Friday evening, I attended an event after work. There wasn’t time to eat dinner, so I grabbed a protein bar and nibbled as I waited for my friends to show up.
I wandered around the exhibition area, smiled and spoke to a few friendly booth hosts.
And, I ran into a work colleague. I was happy to see her and my smile showed it. We didn’t know the other had planned to attend.
Eventually, the main program got ready to start. Friends were late in their traverse from the West coast of Florida, so I went in.
The 3500 seat room was packed. I meandered to the front and worked my way towards the back. Every stranger with a seat next to them got a big smile from me and a polite inquiry about whether the seat was taken.
I found a spot in the middle of the row, and (with a smile) apologized to each person I squeezed by.
A friendly woman welcomed me when I sat down and we chatted in the few final moments before the program began.
When the event wrapped, I went to the ladies room and happened to look in the mirror.
I was horrified. Then embarrassed.
I had a giant chunk of something that resembled a blueberry in my front teeth.
The only thing I’d eaten was a protein bar so I don’t know from where it materialized. But, there it was plain as day.
And there it had been, for every broad, welcoming smile I’d given at least 20 strangers. Five of whom I’d had a conversation with and all of whom could have told me.
Why didn’t anyone tell me?
This story plays out every day in our professional and personal lives. In the workplace, the ‘blueberry in our teeth’ is something we are doing or saying (or not doing or saying) that it would be helpful to know about. In fact, knowing about our ‘blueberries’ would save us a lot of embarrassment.
Yet, who is going to tell us?
The fact is, a lot of people see our blueberries. But, saying something to us feels awkward. They aren’t sure if we will be embarrassed about the blueberry when they point it out, and they figure that someone else will eventually tell us…or maybe the blueberry will just gradually go away. But, they’re really saving themselves from feeling awkward about bringing it up. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott does a beautiful job explaining that it’s because we care for our colleagues and our friends that we must tell them about their blueberries.
Jonathan Fields shared in this podcast that he intentionally builds a coalition of five different types of people (starts at minute 14):
- Parallel Playmates: These are the people in your industry or line of work. They are able to empathize, share resources and share your passions.
- Mentors/Teachers/Guides: This group has achieved what you want to achieve or have reached a certain level of status or wisdom and they are willing to share it with you so you can get to where you want to be with less failure.
- Champions: These people will happily point out your blueberries and push you to be better. They will be honest in the best way. They’ll play the devil’s advocate and ask you tough questions. “They are the people who help you rise”
- Accountability Partners: This group will make sure we stick to our commitments and they won’t let us off easy.
- Community: We feel we can be ourselves with this group and show up just as we are.
Once we’ve built these groups, we then need to spend time with them, get vulnerable with them, and seek out the various perspectives that each offers.
Surround yourself with these five types of people to mitigate the risk that no one is telling you about that damn blueberry in your tooth.
And, you…you have a role in this too. Make the world a better place by telling friends and colleagues when they can make a little adjustment that will save them embarrassment later. I promise, they’ll appreciate it.
Great perspective, Amy! I love the blueberry story too. You embody the elements that make people feel comfortable speaking their truth.
I think we often hesitate giving feedback because the discomfort we feel is we don’t want to hurt or embarrass the other person. Also, not everyone cares to hear feedback even if our motives are sincere.
Any comment on that?
Thanks for the thought provoking post!
Such a great insight, Wendy. (Sorry for the delay, by the way!).
This post has led to so many great conversations with blog readers who I get to see in my workplace. One interesting trend has emerged — we are in control (more than we think) of the volume of feedback we get. When we offer others direct, respectful feedback, they feel more comfortable giving these gifts to us.
In Radical Candor, Kim Scott makes the point that feedback is best delivered and received when we’ve established the fact that we truly care about someone. And, it is BECAUSE we care that we are compelled to tell them what we see.
In a recent HBR podcast in the series Women at Work, they make the point that we can avoid the feedback sandwich (positive, constructive, positive) yet still offer something that creates a safe space when we open: “Amy, I know you’re ambitious and want to continue to grow quickly. That’s why I want to share a couple of ideas for how you might run more effective meetings. Would you like to hear my ideas?” (you get the idea).
None of this is easy. Having good intentions (which comes naturally to you, my friend) is the most important part.