Carole Robin: “Identify all the ways the other’s behavior affects you”

…And finally, be a role model — people pick up signals on what is expected of them by watching what their boss does and does not do. As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carole Robin. Carole Robin is a former award-winning Stanford Business […]

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…And finally, be a role model — people pick up signals on what is expected of them by watching what their boss does and does not do.


As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carole Robin.

Carole Robin is a former award-winning Stanford Business School prof (with a bunch of fancy titles) who taught the legendary Interpersonal Dynamics (aka “Touchy Feely”) course for almost two decades before co-founding Leaders in Tech, a non-profit which brings what she taught at Stanford to Tech startup CEOs and their organizations. She is not a career academic, having previously run a large sales and marketing organization for a Fortune 500 company, been a partner and principal in an international consulting firm, and an executive coach. She is the co-author, with David Bradford, of Penguin Random House’s acclaimed Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends and Colleagues which contains the lessons of “Touchy Feely” that students consistently describe as life-changing since it didn’t only make them better leaders — it made them (and continues to make them) better human beings.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

When my husband and I decided to get married, ten years after I began my career, we made a deal. At the time, we were both junior executives on the rise in big corporations. We both wanted the experience of being full time caregivers at home and fulltime wage earners supporting our family. The deal we made was that we would take turns in each role instead of both trying to juggle a demanding career and raising kids at the same time. As part of the plan, I agreed to be the first to stay home and we froze our standard of living so that when it was my turn to go back to work and support us, I would not have to re-enter the workforce at my husband’s future salary, and we would additionally have the benefit of a financial cushion accumulated as he earned more and more.

I anticipated I would go back to high tech-based sales and marketing where I had been very successful and had a large network. However, one of the consequences of staying home with small kids and subsequently taking on some part-time leadership roles in our community led me to decide that instead, when it was my turn to support our family, I wanted to go into Leadership Development. That prompted me to go back to school to initially get a master’s degree in Organization Development and subsequently a Ph.D. That fork in the road led to my eventually meeting my co-author David Bradford and ending up at Stanford, teaching Interpersonal Dynamics for nearly two decades and ultimately becoming known as the “Queen of Touchy Feely”.

I left Stanford in 2017 and co-founded Leaders in Tech, a non-profit backed by a who’s who of Silicon Valley with a mission to develop leaders who are committed to building high-performing and culturally healthy organizations, bringing all I once taught at Stanford to pre-IPO CEOs and founders in Tech.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I went to work in 1975 as the first woman hired into a non-clerical job at a very large Industrial Automation organization. I learned quickly that if I was going to succeed, I was going to have to play by what I saw as the “men’s rules” which primarily meant leaving emotions at the door. This, along with my drive, work ethic, and talent served me very well and I steadily rose up the ranks.

Ten years later after several promotions I was running a 50 million dollar business when, at a management offsite with my team, I got a tad choked up while passionately speaking about what I believed we could achieve if we all pulled together. I was met with stunned silence. One of the managers who worked for me looked at me in wide-eyed amazement and said, “Wow, looks like you’re human after all.” Then I burst out crying. “You don’t think I’m human??”

What followed was one of the most genuine and rewarding business conversations of my career in which a LOT of feelings were expressed by all of us. We realized we had been leaving half of ourselves, perhaps the most important half, in the parking lot. That was the moment we became an unstoppable team, and I became a real leader.

It is worth noting that had this happened earlier, when I had less credibility, confidence or power, the outcome would probably not have been as good. However, by the time of that offsite, I had internalized a message that had long ceased to serve me or the people I was leading. It was that watershed moment that led me to become so passionate about leadership development and so committed to the importance of interpersonal dynamics.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

After I was first promoted to manager, I was invited to attend a casual back yard BBQ with a bunch of executives and their partners, hosted by the Division Vice President. It was a big deal and an honor to be invited to these as not all of the managers were. Standing by the hors d’oeuvres table chatting with one of the senior managers, I bit into a canape and then tried as politely and surreptitiously as I could to spit it out into my napkin.

The senior manager asked if I was OK. I said, “Yeah, but beware, I think the fish in that canape has gone bad.” To which he responded, “Really? My wife made those.”

Turning beet red, I said, “Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry — I’m so embarrassed!” He smiled and said, “Don’t be — I actually find your honesty refreshing. I thought they tasted weird as well!”

It’s funny now but I didn’t think it was at the time. At that moment, I learned that telling the truth doesn’t necessarily end up in disaster. I also learned to take much smaller tastes of items at an hors d’oeuvres table and maybe even smell them first!

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Remember that people do business with people — much more so than with ideas, products, strategies or even money. The so called “soft skills” are actually the hardest and it is when leaders stop paying as much attention to what is going on for their employees that organizations start to fall apart. Unfortunately, too many leaders ignore issues they consider “small”, especially “people issues” which often turn into bigger issues, as discussed in the book, Connect, that I co-authored. “Pinches” become “crunches” when left unaddressed for too long. Pay a bit now or pay a whole lot later.

