Suffering at Work: The Skeleton That Supports the Flesh of Genius

whiplash-2014-movie-review-car-accident-playing-drums-bloody-andrew-neiman-miles-tellerFor those who know me or listen to me on HR Happy Hour, you’ll know that each year, I rush out and binge on as many of the Oscar-nominated movies as I can.  There is something magnetic about a movie intended to make you really think compared to all the summer blockbuster action movies that are just around the bend.  Well, this time last year, I had the pleasure of watching Whiplash.  It’s a movie about the complex relationship between a student and his conductor of a jazz band.  But more than that, my takeaway then was that it’s about the need to go through harsh feedback and sometimes pain in order to develop.

When I wrote Cringeworthy Feedback: How to Take it and How to Dish it Out, I was so close to seeing the film that it was all I could think about.  Now, a year later and after watching the movie a few more times, I see it’s like an onion and I’m peeling the multitude of layers back to reveal even more significant meaning.  So you see, it’s the perfect Oscar movie because it continues to make me think about what lessons come from examining the relationships.  Dr. Matt Stollak, beloved friend and professor at St. Norbert College, shared an article with me that made me want to revisit some of the themes from Whiplash.  The article he shared was a review by Matt Zoller Seitz called 30 Minutes on Whiplash.  In his article, Matt says:

“This formulation is insidious, cruel, reductive, joyless. It turns the pursuit of artistic excellence into a referendum on the ability to endure shame, rejection, public humiliation, doubt and physical punishment. It’s as singleminded in equating endurance and transcendence as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Nevertheless, as a indicator of future success, the ability to withstand suffering is hard to beat. It might in fact be the skeleton that supports the flesh of genius.”

As I read that, I focused on the suffering.  Do we need to suffer for our art?  Do we need to suffer in order to experience greatness and excellence?

I don’t believe I’ve ever thought about these questions in relation to greatness or excellence at work.  I’ve had a more practical approach and that is if you work hard, it leads to success and excellence at work.  When I really think about those key moments in my life that made a difference in the way my work habits developed, they involve failure.  They involved hardship, doubt, insecurity and many feelings that are negative.  From that, the work that was forged became more meaningful to me because I felt that I really had to work even harder to overcome the obstacles.   I wonder if I would have achieved many of the successes I have without the hardships.

I think not.

So, what about you?  If you have reached levels of excellence in your career that you’re proud of, were you able to get there without suffering?  I’d love to hear your perspectives in the comments….

 

Cringeworthy Feedback: How to Take it and How to Dish it Out

Whiplash-37013_5Feedback can hurt.

I’ve seen it hundreds, maybe thousands of times in my career.  I’ve received the painful “gift” of feedback from well-intentioned but unduly harsh bosses.  I’ve watched as bright, creative souls were pounded day after day, year after year by tyrant supervisors.  It is appalling.  And if you’re in HR, it’s likely that you’ve given these types of leaders training at some point on how to give more constructive feedback.

You see, for some reason it seems that people either avoid giving feedback and tell other people when someone is doing poorly (in their opinion) or they fly off the handle and use hurtful, unconstructive words that are not meant to motivate, but to belittle and destroy.

Or are they?

I just watched the movie Whiplash and first, let me tell you, no~ EMPLORE you, to watch the movie if you haven’t.  As someone who tries to watch as many Oscar-nominated films before the Academy Awards, this particular film did not make it to a theater near me in time.  If it had, I would have been furious watching Birdman win for Best Picture knowing that the GEM that is Whiplash was overlooked.

Watch the movie.

Ok, back to the story.  As I watched the movie about an over zealous conductor and his harsh training and feedback for one of his studio drummers, I realized that sometimes, there is a reason feedback needs to hurt.  I started wondering if we’re getting too soft in this era of giving every child a trophy for participation and every employee the “warm fuzzy” feeling just because we think if we don’t, they will bash us on Glassdoor or on social media.  It’s like being led by fear.

The truth is that sometimes, people need harsh feedback.  Sometimes, for feedback to take hold and inspire the person to change, we need to make an impression.  It is a fine line to walk between being helpful and being too brutal.  So, what do you do if your boss is a tyrant when it comes to feedback?

  • Take a deep breath and determine the motive.  Some people are just mean for the sake of being mean.   If that’s the case, RUN.  If not, move on to the next step.
  • Is this out of character?  If your boss is usually constructive and sporadically gives harsh feedback that you can somehow determine is well intentioned, it could be for your own good.  Grit your teeth and bear it.  Try to look past the delivery and cling to the underlying message to understand what you can do to improve.
  • What’s the boss’ motive?  Is their boss riding their ass?  Are they taking the blame for something you did?  Try to figure out why the feedback is harsh.  You may need to take a break for the boss to calm down, then ask for a meeting another time to discuss specific ways you could have performed better.

 

Now, what if YOU are known as the tyrant?  

Well, first you need to decide if you just like being that way or if there is a real reason.  If you enjoy verbally torturing people, get used to the fact that you’ll likely always have high turnover because many people will not put up with your crap.  If you are only harsh situationally, you’re probably ok.  Make sure you’re not violating any workplace policies or breaking any laws (of course). As long as you’re not, then try to use harsher feedback only when absolutely necessary to make your point and to get the recipient to make a change.

Have you worked for a boss that gave feedback that was harsh?  Are you that boss?  Tell me about your experience in the comments.