"But my boss."
It's the most common objection to doing better work, whether we’re the boss and need to root out problems to solve (which teams may not wish to vocalize), or we’re practitioners trying to communicate with our bosses. Today, we find a communication framework that anyone can use to have difficult conversations — all in the name of doing better work. This system, known as “non-violent communication,” helps people in the workplace do the seemingly unthinkable: turn potential conflict into something objective and simple, instead of emotional and messy.
You can listen to the story using the embedded player below, or read some of the key points beneath that. This episode features Max Yoder, cofounder/CEO of Lessonly. Both of us have written new books about the process of doing better work, not settling for the status quo. Call it “first principle thinking” if you will.
Together in this episode (summarized below the embedded player), we address concepts like finding conflict and communicating it, the structure for doing so, the issue with “but my boss” and the lack of control it creates, and the feelings of imposter syndrome that people of all levels often feel (and how to work around it).
Listen below, read the summary of the issues we face + frameworks to overcome them below that, or subscribe to my podcast, Unthinkable, in places like Apple Podcasts, Overcast, or Spotify. (I share stories about conventional thinking at work and the people who dare to question it.)
The Instant Excuse Plaguing Teams
For my work, I give keynote speeches and run a media and education company for marketers. Both of these things require me to raise my hand and say confidently, “I think there’s a better way to grow our careers and companies.” In every single instance of me doing this, however, there’s one pushback I dread from others: “That’s all well and good, Jay … but my boss.”
This comes in other flavors too: “but my team,” “but my client,” “but my…” insert whoever you like. When faced with the prospect of doing better work, even when that prospect is distilled into a helpful framework or practical approach, it’s tempting for teams to cling to the status quo. Often times, there’s one underlying issue: We don’t feel we’re in control.
This lack of control is often in our own heads, at least in part. (Increasingly, too, I think it’s the BIGGEST part.) Over the years, especially when stepping off stages following a talk, I always felt I had to prepare some kind of clever methodology or big, new idea for handling the “but [others we work with]” pushback. Now, I wonder:
How many of us are actually willing to sit down with others and have an honest conversation? How many of us push through conflict successfully, rather than avoid it entirely?
Part of the issue is we lack a system to communicate our way through these tougher chats. We might be the CEO or CMO, or we might be an intern. It doesn’t matter. As humans, we don’t enjoy conflict. We feel isolated, or lost in the details, or wind up too self-serving when speaking — rather than bringing others along with us, inspiring better work because we’re objective in our conversation. We’re here to solve a problem, not start a fight.
Whatever the case, we often avoid conflict not because we haven’t identified the need to push through something (like stale work), but because of the way conflict FEELS — to us, or to others.
In the book, Do Better Work, Max Yoder helps us work through a simple system called non-violent communication. This approach to conflict holds the keys we need to raise our hands internally and say, “There’s a better way. We can get better results. We can serve our audience and ourselves by doing better work.”
This all starts with managers and leaders assuming a different role than top-down instruction givers.
“It’s incumbent on the manager of a team to provoke those conversations,” Max says in the podcast episode. “What am I missing? What am I not seeing? A manager that comes at a situation with a command-and-control style, where they just tell people what they need them to do, that manager is just going to implicitly suggest that THEY know the answer, that they know the way. Humans will respond to that by following whatever they suggest they do without questioning it, and that’s incredibly dangerous because what you’re doing there, is you’re relying on one set of eyes.
“If you have six people on the team, you can multiply that by 6x, but the manager has to set the expectation and the tone that they are willing to be challenged, they want to be challenged, that they don’t necessarily know the way, that they’re making their best guess right now. Everybody’s making their best guess right now. All the time, we’re making our best guesses.
“Some managers hide that fact, because they believe that a leader should know the answer, should be able to dominate life and know the way. I believe leaders should LEARN the answer. If we set a tone that learning the answer is what is real, and what’s expected, then leaders can start asking questions, they can start being more unsure, they can admit what they don’t know. That starts this cascade of behaviors that are incredibly valuable. We start having conversations that we’d otherwise might not have. We start having teammates come to us and point out potential answers that we’d otherwise not have seen, or pointing out potential icebergs ahead that we’d otherwise not have seen, but that all starts with, How is the manager behaving?”
The process of non-violent communication is outlined in more detailed in the episode, but there are two supporting ideas I’d like to discuss in this article that we must first tackle in order to use non-violent communication in the first place. (They’re discussed in greater detail in the episode as well.)
Those supporting ideas are…
1. Using agreements to meet and exceed expectations.
2. Overcoming imposter syndrome.
1. Failure to meet expectations
Because we avoid conflict (which non-violent communication seeks to solve), we rarely know how to address a pattern when expectations weren’t met. Practitioners might massage the data or try to pretend everything is great, when in reality, voicing that there’s an issue might help the team work through it the next time, and thus improve. Meanwhile, leaders who avoid conflict with their peers, their own bosses, or yes, their teams, kick the can down the road, which lets problems fester or even compound.
In short, as Max says, a failure to communicate when we sense conflict prevents us from creating, in his words, “agreements.”
“I’d be frustrated with a teammate, but I’d never have set an agreement with how they should behave, and yet I was still frustrated that they were behaving a different way than I wanted them to.”
