“Actually, that’s not OK”: The importance of calling it out
A long time ago, in an organization far, far, away, I was working as a lead business analyst on a major ‘transformation’ program.
This program had all of the traits that these large, monolithic work efforts seem to have—a fixed (arbitrary) deadline, a scope that somehow seems to keep expanding, and a sense of urgency that led people to work late into the evening.
To assist the program’s work, a number of external consultants from a specialist change consultancy were brought in, specifically within the program and project management arena. The BA team found itself in instant conflict with these colleagues; they appeared (to me at least) to have been brought in to ‘deliver the program’ at all costs and weren’t interested in engaging with BAs. I was responsible for a workstream and would provide estimates of how long the work would take and the resources required—I’d be told by a project manager that I had less time and resources and just needed to be ‘innovative’. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out—now get to work” seemed to be the mantra.
At the time I felt trapped. These folks were excellent at managing up—they could produce Power Point decks like you wouldn’t believe. Expensive stock images, artwork—their decks were a masterpiece. I feared they would start to own the narrative: The BAs in my workstream and I would be submerged in work, gasping for air, whilst they simultaneously manage the message that “The BAs are uncooperative and unhelpful”. This wasn’t helped by one particular senior member of the consultancy who would often talk us down in meetings. We’d make a point and he would jovially, but in quite demeaning way, overrule it and suggest that we’re worrying over nothing. We were slowly, but systemically, having our collective voice taken away. It was a slow creep, almost so slow it wasn’t visible, and I nearly missed it.
I was working late one night, alone, in a meeting room overlooking the city. I paused, stared out at people walking over to the city center, dressed for a night out. It was a Friday, it must have been 7pm (or later) I don’t remember. I slumped down, and had a strangely reflective moment:
“This isn’t OK. People are acting in a way that isn’t OK. And I haven’t called it out”
I immediately packed up what I was doing and got the train home. I had fantastic managers outside of the project who I knew would be supportive. I waited for the particular ‘senior’ consultant to act in that way again, and after the meeting I took him aside. I was so scared, and that discussion is still imprinted in my mind, many years later. I can still remember the pattern that I used:
- I want to give you feedback about something that is important to me, something you’ve done (and keep doing) that isn’t OK
- I absolutely do want your opinion, but it’s best that you wait for me to completely give my feedback before you respond
- I do this because I value what you do, and value our working relationship
- Here is the feedback, here is how it makes me feel
- Please can you stop doing this, I realize that you are probably doing it without knowing
- If you agree, let’s shake hands and grab a coffee
- And of course, if you have feedback for me at any time, I’d be grateful
I was almost shaking, but I hid it well. He was his normal, shall we say ‘assertive’ self when the conversation started. Yet as the conversation went on his face changed; he looked really distressed. Not angry, but almost embarrassed. He explained it was absolutely not his intention to put anyone down, he was just trying to ‘lighten the mood’, but he understood what I was saying. It turns out I hadn’t been effectively communicating some elements of my message either—he had misunderstood my intention. We were talking at cross purposes, and this was our chance to ‘clear the air’. We shook hands, and walked out as colleagues that could work together.
The reason I tell this story is that it’s all too easy to ‘put up’ with behavior that really isn’t professional. It’s particularly hard when something is ‘borderline’ or could be interpreted in multiple ways. But if something causes upset—then whether that was intended or not—surely it’s worth a conversation? Crucially, we also ought to call out behavior that appears to be upsetting others. The source is rarely malicious, and uncovering any misunderstandings might just create a better shared understanding and a better working relationship.