Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Flaws: Live 'em, Love 'em, but most of all Admit Them to Yourself (and other people)

I'm from Millington, Tennessee (as is evidenced by my ability to spell Tennessee). Its a suburb of Memphis.

I'm not sure if all girls raised in the south grow up to be southern belles, but I can be certain I carry a lot of belle traits, both good and bad. I will say, "yes, sir," and "no, sir" and "thank you, ma'am" and do it without a trace of sarcasm or fear the other person will believe me inferior to them. I do it because it is polite, and polite was how I was raised.

Along with polite, I was raised to be sociable. Not in the derogatory term--"She's too sociable with all those boys"--for example, but in terms of liking being in groups of people, talking, and holding my own. When I was little, I was still among the generation being taught that girls shouldn't out talk boys, that boys were more important, and that being sociable was as recognized method for young women to hold control over household and society when men were otherwise expected to appear as if they did. Sociable was how a woman became the power behind the throne, and polite was why no one mentioned she was doing it.

With power, comes great responsibility. Also, bad habits. I am therefore very bossy. Assertiveness is expected, nay, demanded in the part of the south where I was raised, as was the deep need to be polite. This leads directly to bossy, do not pass go, do not acquire 200 sweat teas (although I am a heretic and don't want TN sweet tea, anyway, because of my hatred for lemon in it).

I am also from a heritage of the spoiled southern belle. Educated and trained to be released to become my husband's problem, while my parents were quite strict on many things--wanna know how big a switch to be spanked with to cut to assure least amount of pain but maximize chances I won't be sent out to cut another switch because this one is not good enough?--I was expected to excel at many things and was often praised for doing so, even if I didn't put that much effort into it. Thus, when questioned...I become, shall we say, prickly? I, personally, do not handle criticism (constructive or otherwise) very well.

So, to recap: I'm overly polite, bossy, a bit aggressive, manipulative, spoiled and I don't take criticism well. You all following along? Good.

Because telling you that, in the way I told you, is something I get around to telling every group I work with. Not because it is an excuse for my behavior, but because it is effective fair warning. Nothing excuses bad behavior. Some things explain it, but don't mitigate the damage done. If you have a flaw, and you know you have it, step one is telling other people about it so they can help not step into the bear trap, and step two is moving the bear trap away from them if they stumble towards it.

You have a responsibility to your flaws and your team. Obviously you will constantly improve on those flaws so that, hopefully, when I'm 90, I'm not politely bossing the CRAP out of people taking care of me. But there are things that stick with you, things which have been successful, but aren't always...such as difficulty with criticism.

See, in my youth, raising my brow and giving "The Look" ended discussions of any flaws in my personhood that might have been revealed by such criticism, thus making "shutting other people down" an effective tactic. Note, it's not an effective tactic in the work place. If I will get more from an employee by short sentences in an email, I need to know that so that I don't keep writing flowery dissertations that only annoy him or her and waste my time. In effect, I know that I have the flaw that I will feel hurt and desire to inflict uncomfortability on others when I receive criticism, and thus its my job to either (a) fight myself and not react that way or (b) find other successful strategies of accomplishing what needs to be done that are successful for everyone, and not just me, that don't involve being criticized. I have become an expert at (b), but sometimes, no amount of (b) will save you. Sometimes I just have to take (a) on the chin.

Now most people will advocate for (a) every time. Confront your flaws, face your fears, and end them. I've been in the business for over 20 years, and so far, the psychological technique of de-sensitization (which is what they're suggesting) hasn't actually helped much. I've given hundreds of presentations and speeches, but I still quake 15 minutes before I hit the podium. This isn't to say that people cannot learn and grow, it's just to say that sometimes, instead of slighting yourself for not making progress, you should work with what you have. Really, that's what flaws are all about--how to not negatively impact your work, and, if possible, spin things to have a positive impact.

One of my efforts at avoiding direct confrontation led to a criticism discussion among my 14 person team...doing it as a group reduced overall direct issues and we were able to come together and come up with group techniques to resolve issues that had been critiqued.

You are not always going to know your flaws; they're sneaky like that. Sometimes you'll only find out if someone is brave enough to tell you. Your natural reaction to that person is likely not "Thank you," but it should be your automatic reaction. If you feel yourself getting emotional or lost because a flaw is being exorcised or triggered, excuse yourself and take a few minutes with some water or the bathroom. Walk around. Think about what is going to happen immediately afterward that you can look forward to, and then get back in there, get back on that horse, and go. Note: I am not advocating that team members are horses on which you can climb (although I suppose if you work in a stable the amount of constructive criticism is greatly reduced if your team is significantly comprised of horses).

I have been desperately wanting to get this phrase in, and so if it seems shoe-horned, that's because it is. I used to have a manager that said, "Its not as if our shit doesn't stink." Basically, everyone has flaws (or, in that case, excrement), and everyone's flaws cause problems (or, in the case of excrement, smells BAD). Everyone has flaws, its what you do about having them that differentiates you with employees and to your own managers.

So, take a few minutes to know yourself. Then let that part of you be part of your team, and, don't let be an excuse for poor behavior or performance, but instead a way of improving overall productivity for you and your team.

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