He didn’t realize that THAT was the true source of his frustration: He needed someone to do something, and he hadn’t communicated it to them.
“That’s pretty basic, right? But I was comfortable living with the expectations that they should do something and they should just KNOW, instead of going to them and saying, Hey, can we get an agreement that going forward, here’s how we do things? What do you think of that, and do you have any perspectives yourself that you can add in so we can make this something that’s mutually agreed upon?”
Nobody teaches us about getting agreements instead of merely having expectations (and perhaps telling others what those expectations are). Taking it one step further and cementing those agreements — which creates mutual consent and accountability, by the way — can make or break the team’s ability to exceed expectations over time.
“When I finally got agreements from the team, I was like, WOW! My whole world was broken open in a positive way.”
2. Overcoming imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome affects everyone … just not equally. When we feel we can’t, or shouldn’t, or won’t, because of who we are, we sense imposter syndrome creeping in.
Max believes this is about one outdated notion in business: that great leaders know the answers. They have the knowledge, share “the” way forward (regardless of how ridiculous and overly precise that sounds in today’s world of ever-present, increasingly fast change).
Instead of knowing answers, however, great leaders learn them. They ask great questions. They become consummate investigators. They may be informed by theory, but they care more about evidence. In finding it, they bring their teams along for the investigation. They know the answers lie somewhere within the group they lead or work with, within their customer base, and within their data. They look at their unique context and root out the knowledge they need — rather than profess to know it, in theory, up front.
Another way to think of this: You’re sharing what you’ve found, not what you know. When you share what you’ve FOUND, the emphasis is on the investigation. Who are YOU to propose a new path forward, a new idea, a new way? You’re someone who did the work to find stuff. If that stuff isn’t wholly correct (and it won’t be, ever), well, it’s not a comment on you. It’s a comment on what you’ve found.
Everyone is capable of finding stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO, an “influential” individual, a new employee, a part-time contractor — everyone is equally capable of going into the closet around the corner and searching for the shoes. THAT is what making better decisions requires: an investigation. Then, rather than present a summary of who you are and what you know, you’re merely presenting what you’ve found.
Imposter syndrome ignores that. It assumes the work is about who we are. We might need to bring our full selves to the work, and we might benefit from who we are, but once we share an idea or a project, that’s not sharing “who we are” with others. What qualifies any of us to push each other and the status quo forward? The investigation. The work we did to find stuff. It’s not about who you are. It’s about what you found.
All this leads us to one framework we can use to better communicate new ideas, better ways of working, and challenges leveled at the conventional wisdom of our teams, companies, or industries: non-violent communication.
Using non-violent communication to rally others to do better
I asked Max why we so often settle for conventional wisdom. It’s something I rail against on stages and in my writing and podcast. To paraphrase Max’s assessment of the issue, it’s because we've never been taught how to handle conflict productively. We don’t treat it like valuable data for the purposes of improvement, instead seeing it as a personal attack or the beginnings of an argument. Rather than push forward (which requires that necessary discussion with others), we simply stay put, and so the conventional approach wins out.
After years of struggling with this himself, Max said he arrived at a solution we can all use:
Using non-violent communication allows us to face conflict head-on, rather then stay silent or shrug and say, "Welp, guess I gotta let this thing play out so we have an example of what NOT to do."
Instead, we should be able to work towards something better ... together.
Non-violent communication can help us achieve that. It's an order of operations for delivering the right information at the right time when we critique or push others or address hard truths. It runs like this...
1. THE OBSERVATION.
State something specific and concrete. It's a fact. You saw it or see it. Others can too. It's not subjective or disputable.
A couple examples:
"During our last chat about our brand’s podcast, you mentioned wanting to use Joe Rogan as a good model for our show."
"For the last three quarters, we've hit our sales goals on the final day of the quarter."
2. THE FEELING.
Share how the observation makes you or your team feel. It should be conveyed in ways people can understand -- plain language, short and sweet. Using the same examples as above, we might say this:
(On copying Joe Rogan): "I'm feeling hesitant to use Joe Rogan as a model for our brand’s podcast, given how bombastic he is, but also how seasoned as a performer compared to our team.”
(On hitting our goals on the final day of the quarter for three straight quarters): "I'm feeling nervous that we keep hitting our goals so last-minute."
3. THE NEED.
What do we require that we don't currently have, which will address both the observation and feeling? This should be easily understandable, too: collaboration, opportunity, data, budget. For instance...
"We need to inform our show’s sound and style with audience insights.”
"We need team-wide experimentation to find a more sustainable way to reach our goals every quarter."
4. THE REQUEST.
What are you asking of the person or people in the room? What's their role to play in all this? For instance...
"I'd like your permission to take some time to look through our data and set up some calls with customers and email subscribers to better understand what their needs are, what they’re like as people, and what they like about podcasts, before we decide on our show's concept or inspirational comparisons."
"I need you to present the results of at least one experiment you're running at our next team meeting, along with a list of other experiments currently running."
That's non-violent communication.
If you attempt to talk with your teams like this, let me know how it goes. I hope you do have that conversation with others, or even your boss. Without addressing frustrations or hesitations directly and honestly, we're doomed to create Yet Another, instead of what we all want to build: The Only.