremely motivating, but it’s OK if you find it a little terrifying.

In this moment, you don’t get a pass. Either you’re going to be a great leader or you’re not. There’s no business as usual and you can’t go back to how things were.

This is leadership in “expert” mode and it’s the kind of experience that can forge incredible, resilient leaders. It’s also an experience that can break us if we’re not resilient or don’t support each other. And resilience here is not just the ability to bounce back but also to have the optimism that you can come back. 

This is a really important time for us – as humans, as employees and as leaders. It’s critical that we face the challenges that we’re seeing with courage, compassion and optimism, while also taking care of ourselves and those around us. It’s a big ask so it’s important that we’re honest with ourselves about where we are and what we’re finding difficult. 

It’s also important to understand that we can hold two conflicting states at the same time: You can be a good leader in a crisis, and you can also be struggling to deal with the crisis. It’s OK to feel like this, many of us do. Acknowledge it at a minimum, embrace it if you can and talk about it. You might help someone else to understand their own conflict.

Remember that we make choices about what we do every day, and we can to choose to be great leaders. We can choose to lean in to hard stuff, choose to develop and grow, and to support those around us.

Thoughts on leading during a pandemic

Manager SLA

We all go through busy and quiet periods at work. As a manager and as an engineering director, there are times when I can provide a better service to to my people and there are times when I have to make some difficult decisions. Having a shared set of expectations here is critical. When you’re busy and have to make difficult prioritisation decisions, misalignments in expectations can quickly sour a relationship.

A couple of months ago, I shared my “service levels” with everyone I manage. We spoke about what support they were getting from me at the time, and what they could expect if things picked up. I got a really positive response, so thought it was worth sharing more widely.

I’m not all that pleased about the cold language, like “service level” and I hate calling people “individual contributors” but I found that fussing over the language was stopping me from sharing expectations.

I’ve scoped this to 1 to 1s. My original document covered what people can expect for performance reviews, but I think that warrants a more detailed post. As the engineering director for our Platform collective, I interact with most of the people who report to me on a day to day basis anyway, so it’s unlikely that they’ll only see me in 1 to 1s unless they work in a different part of the company.

Since sharing this, a number of people I work with have made a copy and amended it to share with the people they manage. I hope it’s helpful for some of you too!

A note on meeting times: I make heavy use of Google’s Speedy Meetings feature which shortens hour-long meetings to 50 minutes, and half hour meetings to 25 minutes. This gives us some contingency to run over if we need to, but it also gives me time to write notes, mentally prepare for the next meeting, or just have time to be a human being for a few minutes.

Manager service levels

I have 3 different service levels as a manager: level 1, level 2 and level 3.

Level 1 is standard, and it’s what is what people who report to me ideally experience most of the time.

Level 2 will happen occasionally and for no longer than 6 months if I pick up additional responsibilities.

Level 3 is for when things are exceptionally busy and will be time-bound to 3 months.

My commitments

  • We will agree the service level we’re working on based on both of our capacity
  • We can both change service levels. I may have capacity for Level 2, but you might have capacity for Level 3.
  • I will listen to and act on concerns with changes, whether that’s by finding you extra support or by dropping something else
  • Levels 2 and 3 will be time bound as opposed to a permanent change to our relationship
  • I will always be available for urgent support

Different people may be on different service levels depending on their needs and preferences.

I’ve broken this up by the two different types of people I manage – Individual Contributors (ICs) and Managers.

Level 1 (standard) 😄

This should be what you experience most of the time. Things may change from time to time – for example, if you’re on weekly 1 to 1s and one of us is sick or has a day off then we won’t reschedule that meeting unless it’s urgent.

Individual contributor

  • 1 to 1s are fortnightly for 50 mins 
  • While onboarding: 1 to 1s are weekly, 50 minutes

Manager

  • 1 to 1s are weekly, 50 mins (whether onboarding or not). 
  • Managers can choose to have fortnightly 1 to 1s for 50 minutes if their schedules don’t support weekly.

