Bring game day to your work

Pre-game focus and energy. Image from LA Times

There’s nothing like getting up for a big game. This is true as a fan, but even better as a player or coach.  Game Day is a source of inspirational and motivational energy you can tap into for super powers and unbridled passion.  Things happen on Game Day that you never thought were possible in practice. Players who prepare carefully and focus their energy on an upcoming game tend to have a sharper physical, mental and emotional state than they do on a practice or rest day.

This is all true for regular working folks too.  People who put a red circle on the calendar around events like a proposal meeting, or a sales call, or a product launch, and prepare for those events as a Big Game, show up far more ready to do their best than those who see every day as the same old grind.

The key here is to make sure everyone around you knows about your upcoming Big Game and are involved in getting you prepared, building enthusiasm, and holding you accountable for your results. Wouldn’t it be great if people working around you cheered and gave you high fives when you walked into the office on Game Day?  And what if people stuck microphones in your face afterwards for a quick download on how the game went?  Now that’s effective performance management!

There is more risk involved in this transparency (that’s the whole point). If nobody else knows about your Big Game, how will they cheer you on?  More importantly, if nobody else knows about your game, you can simply write it off as “no big deal” if you don’t win. If there’s no risk, you won’t have the same intensity and focus.

Winning: Very few teams win every game.  Even Michael Phelps doesn’t win every race.  But every team or individual athlete competing in an elite category is expecting to win every time. The desire to win and keeping track of your record are essential elements of high performance. If you don’t keep score and you don’t know your W-L record, you won’t achieve the intensity and focus of Game Day.

Losing: I saw a great interview with USC Quarterback Matt Barkley after they lost their second game in a row in the last second of the game. This kind of loss can devastate a team and ruin their season. Or, it can be seen as a step in the process of getting better. His response was to compare the losses to a dropped pass or getting tackled. It’s part of the game, and you have to overcome adversity and use each experience to grow stronger and get better.

Pacing: I had a game day experience putting on a big event at Hulu this week, and it was emotionally and physically draining for our team. I remember driving to work that day with U2, Led Zeppelin, and The Who blasting the whole way in. You can’t get pumped like this every day, it’s got to come in cycles and leave room for recovery.  The Olympics come every four years… the NBA and NHL play over 80 games in their seasons. You have to design a game strategy that fits your business and keeps you at your best. But beware, there is no off-season!

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Ambiguity kills feedback

I hear from lots of people that it’s hard to get feedback. The top five reasons I’ve gathered:

  1. They don’t have time
  2. They don’t want to hurt my feelings
  3. They weren’t paying close enough attention to give me details
  4. They’re afraid to be seen as a critic (or bitchy) (or mean)
  5. They don’t respond to my request (usually by email)

Sound familiar?  Seems right to me… why would anyone want to give you feedback with all of those great excuses?  The risks involved for people to help are pretty big because most requests for feedback involve a great deal of ambiguity.   Ambiguity means that the potential downsides to getting involved with you outweigh the benefits of helping you, and their social radar starts going off, “avoid, avoid, avoid!”

People are more likely to give you feedback if you remove ambiguity from the situation by doing two things:

1. Share your intentions. This is about being transparent, but also about being super clear.  For more on this distinction, check out John Maeda’s post at Harvardbusiness.org. What were you hoping to accomplish in the action you are asking about?  Say something like, “I was hoping to get everybody on board for this project today.  Do you think I was successful?  What worked?  What didn’t?”  This gives your feedback partner an invitation and a point of focus for a useful response. Sharing your intentions allows them to be short and sweet, and dispels fears of being out of tune with your needs, or thinking too hard, or getting bogged down in a long emotional debrief.

photo by Andreas Sundgren on Flickr

photo by Andreas Sundgren on Flickr

2. Ask for help, but be specific.  Being seen as a helpful person is good for someone’s reputation.  But according to social proof theory, people are more likely to respond if you ask them individually, in a specific way.  Otherwise, they will wait and see if someone else will give help, leaving you with no help.  Studies show that people will walk by a seriously injured person on the street simply because others are walking past him.  The ambiguity of the situation stuns them into no response.

