Create trust and positive relationship. Ensuring your employees that you have their best interest in mind can take the burden away from any feedback. Trust is created over time when you continuously appreciate the good work of your employees while helping them get better. The more they trust you, the easier it is for them to see your feedback as helpful information rather than criticism.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Bartosik.
Anna Bartosik, owner of Woofs and Purrs, dog trainer and content creator. She is currently writing a book “Be Better Together: A Journey Through The World of Human and Animal Behavior” that will soon start a publishing process. She disseminates knowledge of behavioral science to improve lives of human and non-human animals.
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?
I always loved animals but I didn’t know that I can get a career that will incorporate my love for animals. I was told that I should get a “decent job” and make a “normal” career. It made me too afraid to start my own business for a long time.
Everything changed when I went on an Animal Behaviour Conference called Woof in 2017. I got immensely inspired by a speaker named Steve Martin (animal trainer, not the actor!) who talked about his work in zoo’s. What inspired me the most was when he showed how it’s not about using force but about giving animals choice and let them participate in their own care! He showed medical training which when done positively allowed animals including lions, giraffes and hyenas to voluntarily offer their body parts for injections or blood draws. It got me thinking how we believe it’s necessary to use force and restrain our domesticated animals to do what we think is right for them. We expect compliance, not participation.
Another amazing talk was from Theresa McKeon from TAG teach international. This time we talked about teaching humans. She talked about making the instructions easier for our learner, focusing on one thing at a time and recognizing what the learner did well. Combining those two together, I started to question if insisting on other people to do things a certain way is really a good idea? Telling someone “trust me, do it this way (…) because it’s the best”can be seen as forcing people to do things your way. I started reflecting back on my approach towards people. Can it be seen as forcing them to do something and can I find a different way? If giving choice to animals can be very efficient in creating long-lasting behavioral change, could it not be the same with humans?
I remember going back to the Puppy Classes after the Conference feeling inspired to apply everything I learned to the human students. It turned out to be far more complicated than I thought. I needed a process of learning to be able to apply what I learned. That started my never ending journey of learning, growing and developing skills.
I write a blog and a book to share all that I’ve learned and my failures along the way. It’s one thing to have knowledge, it’s another to apply it. My work is not just on how to train animals but how to effectively work with humans, including working on oneself. It’s a process of learning that can take time but can also be very enjoyable and fulfilling.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes my company stand out is the focus on inclusion and innovative thinking of how knowledge from one field or area can inform another area. My company stands for inclusion for all humans and animals. Even when interacting with people who have different opinions and approach to animals, there is no need to keep focusing on the differences but rather trying to find a mutual purpose and solutions. It’s not the easiest task and can firstly lead to tension but my company believes in not giving up before we explore all possible and sometimes seemingly impossible options.
I often talk with people who see things differently than me. When it is dog training client, I need to have two entities in mind, both the dog and the owner. What’s good for one might be against what the other needs.
When working with a client who uses a prong collar with his dog, I don’t start from saying how I believe there are better ways and that I don’t like prong collars. I start from listening and understanding what is the reasoning behind it. I empathize with them and instead of taking one option away, I give them another option to choose from. It’s my job to show the effectiveness of the other method so they can make the informed decision, not based on “trust me, I know best” but on experiencing the difference themselves. The biggest reward for me, is when I see how, without me prompting anything, next time, they put on a different collar or harness themselves. I haven’t force them, I gave them choice. If I learned how giving choice to animals can be an effective training tool, I believe I can also try it in teaching humans. From one area to another, I can adopt the knowledge so it fits both.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My career is non-typical and is heavily based on networking. While being in California I reached out to local animal trainers and got special permission to observe tigers and hyenas medical training session in-person in the zoo. Being just right next to the animals was absolutely incredible in itself but being able to watch what a wonderful job their trainers do was even more remarkable. The biggest lesson I took from this experience was that you don’t have to tell your animal that they’ve done something “wrong” when you are using behavior science principles effectively. I also believe, the same thing holds true with humans.