Level 2 😬

We agree to cover basics and optimise for more frequent but shorter interactions. This shouldn’t continue for more than 6 months.

Individual contributor

  • 1 to 1s are fortnightly for 25 mins
  • While onboarding: 1 to 1s are weekly for 25 minutes

Manager

  • 1 to 1s are fortnightly for 50 mins
  • While onboarding: 1 to 1s are weekly for 25 minutes

Level 3 🔥

We agree to cover basics infrequently. We’ll have a standing monthly 1 to 1, and an additional 1 to 1 can be scheduled if it’s urgent. I will work with you to identify other people who can support you in this period.

This shouldn’t continue for more than 3 months.

Individual contributor

  • 1 to 1s are monthly for 50 mins

Manager

  • 1 to 1s are monthly, 50 mins,
  • While onboarding: 1 to 1s are weekly for 25 minutes

Manager SLA

I have high-functioning anxiety

In which I over-share in the hope that it can help even one person

Disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional and I barely understand my own mental health. I’m sharing my own experiences and my own conclusions. Also, “high-functioning anxiety” is not a recognised diagnosis but that doesn’t make the experience any less real. If this structure helps you to understand it, then great. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s OK too.

A few years ago, I stumbled on an article that described high functioning anxiety and I felt like I finally had the vocabulary to describe what I felt every, single day. A couple of years before that, I’d experienced burnout and in hindsight I realise that was the first time I’d noticed anxiety, but not named it in any way that resonated with me.

I won’t try to explain high functioning anxiety in general, The Mighty’s post does that far better than I would. If you’re interested in learning more I’ve linked a few more articles below too. For me, high-functioning anxiety feels like a constant gnaw to be better, do better, feel better, look better, perform better, and that nothing is good enough unless it’s perfect. And then I can’t assess when something is “perfect” (because it doesn’t exist), so hello anxiety spiral.

It’s a tricky balance because anxiety has helped me and high-functioning anxiety has some positive characteristics. It’s been what’s driven me to a pretty successful career and I’m often praised for it, which creates a particularly unhealthy reward system.

Those positive characteristics are swiftly followed up by a lot of negative ones. For me, I’m sometimes criticised for being “too structured” which can be particularly hard to hear, given that I really don’t want to be like this and I annoy myself most of the time. I also have a competitive hobby which I would like to do at a national level. High-functioning anxiety gives me the drive I need to pursue this, but it’s also the thing that stops me from compassionately examining my progress and areas to improve.

When I learned about high-functioning anxiety in 2016, I found that once I brought awareness to how anxiety affected me, I slowly got a bit more control and space and over time I forgot that it was a thing. And then, of course, it all crept back. Slowly, and over a few years, until I described myself as “getting by on nervous energy and caffeine” last week, and I realised that wasn’t ok.

The extent to which I’d blocked out all of what I learned four years ago has shocked me. I had no idea how to describe how I’ve been feeling recently. I asked around about what to do if your brain constantly craves more information and more to do, completely forgetting that I know why that happens and what to do. I spent hours on Google, trying to find the language I needed to figure my brain out. Finally, I did a Headspace meditation called “stressed out”. I’d been avoiding that particular session because I don’t feel stressed out and stress doesn’t usually bother me, it just makes me focus more, but I felt desperate and I did it. In that session, the phrase “busy mind” came up and that, combined with the micron of mental space I gained from taking 10 minutes to look after my mind, helped me to recall what I’ve learned in the past about high-functioning anxiety.

When I revisited that article yesterday, I was once again shocked by the extent to which it describes me. It’s mentally – and even physically – painful to read, but for me it’s necessary in order to get on top of it again. So I’m sharing it in case it helps anyone else.

If The Mighty’s article comes across as “the most pure, truthiest truth” (the actual words I used) you’ve ever read about yourself, please remember that you’re not alone.

