I work for a small company, and as you might expect, employee relations are much more close-knit than you might find in a larger work environment.  It feels very much like a family, but that is more by design than it is a byproduct of the number of people.  The leadership and staff have worked very diligently on developing core values that make this atmosphere a reality.  They have created a company culture of like-minded people who truly care about each other. This kind of work place is a first for me—and that alone is something to say because my career has spanned multiple decades while never being exposed to a like experience.

Imagine my surprise when I heard these words recently at a company brainstorming meeting: “don’t keep quiet to avoid hurting feelings.”  I literally had to scan the faces around the conference table to see if I had missed the joke or had dozed off and dreamed it.  (I am not admitting to nodding off during meetings!)  But I was certainly caught off guard.

Well, I had heard correctly.  The complete phrase was actually: “Don’t be afraid to bring up issues (don’t keep quiet to avoid hurting feelings)”.  The more I thought about it, the more it began to make sense.  If there is truly an issue, it certainly doesn’t benefit anyone to practice “agreeableness” at the cost of nipping a potential problem in the bud.  Of course, we are not being encouraged to take a cold-hearted approach in confronting the matter, but to utilize the people skills that we have been developing to communicate in such a way that our critique is received as coming from the heart, and for the betterment of the company as a whole.

I was recently challenged by this exact scenario when I found myself confronted with the fear of applying some constructive criticism where I thought it was needed.  The topic was well within my wheelhouse and my coworker’s experience was limited in comparison.  I was afraid that she would see my corrections as an attack on her work.

I decided to go ahead and share my input with her, and ultimately, everything worked out better than I could have hoped for.  I even opened up about my own reluctance to share due to my fear of her possible reaction.  She really put me at ease as she helped me understand how I was falling into the “agreeableness” trap myself.  The end result was a collaborative effort that yielded very positive results for our relationship and the project.

I thought a lot about the experience in the days to come and I discovered a new way to understand myself and situations like this.  It became apparent to me that I was actually the one who was susceptible to being hurt by criticism.  I recalled numerous times where I had gone away from a discussion feeling hurt, rejected, or even angry.  The effects of an unhealthy environment became apparent as I remembered business as usual for me in the past was more about “sitting with your back against the wall” to protect yourself from the threats that might be walking in.  I now understand that my life experience has a lot to do with why I am so apprehensive about critiquing another person’s work.  I realized that I have been subconsciously projecting my own fearful behavior on to those around me and expecting them to respond like I would in these situations.

Self-awareness can be a tremendous tool if you decide to take advantage of it.  If you make a conscious effort to identify undesirable trends in your life, and have the self-discipline to implement change, in time those positive results become a habit.

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