Do you Chicken out on Feedback?

'I'm not a chicken. Now, excuse me while I cross the road...'

“Piglet”, said Rabbit, taking out a pencil, and licking the end of it, “you haven’t any pluck”

“It is hard to be brave,” said Piglet, sniffing slightly, “when you’re only a very small animal”

If I’d known the wealth of management information I was getting from reading those books to the kids, I might have been a better dad! Anyway, back to the present.

This week’s topic is about feedback, specifically the issue of managerial courage – the ‘will I take it on’ question. Sometimes I bump into macho managers who’ve chosen Genghis Khan as their role model. They tear strips off staff, without feeling the need to be loved or make any new friends. But, far more often, managers shy away from giving feedback, particularly where the topic is ‘delicate’. And it doesn’t get any more delicate than personal hygiene. Buckle in tight for this one!

Body Odour: Over the past 20 years, I’ve had to confront the BO issue four times (3 men, I woman). On the ‘Richter Scale of Awfulness’ – BO scores right at the top end. There is no way to have a positive discussion about this, at least in the short-term (the people affected might eventually thank you for having the guts to let them know, but don’t bank on it). BO is hardly a new problem. When I was growing up in Cabra one local guy had a legendary problem with this; the standing joke was that he’d ‘taken a shower and found a vest under the dirt’.

First Case: My first (and worst) case in business concerned an office-based employee who had a brutal BO problem. To make matters worse, he was a lone male working in a team of females – definitely not a case of ‘Blessed art thou amongst women’. It drove the women absolutely nuts. They initially ‘confronted’ the issue by talking about shower gels and anti-perspirants during every single tea break (“I find the roll-ons brilliant. 48-hour protection. Just amazing!”). The target of this advertising campaign interpreted all of this as ‘women’s conversation’ – nothing whatsoever to do with him. A new tactic had to be found. To up the ante, they moved onto discussing daily showers. One of the team had recently built an extension on her house and started raving about Mira power showers and the benefits of ‘getting every day off to a fresh start’. All the women agreed wholeheartedly and they went on and on and on and on about it. The bloke at the centre of this thought they’d completely lost the plot and just wanted to get the conversation back to TV dramas and sports. He couldn’t make head nor tails of this newfound interest in personal care products or the more recent ‘shower fetish’. Eventually, the women decided enough was enough and complained (in writing) to the section manager. A deputation brought the letter to her office and they informed the manager that “Something has to be done about this”, neatly throwing the problem over the wall. She called me.

Organization Structure: I had been working with the company on an organization re-structuring project. When the section manager spoke to me about the BO problem and the staff letter, she was quite proud of the fact that she’d already come up with a tentative solution, a way to ‘integrate the two separate issues into one neat package’. I was intrigued. This particular business generated a lot of archive materials that were ‘housed’ in the attic area of this old building. Running along the outside of the building was a fire escape, metal steps that led from the attic area all the way to the ground (can you see where this is going?). The manager wanted me to ‘recommend’ (as part of the restructuring project) promoting the guy to ‘Archives Manager’ and relocating him into the attic – suggesting that there were a couple of upsides i.e. he “would have his own separate entrance” and could “come and go as he pleases”. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up!

Confront It: I refused, by suggesting to the manager that maybe we could turn it into a musical, with some really original title like ‘The Hunchback of Dublin 4’. She was chickening out of her role and I wouldn’t collude (I know, I know, consultants and ethics in the same paragraph – it’s all quite confusing). She relented and I coached her through the actual conversation with the guy. Somewhat reluctantly, she took on the challenge of dealing with this directly.

Now, I’m all for happy endings, particularly where I can look like a hero. Unfortunately the individual concerned refused to accept or deal with the problem and eventually (about 4 months later) he was fired. He may not have been familiar with the Robbie Burns quote: “O would some power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us” (we could all do with a spoonful of that). It’s not always possible to change people’s behaviour and this was a good example of the old GE motto in action: ‘If you can’t change the people, change the people’. In the other 3 cases mentioned, the body odour problem literally disappeared overnight as soon as the concerns were brought to the attention of the staff. The Ballsbridge example was, thankfully,  unusual.

Bottom Line: When you confront issues, they are often less painful than you think they are going to be. As Julia Woodruff reminded us: “Out of the strain of the doing, into the peace of the done”. You are being paid to manage. And, not just the good stuff. Don’t chicken out on your job.

Paul Mooney

PS Non PC Joke of the Week (look away now if you’re sensitive).

A middle-aged guy is in the gym, sweating hard on the treadmill, trying to lose the belly. A beautiful young woman gets on the adjacent treadmill and starts to run alongside him. He towels off and goes over to the gym attendant asking: “What machine should I use to really impress that woman in the pink leotard?” The attendant looks at him and looks and her and replies: “I’d say your best bet is to try the ATM in the lobby”.

Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact me paul@tandemconsulting.ie and we’ll add them to the mailing list.

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About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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