Removed from the true Start-up life for a few years now, and completely removed
since last fall, I’ve been enjoying listening the ‘Startup
‘ Podcast from Gimlet Media
over the past few months.
It’s like one of those movies where the plot is just predictable enough you want to scream “Don’t go in the basement!” at the screen while delivering enough surprises to keep you on the hook.
Their latest episode focused on “Burnout” and specifically, how their entire team had hit that stage and were ‘done’, “Burn the place to the ground” done in their words. You can listen to the episode here:
It’s a great episode but what I want to focus on though, isn’t the burnout aspect, but rather a revelation their founder Alex Blumberg has partway through the episode when he realizes what he thought he ‘said’ and what he actually said were worlds apart, and caused his team huge amounts of stress to his team.
Employees will fill a vacuum
Several years ago I participated in a workshop run by a group called Eagle’s Flight – my biggest takeaway from the particular program they were taking our team through was that when there were unanswered questions it left a vacuum – and left too long, employees would fill them on their own. And let’s be honest, it probably won’t be the rose coloured, everything is awesome, kind of filling.
In the Startup episode above, Alex admitted he had a few occasions where his own lack of clarity in his answers sent his staff’s minds down some troubling rabbit holes. They filled the vacuum for him.
I’ve experienced this first hand on more than a few occasions – the worst was when we had to lay someone off at one of my first companies. Circumstances dictated we needed to do it, but when you knew the details it wasn’t the doomsday prophecy our staff ultimately perceived it as. Laying off one person to get through a tough period ending up costing us a few developers who were highly employable and got spooked. These were the guys I would have probably laid myself off before letting them go, they had nothing to worry about. A better explanation & filling their ‘vacuums’ for them could have saved a lot of grief.
This isn’t unique to startups though – this will happen from the smallest company (or relationship) right up to the largest enterprises. It’s something I’ve tried to be cognizant of as we build programs in the bank where I work today as much as I was in a start-up shop of 6 people.
Filling the Vacuum Yourself
When you’ve got time to think…
If it’s a situation where you’ve got the time to prepare, take advantage of that opportunity. Whether alone, or with some trusted advisers/colleagues, stop and ask “What are all the questions that people could have about what I’m going to say?” – throw them on post-its and then ask yourself “Which of these can I answer right now?”
When I do exercises like this at work I have people sort the questions into three categories:
- Green – We can answer completely this right now.
- Yellow – We’ve got the answer but need someone or some piece of information in order to answer properly.
- Red – @#!$, I don’t even know where to begin.
Obviously the first thing to tackle is those Reds & Yellows. Then, when you’ve got those answers, revise what you have to say to ensure you satisfy those questions (at least to the extent that is practical). When you can take the time to tailor your response to cover the important bases the end result will be so much better.
When you’re on the spot…
On the spot is that much harder. Take a breath, do the spot check with yourself (“What questions will they have?”) frame what you have to say as best you can. Then ask the all important question(s) – there’s a couple of obvious one’s:
- Does that make sense?
- What are your concerns?
But one of the most interesting approaches I’ve encountered is to ask someone to tell you what they just heard – an approach known as “Active Listening“. As wikipedia’s entry puts it:
Active listening is a communication technique used in counselling, training and conflict resolution, which requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties
I had the ‘opportunity’ to work on a slightly dysfunctional team where we brought in a coach to try and help resolve our challenges – it wasn’t confrontational but it was clear there were communication issues.
Active listening was one of the techniques the coach applied to tremendous effect. We’d have a conversation between the four of us on the team and then he ask someone to tell everyone what they’d just ‘heard’ – generally most of us were in alignment but there was one teammate whose interpretation seemed to come consistently out of left field. It was an excellent reality check and was something we worked through as a group to improve our level of conversation.
In tough circumstances, consider trying this approach after you’ve delivered news that you’re unsure of what the reaction will be.
As an entrepreneur, or leader in an enterprise, you need to choose your words wisely on every occasion. Use more words (the right ones) thank you’d probably like, and don’t leave your message to chance.
When in doubt, ask your team what their questions are – fill those vacuums before they have a chance to.
What’s your take? Have you seen vacuums at work in your workplace? How did you help fill them? Let me know in the comments below.