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Posted by on Jun 14, 2011

Kitchen (and Other) Nightmares

In the embarrassing-admissions department, I have to confess I sometimes watch Kitchen Nightmares, that show in which the acerbic Gordon Ramsay (poster child for Thinking versus Feeling in the MBTI) shreds a failing restaurant along the way to rebuilding it into something successful.

The predictable sequence is: Gordon enters the disaster zone, dissects what is going wrong, engages in a confrontation, makes a new move, turns the place around. Along the way many bad words are dropped, emotions run high and arguments ensue.

It’s just like many workplaces.

One episode the other night struck me as particularly resonant for the modern office. In this show, the chef, Eric, began by talking about how many customers had complimented his dishes. “They say it all the time,” he stressed. He expressed complete confidence in his abilities and execution.

Of course, there wouldn’t be a decent show if there weren’t a different perspective from Gordon, who F-bombed his way through a critique of Eric’s meals. Eric’s response? To defend his cooking.

Gordon then went out with a video camera and asked people on the street if they had ever eaten at the place, and put together a little movie that he showed the staff, including Eric, of stinging criticism of the food.

Still, Eric defended his work. Even as dishes kept coming back into the kitchen as unacceptable to the diners, Eric defended. It’s easy to blame the customer, isn’t it?

The closest thing we have today to a movie about you and your work is the 360-degree assessment, in which people up, down and all around assess you on a variety of competencies. There are, fortunately, some other very simple and powerful ways to gather feedback, but first, the problem:

Research shows that the higher up ones goes in an organization, the less feedback he or she gets, and the less accurate it is. No need to mine the reasons here, since you already understand – it’s about power and control, and fear of consequences. It’s easy to understand.

So what if your organization doesn’t do a 360, and no one is walking around with a video camera for you?

First , you can observe. Carefully. What happens when you walk in the room? How engaged are people in talking with you? How committed to their work are they? Do they show passion and connection? Are they able to be themselves? Do they speak freely and honestly? What kind of impact are you having?

It can be hard to judge much of this, which is why there is step two.

You have to ask. Nicely.

This just means inquiring of others about their perspectives – on you. Simple, right?

Yes, actually, but maybe a little unnerving to most mere mortals and fallible human beings. How do you make this work?

You do it by, in the words of the brilliant facilitator Clara Martinez, “disarming yourself.” It means letting go of defenses, self-justifying routines, blaming and rationalizing logic. You have to really be ready for whatever people say. (This step is one of the reasons we call this field “the soft skills,” because this isn’t that hard, is it . . . ?)

It’s important to declare your intentions. Again, simple. “I would like to understand how I come across so that I can be as effective as possible in working with people.”

Now you can ask a few good, open-ended questions, and then be silent. Here are some candidates:

  • What do you feel I do well, and not well?
  • What should I start, stop or continue?
  • What do I need to know about how I work with others that I may not see right now?

You can make up your own.

Do not respond, at least right away. This is the time to “go to the balcony,” as Ron Heifitz phrases it, and let the contents settle. Some of the messages may be a surprise – good or bad. Others may confirm what you knew or perhaps suspected. Some may rock your world.

This is the case when you have been holding fundamental, grounding assumptions that are in collision with the real world. Eric had some assumptions problems. These assumptions are usually unconscious (which is why they’re so difficult to get your arms around), and inform your actions on a constant basis. They are part of your worldview. Here are some assumptions that may start to come into focus, courtesy of feedback:

  • The best way to get people to perform is tell them what to do.
  • We’re not here to make each other feel good.
  • If you give people positive feedback they’ll get a big head.
  • It’s not my job to get into “people issues.” My job is to get the job done.

Dissecting the internal “logic” in these is beyond the scope of this blog. For now, they serve just as examples of fundamental assumptions that may bear fruit that smells a little rotten in feedback.

The fact is, there’s no fast way to allow feedback to filter down to the unconscious level at which fundamental assumptions live and can be challenged. Well, actually, there is one way, but it is a crisis, and usually a messy, expensive, dramatic way that change happens. It’s not necessary, if you are alert, disarm yourself, and let the environment talk to you. Just notice the messages. Don’t evaluate or interpret right away.

I recommend taking a walk in nature, sitting on your back deck, working out, playing golf, swimming or whatever else allows your conscious mind to idle. The prefrontal cortex (your executive decision-making center) has to get out of the way. When you’ve disarmed yourself and have cultivated this capacity to really just hear the messages, your ability to do something with them rises.

There are some stages that correlate to stages of change, even of death and dying (since part of you may actually go away in this process as a new part of you takes form – this is development, after all). There may be disbelief, confusion, initial acceptance, fuller recognition, ownership and action.

The final point I’ll make on this is, I think, pretty huge. For what it’s worth, my experience, limited as it is, is that if you can make it through this learning, and really come to accept whatever it is that you are hearing, it feels something like metaphorically stepping out onto a new plane, a new frontier. It is different from the old world in a very significant and important way. Out there, things feel clear, right and true. There is a freshness, a newness to it. It is an energizing place, from which new possibilities become apparent. The future can start there.

We all are imperfect, seeing imperfectly, acting imperfectly. The more you let go of any inner Eric, and grab hold of feedback (which is also imperfect – you have to sort through what is accurate and what may come from another person’s blind spot) and let it tell you what you need to know for the next part of your journey – limited in time as it is — the better things can get.

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