The most interesting thing to see was what trainers do when the animal didn’t do the behavior that was asked of them. Instead of using any form of correction or force, they took a quick pause and asked for well-known behavior instead. Trainers asked for something that is easier for the animal to do to regain momentum. Animal got a chance to reset and try fresh and trainers stayed in the most positive and least intrusive way of training. Instead of telling the animals that they did something “wrong”, it’s better to assess later why animal didn’t do what was asked of them? Training is seen as communication between the animal and the trainer. All of the “mistakes” are treated as information gathering. Was there any sign of distress that you’ve missed? Did you ask for too much and should break the behavior down into smaller steps? Was the trainer giving clear direction to the animals? What can be done next time, to make it successful for the animal?
When you plan your sessions in advance, there is no need for using force or even withdrawing your reinforcement as a way of punishment. There are much more effective ways to get behaviors that you want to see from your animals. It’s about focusing on what you want to see and making it worthwhile for the animal to do it.
I believe it can be adopted to our work with humans. We oftentimes get hang up on telling people what they did wrong but we never acknowledge them for doing the right thing. Reversing this can make the biggest difference in not only their performance but also improve morale and overall work satisfaction. You might not even have to tell them they did something wrong if you continuously focus on the things they did right and teach them skills that will help them avoid the wrong actions. You will get more of the good things to the point that you will no longer see the “wrong” ones.
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?
I’m not sure if this is a funny mistake but rather a failure that I learned a lot from. I’ve been organizing a group class for the second time in a different city with a friend of mine. We did well the first time round so I assumed it will look the same next time too. We talked through what the class will be about and we offered it. The problem was, no one was interested. It was a big lesson of how forgetting about the client is the biggest mistake and yet still the most common. The wording of the class was not tackling a specific problem clients have and the price was not adjusted to the market. Our team of two didn’t brainstorm enough. From that moment, I learned to go through my ideas with more people. It’s one thing to believe “I’m right and my idea is great” but it’s another for other people to believe in it too. Having ideas are one thing, adjusting them for general public is another. I can’t do it all by myself, the team effort brings the most to the table.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
I would encourage CEOs to promote self-care in the work place. Self-care can take many forms and will mean a little bit different things for everyone. It can be yoga, meditation, online courses on working on oneself but also a weekend in the mountains. It’s important to listen to all employees and encourage sharing among them what are their struggles but also what are their tactics to deal with those struggles. You can use the collective knowledge to inspire self-care.
Employees thrive when they have an influence on their own work and environment. When they feel that they have no control over their days, it leads to high levels of stress. Working in fast-paced environment is filled with changes and little predictability yet when on top of it, they need to run most of their decisions with their manager, it can leave them with feeling that they don’t have any control at all. Seeing a clear path forward with many small goals along the way that are achievable, brings more stability and peace of mind. Be clear about what behaviors company values so everyone can know what to do. By acknowledging employees for those behaviors (in a way that they want to be acknowledged which can be different between people) you will see more of them and the more employees will thrive.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me “leadership” is about leading by example and inspiring others to be the best version of themselves. Have you ever had a teacher who had high expectations from you but whom you admired greatly and trusted? Those teacher rarely ever rely on punishment, they encourage learning, they peek your interest so you want to learn yourself not because you have to but because you find value in it. For me, that’s what true leadership is all about. It’s not about forcing and demanding but about helping people find value in moving the company in the right direction.
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’m a mindfulness practitioner with emphasis on accepting my emotions as they are. In a stressful situation, I do my best to notice all bodily sensations and my feelings associated with this situation and see them as appearance in consciousness. It is uncomfortable and my first learned reaction was to run away to distractions but the more I practice staying with emotions, the faster I see those sensations disappear. There is an art in noticing when I’m stressed but also when I’m not stressed. When I clearly see the signs and the difference, the more I notice how emotions come and go just like a breath.
