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Connection before correction

I like to think of startups as a supercharged version of the human experience. At work, we put a diverse group of people in a space, and ask them to collaboratively solve problems and create new things under very real financial, time and quality constraints, all of which operates in a broader ecosystem that has other companies competing for market share, in an industry that is likely reinventing itself every few years. The outcomes are rarely known, and the stakes are often high.

Friction between colleagues at work is absolutely inevitable, at least if we're placing honest conflict ahead of dishonest harmony. At it's best, friction between two people stems from a rather simple principle - you notice that a colleague is doing something that you think is incorrect, or out of alignment with our values, or has hurt you, and you want to tell the person about it so that they can improve, or assert your boundaries, and we can create a better workplace.

The issues we discuss when there is friction between two people at work tend to start off reasonably straightforward:

"You are often late with your project deliverables."

"I felt disrespected when you didn't respond to my last email."

"You're putting too much pressure on me and the team."

"I'm concerned about the quality of your code."

Let's call this initial feedback level 1 engagement.

Of course, it's never as simple as that, because the world isn't black and white, and the sort of underlying questions we need to sort through after level 1 feedback is offered include things like:

"Are your observations fair?"

"What you're saying is fair, but the process you've followed to tell me this is highly disrespectful."

"That's ironic, because you did the same thing last week."

"Have you got the full context as to why I did the thing that I did?"

Let's call this response level 2 engagement.

Then, and this is where things start to get really complex to sort through, it's the unsaid ocean of our own subconscious wounds, fears, and psychological tangles that are often touched on by these interactions. If we could articulate these (and most of the time we can't immediately because they exist as a complex web beneath the surface of our psyches) they might be along the following lines:

"I've got imposter syndrome about being a manager in the first place, and when you criticise my management style or actions it threatens the fragile illusion I'm holding together, so rather than listening and learning from your feedback, I'm going to shut you down with a ferocious response."

"I've become a perfectionist to compensate for the fact that I had a traumatic experience when I was 20 where I was totally out of control and taken advantage of."

"I've never felt good enough, so when you tell me I'm late with deliverables, rather than have to face the deep pain from my childhood where nothing was ever good enough for my parents, I'm going to turn this situation around and tell you it's your fault for being a bad manager"

"I'm terrified of conflict because my parents fought when I was young and I learnt that the world is unsafe. So, rather than confront you when you act unfairly towards me, I'm going to be passive aggressive and try to take you down behind your back."

Let's call this level 3 engagement.

I would argue that level 3 is the primary driver of our behaviour, most of which is an adaptive response to try and cope, adapt and hopefully transcend the deep entanglement of our subconscious. We all have this, it's the human condition.

Level 3 requires the most self awareness and deep work to access, identify and discuss, and we typically can't access it unless we feel connected and safe.

It is very difficult for us to change when we don't feel safe. The fight or flight response is deeply rooted in all of us, and as a result, most of the conflict in our lives never consciously gets beyond level 1 and 2. Someone says something, we don't feel safe, and we go into fight or flight mode in that moment. The chances of being able to get to level 3 when we don't feel safe are staggeringly low. The sad part about this is that level 3 is where the real change happens. In fact, it's the only reliable change we can make in the world - to change ourselves at a cellular level.

The invitation here is to recognise that we need connection with the person we’re engaging with before we offer any form of correction. Without connection, we're unlikely to feel safe, and if we don't feel safe, the chances of us getting to level 3 are staggeringly low. When we feel connected and seen, we feel brave enough to jump into the trenches of our subconscious and do the work. When we know that the people around us have our back, and will accept and love our perfectly imperfect humanity, we can transcend decades of unprocessed pain and shame.

In the context of a business, this has nothing to do with hierarchy, and everything to do with the fact that as humans, until we feel connected and safe, it's very difficult to change, no matter where you are in the organisation.

As we do the work and progressively work through the shadows in our subconscious, we increasingly become less reliant on others to create a sense of safety in order for us to get to level 3. That said, we're all works in progress, and en route to developing our own independent psychological safety, we have the opportunity to help ourselves and others genuinely improve by first connecting with them at a very real, human level, and only then offering corrective feedback.

The next time you want to offer feedback to a colleague, your child, your partner, or anyone else in your life, first ask yourself the question - have I taken the time to connect with this precious person first?


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