Related to this is to learn how to create environments where people speak up and tell each other (and especially YOU as the leader) the truth. You can’t help someone if you don’t know they are struggling. You can’t address small issues unless you know they are brewing. Be genuinely curious and convey your interest in your people and they will sense it. As an aside, curiosity is impossible unless you are prepared to suspend judgment (at least temporarily.)

And finally, be a role model — people pick up signals on what is expected of them by watching what their boss does and does not do.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is ultimately about mobilizing people to achieve a common goal. It requires a vision that inspires and the capacity to create a culture that motivates, focuses, develops and releases people’s potential in the organization.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I am a big believer in mindfulness and meditation and have been committed to my practice for many, many years. I meditate at least a half an hour a day, and when more stressed, twice a day. I also walk 4 miles a day and try to hit the gym a couple of times a week. Those are the ways I routinely manage my stress level. I have a short stretching routine and a few favorite 5-to-10-minute meditations I do immediately before high-stakes meetings or talks.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

Let’s start with why feedback matters in the first place. Human beings are intentional animals, meaning when I do something I have a particular desired outcome in mind. For example, in writing this piece I am hoping readers will feel compelled to get better at giving better feedback and become more effective leaders. But I will have no idea whether I have hit the mark unless someone tells me, which is why I need feedback! Feedback is data. The more data I have the more choices I have in how I proceed and the more you can help me develop. If what I have written is boring, too long, too basic, or irrelevant, I will argue that I am better off knowing that than not knowing. In that regard, your feedback to me on something I have not done well (and don’t know I have not done well) is a gift. Sometimes feedback is delivered in wrapping that is so ugly it’s hard to recognize there is a gift in there, but if I believe feedback is data and I am better off with more data than less data I will thank you for it.

I have led many teams in multiple organizations over the years and in establishing a “feedback-rich culture” in all of them, I have always framed feedback as a gift — meaning we also had a norm that the first thing a receiver (including me, as the leader) was expected to do upon getting feedback was to thank the giver. That does not mean people did not need to learn how to give feedback effectively and that is why skills and competencies in giving and receiving feedback are such a core part of the Interpersonal Dynamics (aka “Touchy Feely”) course I taught at Stanford and the book (Connect) which I co-authored. The five suggestions below under the question about how to give honest feedback in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh speak to this further.

This might seem intuitive, but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

The main reason is that there is nothing more efficient than the truth. When you hint at an issue, the other might not know what the key point is or how important it is. When you say, “Something you might want to consider…” the other person doesn’t know whether it’s a casual suggestion, a really important issue, a request or a command. If you intend the last, but it is heard as the first, then the other person is likely to ignore the feedback to the detriment of both of you. And if you intend the first, but the other hears the last, you might both waste precious time.

A related problem is that when feedback is delivered indirectly, the receiver has to work hard to `read between the lines’ which is exhausting and ripe for misunderstanding. It can be challenging to seek clarification directly — especially when a power differential exists between you. If your direct report says, “I’m not clear about what you’re asking” they might fear you will see that as a criticism or as a sign of weakness or inadequacy.

The third problem is that being indirect can be experienced by the other as insulting. It can carry an implication that “you aren’t strong enough to handle the truth” or “our relationship is so fragile it can’t take the truth.” That message does nothing to build better or stronger relationships.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Before answering the question, I’d recommend not using the word “criticism” since my belief is that language creates reality, and my assumption is that the giver’s intent is to be helpful and not to just criticize. Personally, I never use the words positive and negative when referring to feedback because all feedback is data and therefore all feedback is positive. Now as to five specific suggestions:

1.Understand that in any interaction between two people there are actually three realities, and in order to deliver honest feedback effectively, you need to stick with your reality.

The 3 realities are: 1) the other’s motives and intentions; 2) their behavior (what they say and do) and 3) the impact of their behavior on you. You only know the second and third. Avoid drawing conclusions about the first, which you don’t know but rather assume. When you do assume, we call that being “over the net” since our model describes a metaphorical net between reality #1 and reality #2. For example, your colleague has repeatedly arrived late to meetings for the last month (whether on Zoom or in person). That is reality #2 and you both know it, as would anyone watching a video of what happened. You are annoyed– that is reality #3. You have no visibility into reality #1 (what is going on for your colleague) and often it is in thinking you do that the situation goes awry — for example you say, “You don’t seem to care.” And for those of you who have been taught to stick with “I” messages, “I feel that you don’t care” means the same thing. It is over the net and playing in the other person’s back court. You don’t know whether they care or not unless they’ve said so. The same applies to “I feel that you aren’t committed.” The moment your feedback imputes a motive or makes an attribution such as these, you are much more likely to make the other person defensive and that will get in the way of moving into a productive exchange. It is also likely to feel more hurtful.