Recently, working on my next writing project, I found myself procrastinating and running away to distractions. At some point, I took some time to stop and notice what is going on. I felt incredibly stressed before sitting down to write. I was flooded with feelings of unworthiness, I felt I’m not good for the task, I was finding all the reasons why it won’t work out. I also had tight muscles, especially in my neck and shoulders as well as I felt tightness in my belly and chest. I was able to notice everything that was happening — emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations. I allowed it in and decided to write it all down. I also asked myself a very important question: what’s the worst thing that can happen? Stating it down on paper, allowed me to let go of this stress. It no longer seemed like the world is going to collapse if something won’t work out. I came up with a plan and divided it for achievable steps and actions to take. I focused on doing, even when it seemed small at a time. I can always go back and readjust my plan as well as I can always go back to reminding myself that the worst thing that can happen is not actually that scary. I’m not fighting for my life with life-threatening disease. Even if the project fails, I will find another one to work on.
Focusing on noticing all the signs of stress as well as reflecting back on them, seeing that the worst case scenario is not even that bad and focusing on achievable steps ahead of me is helping me move forward even with overwhelming stress. It’s not that it is done once and for all but it’s a strategy that can be used whenever it’s needed. Stress will come back but next time it might not be as strong as the first time round. The less we fight with it, the less power it has over us.
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?
When I’m teaching a group class, I need to give constant feedback. What went well, what we need to work on next. It’s not only the dog that is learning a new skill, it’s also the human. Managing a whole group with 6 puppies holds many challenges and difficulties. I found that creating trust with people is a very important first step. I’ve seen and experienced how my feedback can inspire or shut down learning. I made many mistakes along the way but I take responsibility for the learning of the whole group. I don’t judge people as stubborn or uncooperative. I do my best to inspire everyone with what they need as individuals.
I’m also a leader of an online group and community. I believe that being vulnerable is leadership. Sharing that I’m going through difficulties too is making me more relatable and is easier for my team to hear feedback. It also encourages sharing and I want to listen to my team just as much or even more than I want to share things with them.
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?
Giving honest and direct feedback is a way to create dialogue and influence performance of your team and people you work with. Holding back on sharing your thoughts can create tension and escalate the problem. It’s important to share and talk openly.People won’t change things that they didn’t know are worth changing. You can’t expect the problem to go away without addressing it. However, the way you share feedback is very crucial. It’s not true that there are only two options — sharing feedback or being kind. You can do both at the same time. I would encourage you to try.
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.
- Start with what the person did well.I learned it the hard way. I was coaching a client with a dog on loose leash walking exercise. She looked eager to learn when she started to practice the exercise. I then noticed that she kept feeding the dog in a “wrong place” and therefore the dog was shooting in front of her instead of staying by her leg. I started my feedback by saying: “No, no, no, let’s do it this way” and before I even demoed what I wanted to teach, I already saw all of her eagerness disappear from her face. She looked like I screamed at her or told her that she is a complete failure and she shouldn’t even try anything. That was definitely not my intention! Yet, my intention was not clear to the person I talked with. I don’t know her learning history, she might have a lot of bad experience learning new skills and every negative feedback seems to her like a personal attack. She has the right to see it that way. It’s my responsibility as a teacher, coach or leader to take that into consideration and make it clear of what intentions I have behind my feedback. Now, I would say it rather this way: “I love how you keep the leash in your right hand and how quickly you get the food out to your dog! Well done! Next step could be to try feeding by your knee so your pup learns to stay next to you. Would that be ok if I will demonstrate? (…) How about if I’ll coach you through this?” Doesn’t that sound better? I would start from genuinely noticing what I like in her behavior and appreciate it, which (if received as genuine) makes it more likely that she will repeat it.Only then I would focus on the thing we can do differently. I don’t even have to say “you did it incorrectly”. My suggestion to try something that can help is enough information to see the change happening.
