Imagine that you’re watching a play at the theatre. The lights, the costumes, and the actors draw you into the intrigue of the story. You are watching a rehearsed and polished production on the stage.
But what do you see when you pull back the curtains and peek behind the scenes? Or look back in time to the first read-through.
A lot goes into any production before it goes live.
For example, the director works with actors to show and teach them where to go and how to deliver their lines for this particular show. After hands-on work, rehearsals, and a lot of support behind the curtains, you have your final play on stage.
We Are Not Mind-Readers
Leading a team at the workplace is a bit like directing — there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Just like how actors cannot read directors’ minds, your team cannot read yours either. As a leader, it’s up to you to make feedback expectations explicit to your team. You do this by showing, or modeling, the appropriate and expected behavior. To see real shifts, your role is also to teach and explain what is happening and what you expect.
Explain Your Expectations Clearly
Now that you’ve shown how to invite and receive feedback, it’s now time to teach about conversations after your initial feedback exchange. First, you set the stage for a conversation about how to handle receiving feedback and moving forward. A lot of this will feel very “meta”, as you will be talking about how you and your team talk to one another. Even if this feels unnatural to be so “meta”, getting super clear about what you expect and modeling it explicitly is the best way to communicate with your team. Like I mentioned before, we aren’t mind-readers and it can be challenging to understand the code of conduct in a workplace without being explicitly told. As the leader, you are the director of this production, after all.
Practicing the Script: Running Lines and Giving Notes
A large part of any theatre production is rehearsing the dialogue, the lines, the script. The practice in a low-risk environment, when the audience is empty and there is time to work through the kinks that will come up, is valuable. And an important part of the process to a good final experience.
So, make the time to run lines, establish expectations, and give notes before you go on stage with a high stakes conversation. Establish a reference point about how people want to communicate and receive feedback.
Here are prompts to start the conversation:
- Do you want me to listen when you vent about a problem? Or should I interject with solutions as we talk?
- Should I give feedback as we go or would you like to sit down and run through my notes at designated times?
- How would you like to receive feedback to be most helpful? Text, email, informal conversation?
- Would you rather we chat a bit first or do you want to skip the small talk?
- Would you prefer to take time to think before you respond?
Establishing a reference point can make all the difference during the types of hard or uncomfortable conversations that might freeze people up. You’ve had a conversation with a coworker using the prompts to set expectations, so when you are giving them feedback, neither of you are thrown on stage to be blinded by the lights.
It is also always important to remember that the reference points can change based on context. Maybe a prop is missing, the A/V goes out, or the energy among the group changes.
The goal here is to establish a reference point (which may change) and to open conversation about how to communicate effectively.
Integrating Feedback and Changing Behavior
The last step of the feedback cycle is to integrate feedback by changing behaviors and planning follow-up conversations. Rework your scene and practice the new lines. Incorporate feedback that is helpful, and then show what has changed from the last time. And repeat through the run of shows.
The Show Must Go On
While you and your team are working on this new script and way of being, things may not always be per the script. Practicing the feedback cycle and the scripts around feedback should be integrated into your daily practice. It may not be perfect at first, so think of it as an improv show. The show must go on, scripted or unscripted. But teaching these soft skills to your cast and crew will get you in the right direction to creating a happy and productive work culture, your final production.
Originally published on a now defunct personal blog in June 2018.