First, we make the beast beautiful” apparently describes it in a wonderfully compassionate way (I’ve ordered the book, it hasn’t arrived yet):

“Planning a dinner party/holiday/walk in the park/ any kind of event in the next 365 days? [your friend with anxiety]’s phone will be charged, they’ll have remembered Oliver is gluten-free, they’ll have factored in dinner with your mum next month and your couples counselling appointment at 5pm.” – taken from Stylist: What is high-functioning anxiety

This isn’t making fun of the issue – believe me, feeling like this every day is no fun at all – but it makes it more relatable to me and to people close to me who want to understand more, and in a lighthearted way that doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the condition.

If this resonates with you then hi 👋I’m sorry you’re going through this – whether it’s as someone with high-functioning anxiety or as someone who supports another person with it – and I hope this helps you to find the space and words you need. Here are some more articles that explain what I’ve experienced with high-functioning anxiety and they might help.

Huffington Post: 10 Things Only People With High-Functioning Anxiety Will Understand

Bustle: 11 Signs You Might Have A High-Functioning Anxiety Disorder & Don’t Even Realize It

Headspace: What it’s like to have High-Functioning Anxiety

Verywell mind: The characteristics of high functioning anxiety

So, what can you do about it?
I have a Friendly Neighbourhood Mental Health professional who I have a good relationship with, and I know I can see them to help piece things back together if I need to. You might need one of those or a visit to your GP to get access to someone.

However, one thing that I do well is addressing things once I am aware of them, or have given them a name. For me, simply knowing that my anxiety is high at the moment gives me the words I need to manage it, and using Headspace helps too.

I’m also talking about it, where it makes sense. I’ve shared The Mighty’s article with my husband and we’ve spoken about the affect it has on us day to day. I won’t be telling everyone I see about it, but this post is here if anyone wants to learn more.

I have high-functioning anxiety

Giving feedback

I’m often asked by people how they can give someone else feedback. Whether it’s negative feedback that someone needs to improve, or positive feedback complementing someone on a positive action, I get asked this so often that I thought it was easier to post it.

So here it is. I’m no expert on feedback, and what’s below has worked for me. It might not work for you, and that’s ok.

Where to start

With all feedback, positive or negative, there are two ways that I usually use and recommend for giving feedback

1) Situation, Behaviour, Impact (SBI)

  • Describe the situation. For example: When we were in the planning meeting the other day
  • Describe the behaviour. For example: You were thoroughly prepared and were able to present your stories quickly and coherently
  • Describe the impact or affect: For example: This meant we could get consensus on your items and move along quickly. It helped to keep the meeting running smoothly

2) Action, Impact, Do (AID)

  • Describe the action the person took: In today’s planning meeting, your tickets weren’t in the correct state on the board
  • Describe the impact or affect that this action had: This meant that you had to spend time updating the tickets, which slowed the meeting down
  • Make a request for something they can do differently: Next time, please can you come to the meeting with your tickets up to date.

Things to avoid

1) Judgement

Try to state only the facts and remove judgement from your statements. For example, the feedback above could be reworded with judgement: “You weren’t prepared for today’s planning meeting. Next time, please come prepared and make sure your tickets are up to date.“ The judgement in this sentence is “you weren’t prepared” – you’d be making an assumption which may not be true. Stick to the facts only

2) Hyperbole

“Your work is always excellent” This might be nice to hear, but doesn’t contain any information for the person. Think about what they’ve done that make them seem “excellent”. Try to be specific, for example “your code is high quality, great work” or “You were so helpful when you facilitated that conversation and it really helped us to get consensus”

3) Taking too long

This is especially important for criticism or negative feedback. It should happen as soon as possible, but ideally privately.

4) Not taking ownership

Say “I”. “I noticed”, “I felt”, “I saw”. This means you’re taking ownership of the feedback and the person you’ve giving feedback to can have a meaningful conversation about it.

5) Being vague

Before you give feedback, spend some time prepping and understand exactly what it is you’re telling someone. If someone has given you feedback as a manager and you want to pass it on, make sure you are absolutely clear about what you’re hearing and what you’re going to say. Don’t make people guess what you’re saying, and don’t make them investigate to find out more.