2. Identify all the ways the other’s behavior affects you.

How does it make you feel, how is it likely to influence your responses and how will it affect how you deal with that person in the future? That is your basis of influence. If we continue with our example above, you might be feeling increasingly irritated, worried about their level of commitment, or resentful because of the additional burden it is placing on you to defend their behavior to the rest of the team. Your colleague is well served to know this. People change for their reasons, not yours. Which of these personal reactions is more likely to influence your colleague to move toward a problem-solving conversation (which, by the way, is the purpose of feedback)?

3. Whether face to face or remote, it’s important to convey that you are doing this because you want to help the other person.

When somebody does something that bothers you, ask yourself, “is that behavior hurting them?” This ties into point #2 above. If their behavior is triggering this response in you, might it be happening with other people in the organization too? Is your direct report better off knowing that you are getting more and more irritated and therefore less and less likely to give them that next plum assignment? Or that you may not be the only one who is worried about their level of commitment?

4. Once you share the impact of their behavior [and why it is costly to them], get curious about why a well-intentioned person would act that way.

Few people get up in the morning, look in the mirror and ask themselves how they can be an even worse colleague today than they were yesterday. What might be happening for your colleague that is making it difficult for him to arrive on time?

5. Ask whether you are doing anything that is compounding the problem.

Remember that most interpersonal issues have an interpersonal component. Have you continued to schedule Friday morning meetings at a time when he has repeatedly said that Friday mornings are when he has to drop off his kids at school?

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

The first answer is to avoid email as much as possible! Research shows that a feedback exchange is more likely to be successful if conducted by phone or Zoom if it can’t be in person. However, if you absolutely have to use e-mail, be as explicit as possible in taking the feedback steps outlined above; make it behaviorally specific, include the impact of the behavior on you (sharing feelings is much harder online, even with emoji’s), share your intentions (and concern for the person), and before telling them what you think they need to do, check that they are clear about what you find problematic. Ask how they are feeling in hearing the feedback and be prepared to do some clarification and recovery. One email rarely does the entire job and feedback, when well done, is an exchange, not an information dump. And, again, best not done by email.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

Generally, the closer the feedback is to the incident the better (if nothing else, the behavior is fresher, as are your reactions). However, there are times when it might be good to wait a bit. Are you so upset that you are likely to be more punitive than you want? Do you need some time to sort out your reactions? And there are times when the other is so upset they aren’t ready to hear what you have to say.

But if you do put it off, don’t wait too long, and let the person know your reason for wanting to wait. This may be nothing more than saying, “I am quite upset about this incident and we need to talk about it, but I need an hour to sort out my thoughts and feelings.”

In addition to addressing specific incidents, it can be useful to periodically “check in” with the other person by asking “how are we doing?” This makes feedback part of the normal course of interaction and is different than a performance appraisal — this invites exploration of any issues between you that need attention anytime. Related to this is the fact that one piece of feedback rarely changes 30 years of behavior. Be realistic and persistent. And last, acknowledge progress and address regression.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

Great bosses:

· Speak the truth [even to authority/power]

· Are willing to be vulnerable and allow themselves to be better known

· Care for their direct reports

· Don’t let their own needs for approval/affirmation get in the way of doing what is best for the organization

· Make the tough decisions

· Are able to influence others AND remain open to influence

· Balance concern for the organization’s success with concern for people

· Tolerate ambiguity/uncertainty and are willing to make decisions under those conditions

· Have a compelling vision

John was a company president in a multinational corporation. He built a strong team that collectively made the major decisions and in being willing to be confronted when others thought he was wrong, established a culture of transparency and truth telling. He set high standards and helped members achieve them. He committed to his own and his team’s development, acknowledging they were all “a work in progress”. All of this produced higher performance on every metric than they had ever achieved.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe that if we could arm a critical mass of people with the skills and competencies I’ve written a book about, we would have healthier, and more functional families, communities, schools, teams, organizations and, if I’m really going to dream big, governments. Given business’ tremendous influence, if I were independently wealthy, I would send a copy of Connect to every business leader in the country, in hopes of mobilizing them to show leadership and provide the knowledge necessary to build more functional and robust relationships to all of their people. I stand behind the mission of the Stanford Business School even though I now run my own leadership development non-profit -– Change Lives, Change Organizations, Change the World.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In that response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor Frankl.

I believe the concept of choice is key to self-empowerment, building strong relationships and ultimately leading a fuller, more meaningful life. When something feels difficult (such as responding to someone’s feedback) or risky (such as giving tough feedback), I substitute the words “I can’t” with “I have a choice” to remind myself that when it comes to my own attitude and behavior, I always have a choice.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

For more about the book please visit: www.connectandrelate.com

For more about Leaders in Tech please visit: www.leadersintech.org

For more about me visit: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carole-robin-ph-d-a8b5a91/

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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