“Is he a homeless man sleeping?”  “Is this man dead?”  “Is this man injured?” (I really can’t get involved with this!)

When the injured person breaks the pattern by pointing to a specific passer-by and saying something like, “Hey you, my leg is broken, can you call 911?”  The response rate is above 90%.  Again the source of confusion for potential helpers and their lack of response is ambiguity.  When there is not a clear call for help, people will general take cues from others around them before risking a response.  When nobody is helping, nobody will help.

Use these two tips together and you make it much easier for someone else to give you valuable feedback by removing ambiguity from the situation.

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Accurate Self Awareness

I spend a lot of time talking to people about getting good feedback.  Usually, they’ve picked up somehow that everything is not going along as well as they’d like.  It could be a friend saying, “you should go talk with so-and-so, I think you two are not on the same page.”  Or, maybe it’s a boss telling you to shape up in a particular area.  Or, maybe you’ve noticed nobody will sit next to you in the cafeteria.

Humans are social animals
The human desire to achieve is outdone only by the human desire to fit in, so these kind of scenarios are usually unsettling at the core of your emotional well-being.  The “reptilian brain stem” portion of your brain starts sending signals to your body that you are in danger and you feel stress and anxiety.

Downward spiral

Downward spiral

Avoid the downward spiral
Over time, this is really bad for your body if you don’t deal with it. In the short term, this is really bad for your job because a lot of your energy is tied up in worry, defensiveness, etc.   Lots of people begin to “ping” those around them to see if this perceived threat is real.  Unfortunately, if this is not done well it feeds the problem and the spiral takes you down and then out to the market for a new job.

Tips for getting an accurate self assessment:

1. Ask better questions. A generic “how am I doing?” question usually leads to a neutral, safe response like, “fine.”  This gives you a false impression and accelerates the negative spiral by reinforcing your positive self image in the face of some legitimate concerns.  Instead of the generic, open-ended approach, ask a specific question about a specific concern you have.   See my “that’s a good question” post for some tips on this.

2. Ask the right people. In a panic situation, we tend to go to our closest allies for guidance and support.  But you need to build perspective when you are unsure, so extend your reach and ask some people you know will be more critical (helpful) and less inclined to protect you.  Having your feedback biased to your closer colleagues means your awareness is biased too.

3. Reduce risk for truthful input. Recognize that most people are not going to tell you their full critical opinion

Scaredy Cats

Scaredy Cats

because it is “risky” to do so.  They may not want to hurt your feelings, may feel their opinion is not important, may believe it’s not their place to be critical of you, or be afraid that they’ll get a reputation for being harsh or unforgiving.  Try these two ways to get the full story from others:

  • Build trust and be persistent.  Think of this like coaxing a cat out from under the bed.  Here kitty, kitty…
  • Provide an anonymous channel to you.  You can ask a friend to gather some input for you, or you can use a tool like Rypple to do it yourself.

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That's a good question!

I’ve been playing with feedback again lately, and I am currently fascinated with the response people have when asked a good question.  They usually smile!

Smile!Interestingly, research on influence shows that having a smile on your face makes you more influential and more successful in relationships (Womack, Hertenstein).  And, importantly, authentic smiles are more effective than fake ones.  So check this out:  I can help you influence me if my question makes you smile.  Just think of the therapy and training costs you can avoid!

So what kind of questions make people smile?  Often they get right to the heart of a matter and disarm someone who is feeling defensive, causing them to relax, and smile in relief.  Other times, they reveal something new to the person being asked, so the discovery makes them smile in delight.

Either way, I think that asking a good question makes it easier for someone to answer and they appreciate the help.

I think the best questions, start with a small disclosure or observation, showing that you’ve noticed something about the other person or need their help with something.

Here’s a few examples:

I noticed you seemed confused by my presentation.  Is there something I could have done better? (Disarming)

Did you know your input during the meeting really helped me? (Discovery)  How could I have gotten to that point more quickly?

I’m hoping to get a promotion soon. (Disclosure)  What should I be working on to increase my chances of getting it?

It probably helps if you smile while you ask your question.  Okay, everybody head to a mirror to see if you smile when you talk.  It works!

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