Giving feedback

It’s like technical debt, but for my health

I thrive on stress. I am at my best in a crisis where things need to be fixed quickly. I get a lot of value out of this: what I do often has a strong positive impact, and usually benefits from being “so much better than it was before”. This is immensely satisfying and so I keep doing it. See a problem, fix the problem, move on. I’m a fixer. This is my job. I love my job.

Except that when I’m operating at capacity, I have no space to manage changes to my equilibrium. People who know me will know that I get every cold that’s going around and that it takes me twice as long as anyone else to recover. I love my job so much that I start working too soon after being unwell, never giving myself time to recover. I break the rules that I set for other people: don’t work if you’re sick. I return to work and expect to be high performing, ignoring all the signals that my body is giving me. I never recover.

And so I find myself in a situation that is incredibly difficult to think or talk about: I love my job so much that I’ve made myself chronically ill.

My symbiotic relationship with stress has turned sour. I have a secondary infection from a cold that I can’t shake. I feel like I can’t cope with simple conversations or interactions. I take every piece of feedback personally rather than inspecting it objectively. I react, rather than act. I sob in meeting rooms. The stress and ongoing illness make everything feel like it’s too much. Everything is too hard, too much.

I’ve made myself ill. I’ve broken something and now I need to fix it, so I’m calling time-out for a while, until I’m better.

I’m a fixer. It’s time to fix me.

It’s like technical debt, but for my health

Preparing for a puppy

So, you want to get a puppy. A tiny little doggy with soft eyes and floppy ears and little rolls of puppy fat and a whole lot of skin to grow in to. Everyone has told you that puppies are hard work, you know they’re hard work because you’ve read everything you can find and you’re totally prepared for this.

NO, YOU ARE NOT. Nothing can possibly prepare you for the tiny, chewy, poopy, sheddy, barky whirlwind that you’re about to invite into your home for the next 15 years.

Here’s some stuff you can do to prepare:

1) Teething: get a saw and head to your skirting boards. Lop off 3 – 5cm bits of the skirting boards, particularly the pointy bits on the corners. Ensure you make as much mess as possible and try not to leave a smooth surface that you can easily paint over. When you’re done, take a fork and stab around the area. Make sure you do the same to any other bits of wooden furniture in the house – bookshelves, sideboards and cabinets are all good places to start. You have now experienced the first couple of days of teething.

2) Tantrums: puppies have tantrums when they’re overtired and it’s easy to let them get overtired, especially in the first few weeks while you’re getting used to each other. To prepare for this, have a look on YouTube and find a complication of orcs feeding on pigs and seagulls. Don’t worry, you don’t have to watch it. Play it as loud as you possibly can, preferably through a house-wide Sonos system, for roughly 30 minutes at least twice a day.

3) Shredding: shredding is the best game ever and you can play it too! Find a corner of your carpet and gently peel it up. Take a pair of scissors and snip off a large part of the underlayer. Cut some fronds into the carpet and then blitz the underlayer in a blender for a minute. For extra credit, throw in a pair of your pants and a sock. Now, scatter the mixture around the carpet. See, loads of fun! Also, set up a shredder under your postbox. When a letter comes in, run it through the shredder. Then, pick out the pieces and try to glue them back together so you can read the letter.

4) Digging and general garden stuff: firstly just go ahead and spray weed killer on your lawn in a rough polka dot pattern. Next, get a large serving spoon and start digging a hole with it in your favourite flower bed. Make sure you spread the soil unevenly around the garden, preferably on parts of the lawn you haven’t just sprayed with weed killer. For good measure, bury a dried pig’s ear and water it well. In a week, dig it up and place it in the sofa. Be sure to spread soil into the sofa too.

Despite all of this though, your tiny, poopy, shreddy puppy will bring you endless hours of fun (when they’re not making you cry) and who can resist those eyes anyway?

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Preparing for a puppy