Growing up, did your Mother ever tell you to keep your opinions to yourself? Except, she was one of the first people to share her opinions with you? You know she meant well. It felt pretty natural. Like a “Be careful around that one..” kind of heads up, because, well, she cares about you.
We tend to think that we are doing people a favor by giving them this “heads up” and it’s how we justify it to ourselves; that it’s ok to talk trash about this other human. In Leadership, it’s almost even more justifiable because we have to be able to “objectively assess our talent.” But it’s weird and sometimes feels gross.
I remember one of my first talent meetings I attended years ago. Walking out and feeling like I just gossiped and talked trash about a whole lot of people. Even though we still said a lot of great things about people, it still felt icky and dirty discussing the flaws of others. I felt like I needed to take a shower and then go hug a bunch of people.
Years later, these conversations felt normal and one is deemed “brave” when they can sit down and face to face tell somebody else exactly what’s wrong with them, whether they want to hear it or not. I don’t know if it’s brave. Sometimes it feels judgmental and harsh, often like we’ve forgotten the human below the surface. There’s a fine balance there and relational work that should be invested beforehand for these conversations to go well.
So what happens when we make our assessment of somebody and they are not up to our “standards?”
Do we leave it at that? Deciding that perhaps that person’s ethics or character doesn’t align with our own so we choose to be careful with how we associate with them? Still choosing to love or care for them beyond their flaws? Or do we make a hard decision, share it with everybody that we know, so they think the same and steer clear? Destroying any and all potential for that person discovering a better way or improvement?
I’ve uncovered, over time, that these seemingly friendly “warnings” of people and a particular behavior only amplifies our awareness for that precise thing and that ends up being ALL that we look for. To the point where it becomes how we even describe somebody, hence the term “Negative Nancy” or “Debbie Downer.” We are watching and waiting to prove the theory correct and then leap to call them out on it when it occurs. Ignoring the good things they may be doing that we are consciously or subconsciously choosing NOT to see.
So what do we do? We can’t just make people stop sharing their opinions or “friendly warnings” of others completely. It’s going to happen.
Formulate your own opinions of others.
However, we can change how we respond. We can make a choice to formulate our own opinions of others through our own experiences and interactions with people. It’s amazing how infrequently people come to you to “vent” or share their negative opinions about others when they see that you have decided to have your own brain and don’t allow another human bias to change your perception of a person. People tend to respect you more as well. They trust you too. You become safe. They will be more open to hear your thoughts on themselves and how to improve because they see your good intentions. I can’t emphasize enough what a long way this goes.
Keep your opinions to yourself.
But there’s a second part. Yes, formulate your own opinions of others (not accepting the opinions of others as your own, but rather living your own experiences and then deciding) and then (this is really important), keep them to yourself. This will allow others to also formulate their own opinions. You aren’t forcing yours onto somebody else.
This is more important than we realize.
Recently, I started working with somebody new. They are a partner with me in my particular area of business. I have known this person in the past but have not worked with them in a while. It would have been easy for me to tell them, “Let’s get you up to speed and tell you about our team; specifically, who is awesome and who is terrible..” That way our team could go on being led the same way I have led it for the past however long. But we have to think bigger picture than that. We have to care for our people and their development more than that. We have to be open to others learning from people other than ourselves. So, when my new partner came on board, we sat down and had a chat. I told them the big picture things that our team is working on and then said, “I am not going to share my personal opinions about team members. I want you to be able to discover that on your own. Also, you could be the key to help certain under-performers improve. They can establish a new relationship with you, trust you and you be the person that they need to help get them out of their funk.” I didn’t want this person to form individual bias prior to even interacting with some of these people. My new colleague could bring to light new things that I haven’t been able to see because I may be stuck just looking for the bad. I told them that they would discover the under-performers quickly enough. And they did. This person is a respected member of our team because they believe in our team and have formulated their own thoughts of people based on their own experiences.
Years ago, I probably wouldn’t have handled it this way. I would have probably sat down with my new partner and unloaded. Hoping that they saw things my way and then lead the team my way. That is unhealthy. It’s selfish and destructive. It removes opportunity for improvement; or what I like to think of as “surprise.”
Let people surprise you.
That’s the last part. Formulate your own opinions of others, keep them to yourself and let people surprise you.
When we have worked with people or lived or interacted with specific people over a long period of time, we tend to expect certain behaviors. We learn the way they operate, their habits and tendencies, and then just associate them with a part of their persona. For example, my Aunt was just sharing with me the other day how her and her husband have been married for 28 years and he still leaves his underwear on the floor. They just never make it to the dirty close hamper for some reason. So, she stopped expecting it. It just became a behavior that was consistent with who he is and how he chooses to live.
Now if she came home, and discovered the underwear INSIDE the hamper, it would probably go one of two ways: 1. She wouldn’t even notice, because she is just used to them being outside the hamper and that is what she has trained her eye to see. (Perhaps they are not outside of the hamper yet because he just hasn’t changed today, she may reason.) 2. It would surprise the hell out of her because she knows its outside of his character and had to be intentional about this one thing.
The point is, not how often are we changing our dirty chonies, but are we giving people an opportunity to surprise us and if they do, will we notice?
If we don’t notice that is worse (in my opinions) than listening to a bunch of gossip about them. To say that you know somebody so well, to expect a particular behavior and then not notice that they were intentional about doing something outside of their character is not only bad leadership, its just not being a very observant and compassionate human. Even if it’s small change or incremental. Progress is progress. We need to give people recognition for it.
A few months ago, I had a conversation with one of my team members about their performance. At the end of the convo, there was a quick quip from them, “So 2 weeks of improvement is not enough…” meaning, I didn’t even recognize their improvement in performance that they had already made. They were right. I hadn’t even looked. I didn’t give them the positive recognition they deserved for their progress. I definitely hadn’t given them an opportunity to surprise me. I looked only for the expected behavior. I apologized to that person. They were asked to do something. They did it. I didn’t even notice.
How often do we do this? Let’s challenge ourselves in what we expect from others. Let’s believe in them. Let’s expect the best. And when somebody does something outside of character, let’s be surprised and give them positive recognition. Because we probably all leave our dirty chonies outside of the hamper every once and a while too.
Do you have a story about opinions of others that went wrong? How about being on the other end, where people had negative opinions of you? How were you able to overcome? Feel free to share in the comments below.