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Who Is the Problem and Who Needs to Change?

July 23, 2014

Giving (and Getting!) Better Feedback with a Systems Lens

All serious change efforts require some discussion of how we’re doing now and how we can improve. That’s why it’s so important to be skilled at giving and receiving feedback. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

Let’s take this hypothetical example:

Amelia is a dining supervisor at a nursing home that has just adopted a “fine dining” program. She is very excited about the program, but it has put her in direct conflict with CNA Pauleen, who is now expected to be a dining host at lunch time.

Amelia has received three complaints from residents about how long they have to wait to be served. After each complaint, Amelia has reminded the dining hosts about the importance of serving lunch in a timely and efficient manner. This approach hasn’t worked with Pauleen. If anything, she’s responded by becoming less efficient.

Amelia decides to give Pauleen feedback, along with what she thinks is some helpful advice:

“You’re too slow. Why don’t you try spending less time talking to the residents and more time focused on the task?” 

“I’m not the problem here,” Pauleen snaps back. “Don’t you know that the residents are always complaining about you? You’re in such a hurry that you don’t even notice them. And anyway, you’re not my supervisor.”

Amelia and Pauleen have fallen into one of the most common — and most destructive — feedback traps. They have gotten stuck in a debate about who is the problem and who needs to change.

Amelia would clearly benefit from taking PHI Coaching Supervision® training. She would also benefit from the insights in the new book, Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Shelia Heen. Stone and Heen recommend taking a step back in these situations to take what they call a “systems perspective.” In fact, they recommend taking three steps back.

First Step Back: The “You + Me” System

Any two people who are in a relationship with each other have in effect formed a “system.” This means that they have formed a way of relating to each other and impacting each other — a unique “you + me” dynamic. When two people experience conflict with each other, they can often gain some perspective by taking a step back to see how their “you + me” dynamic might be contributing.

Amelia and Pauleen have a “you + me” dynamic that works like this:

Amelia values being efficient, and this is also her great strength. Pauleen’s great strength is connecting with the residents, and this is also what she values most about her work.

Because of who Amelia is as a person, she can’t help but notice when lunch is behind schedule. Residents who care about this naturally go to her with complaints because they know she’ll listen. She responds by trying to hurry the team through their tasks as quickly as possible.  

Because of who Pauleen is as a person, she can’t help but notice the negative impact that Amelia’s actions have on the team’s ability to connect with the residents during meal service. Residents who care about this naturally go to her with complaints because they know she’ll listen. She responds by taking a little extra time with them.

Amelia notices Pauleen taking a little extra time, and this raises her anxiety level. She can’t help but notice that Pauleen’s actions cause the team to fall even further behind.

The “Amelia + Pauleen” system has produced a pattern of behavior between them that is cyclical. If they were able to take a step back to see this, they would be in a much better position to come up with an effective solution to the problem at hand.

Second Step Back: The “Role” System

Just as the clash between two people’s personalities can put them in conflict with each other, so can the clash between two people’s roles. In fact, sometimes people’s organizational roles will almost inevitably lead them to experience conflict with each other. For example, Stone and Heen note that conflict often occurs between “Sales and Legal, surgeons and anesthesiologists, architects and engineers, HR and everybody.”

In other cases, it’s role confusion that contributes to conflict. For example:

Pauleen has always been told that the nurse is her supervisor — not Amelia. She therefore bristles when Amelia gives her directives. She sees Amelia as “bossy and controlling.”

Amelia knows that she has responsibility for the dining program. While she is not technically the supervisor of all of the dining hosts, she does believe they are under her functional supervision during meal service. She therefore bristles when Pauleen resists her directives. She sees Pauleen as “insubordinate.”

Clearly, role confusion is contributing to the conflict between Pauleen and Amelia. But unless they take two steps back, they will not be able to see this.

Third Step Back: The “Big Picture” System

This third and final step back involves a scan of all of the other parts of the system that might be contributing to the conflict. This “big picture” perspective can include the physical environment, timing and decision-making, policies and processes, and workaround coping strategies, as well as the behavior of other individuals.

If Amelia and Pauleen were to take this third step back, here’s what they might notice:

Leadership has made it clear that the success of the new dining program is a priority, but they haven’t really articulated what success would look like. Amelia and Pauleen have therefore each made their own assumptions: Amelia assumes greater efficiency is the goal, and Pauleen assumes it’s creating a more personable atmosphere.

In addition, there aren’t always enough staff members available to serve residents at lunch time. The plan had been for staff volunteers to assist the dining hosts with feeding residents during their own lunch breaks, but the person in charge of setting up this volunteer system unexpectedly resigned. Sometimes volunteers show up, and sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, Amelia and the dining hosts are left scrambling.

Why a Systems Lens Helps

Stone and Heen note that taking a systems approach to feedback has the following benefits:

  • It’s more accurate because it takes in relevant data from multiple perspectives;
  • It’s less judgmental because it gets away from scapegoating individuals for problems that are caused by multiple, inter-related factors;
  • It enhances accountability because it encourages each part of the system to acknowledge its contribution; and
  • It helps us avoid “fixes that fail” because it gives us much more of the data we need to come up with lasting solutions.

— by Renya Larson, PHI Organizatioal Change Consultant

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