- Listen. Be as open to hear what the person has to say about their work as you are eager to comment it. Never underestimate the power of perspective taking and seeing things through the eyes of others. What you will hear might be a completely different interpretation of what you tried to communicate. Encourage people to feedback on your feedback so you can learn and improve your feedback giving skill. Ask for their opinion on how to best give feedback so they know that you have their interest in mind and no harsh criticism. Come up with a solution together through listening and responding. It’s about finding a mutual purpose and a solution that works for both of you. We all want to be heard and sometimes that’s enough for our feelings of being criticized to go away. It is the best known way to avoid misunderstandings.
- Create trust and positive relationship. Ensuring your employees that you have their best interest in mind can take the burden away from any feedback. Trust is created over time when you continuously appreciate the good work of your employees while helping them get better. The more they trust you, the easier it is for them to see your feedback as helpful information rather than criticism.
- Say WHAT to do — not just what they SHOULDN’T do.In our feedback we are often prone to start with what the person did wrong in our opinion. Sometimes we say “you did well but…” I’m afraid everything you said before “but” will be forgotten and the failures will be magnified. Instead of talking about wrong doings, I would focus on saying what to do instead. “When it comes to this task (…) how about you would try to go about it this way (…)?” Propose solutions while being open for suggestions. It’s important to be proactive in your feedback while staying open for suggestions. We might think that our solution is the best but it doesn’t have to be the best to the person who listens to it. It’s great to give more than one suggestion. In my example in the first point, I suggested demonstration and coaching and allowed the person to choose what she feels good with. It’s not about forcing our ways but about choosing together a way forward that will work for both.
- Individualize your feedback to the person who receives it. One person can interpret your words as harsh when for another it will be a valuable information with no harshness in it. It’s possible to say exact same thing and be understood in two different ways. When you listen and understand the person in front of you, do your best to adjust to what their needs are. There is no point in offering feedback in group setting if one person sees it as something very aversive and can’t learn from it. You can work with your employees to get them to the same page and offer feedback in a similar way but expecting them to find value in it without prior learning and work, is too high of expectations. People are individuals, by meeting them where they are, you can help them get where they could be faster.
If you want to learn more about communication skills, I highly recommend “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan.
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?
Take responsibility for your feedback and be equally vigorous to listen as you are to speak. With all the best intentions, our words can come across as critical or harsh, especially in the email. Everyone is different and what is neutral for one, might sound very critical for another person. The best antidote is to ask for feedback of your feedback. Ask what the other person understood and how she or he took it. The more open for feedback you are, the easier it will be for your employees to take your feedback too. After hearing feedback, you can then clarify what were your intentions and if necessary repair the damage of your harsh feedback. Give yourself the opportunity to listen and grow from all the people around you. They can teach you things too. The more time you invest at the beginning to clarify intentions of your feedback, the easier and faster it will be in the future. Tell people what to do so it works for both of you and gives them chance to do it and see it work, instead of trying something else and fail again. When you only say what not to do, they can keep trying different things that won’t work for you either. Take the responsibility of helping them find solution and make sure to appreciate them next time they do the things you suggested.
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?
