I Got Yelled at: a Story About Feedback
There was a rap on the closed door. I excused myself and answered it. Time gives some safety here, but I’ll still use a fake name. Linda was visibly agitated. In part, I think she was upset at my audacity to have a closed door.
She needed information to share with honchos really fast. This was problematic for two significant reasons.
I didn’t have the information
I was — and remain — skeptical that anything done in haste actually makes us better in the long-term.
Let me back up just a bit. When I worked in the Saskatchewan Government, the highest level of authority I achieved in that game was Acting Executive Director. I had that glorious title for six months.
When the Deputy Minister asked me to take on the role (after a sudden, politically-driven ouster of the real Executive Director), I took on the role with two requests. I needed a weekly meeting with the Deputy Minister and I needed regular meetings with an externally contracted Coach
When Linda asked for that rush answer, I was in my office mid-session with said Coach. Bob had been helping me do the very healthy, productive work of examining my beliefs and actions and making better choices.
I asked Linda if the matter could wait half an hour. It couldn’t. I suggested she speak with Emily. I said Emily was closer to the issue and would be able to give accurate information more quickly than I could.
Linda stalked away five paces, then turned around. She had one more thing to say.
“WHEN THE MINISTRY CALLS, YOU ANSWER!”
It’s very accurate if you are envisioning her pointing a finger as she yelled, but she pointed it down at the floor, not directly at me. It was a power-pose coupled with an emphatic statement.
That’s the one time I’ve ever experienced honest-to-goodness yelling in the office. I definitely experienced an increased heart-rate and some flushing. If you ever find yourself in that situation, I highly recommend having a personal coach just inside your private office.
For Bob, it must have been like manna from heaven. I have since experienced first-hand how hard it can be for a Coach to be invited in to talk about the real, practical matters that influence a person’s performance. For him, a red carpet got rolled out on the other side of the door. All he had to do was say, “Want to process that?”
I needed to address this toxic behaviour and help the organization get better from the experience. He helped me prepare feedback and sagely pointed out that I should expect avoidance and and efforts to redirect. He encouraged me to know what I was actually asking for and to stick to my message. To demonstrate his exceptional advice, I’m going to share the follow-through conversation with Linda.
I invited Linda to an off-site coffee a couple days later. After some pleasantries, here’s my 15 years-old paraphrased summary of the conversation.
Nevin: On Wednesday, when the Ministry had an urgent need for that information, I didn’t respond the way you expected. When that happened, you yelled at me in the office. I was embarrassed. There were a number of staff members that came up to me afterwards expressing concern, anxiety and fear. Yelling in the office was not productive. If anything, it makes me less responsive. I also fear that it has harmed the culture and energy of the entire team. Please don’t yell at me in the office.
Linda: You don’t get it Nevin. This is high-stakes stuff and you’re too much of an idealist.
Nevin: I understand that. I need to make sure I’m finding the right balance of long-term thinking and immediate responsiveness. We can talk about that, but first could you acknowledge that yelling in the office is unproductive?
Linda: I don’t think you understand the stress I’m under. I’m taking care of issues that will result in the Minister having our jobs if we’re not responsive.
Nevin: That’s got to be tough. Thank you for that. I’d like to know how I can be of more help. First, can we just get clear on how unhelpful yelling is?
Linda: You’re out of your depth. You need to know your stuff immediately, not brush off the issue until you have time or ask someone else to do it.
Nevin: OK. I’d like to make sure you’re hearing me. Yelling is unproductive. It doesn’t fix the issue and it doesn’t make us better in the future. Could you acknowledge that yelling is unhelpful before we discuss other issues?
[This pattern continues for another 10 minutes.]
Linda: Fine. Yes. Yelling wasn’t helpful and I shouldn’t do it. You’ve got a lot of improvements to make, Nevin.
I’ll take it. I get that Linda had a lot of pressure and too much to handle. I also recognize that I just happened to be the current enemy. Her reactionary, crisis-driven operating style will always require a foil. Good hero stories require an enemy.
She never yelled at me again.