I believe it depends on the situation and the people involved. If you expect that your feedback won’t be received as a critique but rather as a helpful information, it’s best to give it immediately but if you are not yet sure how it will be received, creating trust and good relationship, in my opinion, should be prioritized. When it comes to positive feedback, I have no doubts that it should be received immediately. It makes a huge difference in the performance when the feedback is timely and specific to the behaviors you are referring to. When you focus on the things that you can give positive feedback on, you will see more of those behaviors. You can get hang up on trying to notify people on their every mistake that you forget to ever appreciate their successes. The more you appreciate people for their actions, the more you will see those actions happen again. When you see more of them, you might be surprised to notice that you no longer have to give critique as the correct actions went into the place of the incorrect ones. If the situation requires it and the person you work with is still learning, don’t feel that you have to tell them all the things they need to improve. Of course, there will be things to improve, they are still learning. It’s more important to let them know what they are doing well and by doing so create trust and open relationship. It doesn’t mean to hold back on critique as that’s not helpful either. It’s about waiting for the right time and observe what is more important in the moment. You can always give feedback at a later time and share your ideas on what to do to improve performance of your teammembers when you’ve created trust and allowed them to see that you have their best interest in mind. They will be far more likely to take your feedback to heart. If you want to learn more about focusing on positive feedback and positive reinforcement, check out the book “Bringing out the best in people: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement” by Aubrey C. Daniels.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss is a one who listens and inspires. Great boss is not afraid to share his or her opinion but does it in an open and inclusive way, encouraging others to share theirs. It is a lie that we can either tell the truth or be kind. If you only give yourself these two options, you are not looking for alternatives. You can say what you want to say without being hurtful, while encouraging other opinions and together finding solutions that work for everyone. If you believe that there is one and only solution and that everyone “should agree with you” than you are not only likely to come across as harsh and inconsiderate, you are also closing yourself up from considering solutions that you haven’t yet think about. Just because you don’t see any different solution, it doesn’t mean that your team members won’t see it. Great boss has the ability to learn from his employees and grows the company together with everyone involved.
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. 🙂
Movement that I want to start with my work is inspiring people to learn about positive reinforcement, what it is, how to use it properly and apply it in our day to day lives. My work is around animals but I don’t limit it to non-human animals. The most effective ways of teaching both human and non-human animals that give you results for long-term are science based, positive reinforcement methods. If you understand it, it’s not only about changing your teams, it’s about changing your own behavior, adopting new habits that you always wanted to adopt as well as improving your relationship with your closest family — spouse, kids, parents or even your pets. Being better communicator can improve lives of everyone around you. I want to inspire learning and working on oneself for the good of others around us.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Behavior goes where reinforcement flows” Aubrey Daniels. There are many stories how this quote was relevant in my life. One of them is in animal training when I took workshop in clicker training horses. I have a lot of experience with dogs but horses are still new to me. Behavior works across the species but I got stuck on positively teaching the horse to move forward. We were nicely moving backwards as well as turning and for some reason I got stuck on seemingly the easiest movement. That’s when I got reminded “Behavior goes where reinforcement flows”. The horse was doing what was reinforced in his behavior the most. He was working on back cue most recently and that’s what he was offering. The way to move forward was to reinforced heavily all of the small movements forwards even if it was just a lean forward. His behavior followed the reinforcement but so does our behavior and people we work with. Many times when I find myself looking at my phone and get lost in all the messages I’m reminded of it again. Reading the messages is reinforcing and it will compete with other tasks at hand. To make it less likely for me to engage in this behavior, I put my phone on flight mode while working on important tasks as well as I disallowed all notifications. I look at my messages only when I want to spend my time on it, rather than every time someone sends something. At the same time I make sure that doing my work is reinforcing for me. I set achievable goals that I can celebrate every day. The more reinforcement I have for the work that I want to do, the more I do it again.
Whenever you see your team members engaging in specific behaviors even like going towards coffee making machine, this behavior is driven by it’s consequences. One reinforcement is the coffee itself but another one is the ability to go away from the desk and take a break from work. Both can work simultaneously. If there are no other appropriate and agreed ways of taking a break when needed, people might quickly increase their coffee consumption to alarming levels. This behavior is not intrinsically good or bad. It happens because it is reinforcing for the individual. Instead of blaming people for following the reinforcement, consider giving more options that can be agreed with everyone. Breakout room for mediation? Allocating more help for difficult task so people won’t feel the need to take the break in the first place? There can be many different things to try in every situation. Instead of blaming, see behavior for what it is. It goes where reinforcement flows.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can, thank you for asking! Your readers can follow me on my blog at www.woofsandpurrs.co.uk/blog as well as on Facebook at www.fb.com/woosandpurrsuk and Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/woofsandpurrsuk/. Even though many of my blogs are about training animals, you can be surprised how much you can adopt to your own life with fellow humans if you only are open enough to receive it.
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.