Teachable Moments: Improve Team Morale through Real-Time Feedback Loops


Teachable Moments Blog (1)

By Sedora Tantraphol

A few years ago, I was called in to facilitate a team crisis meeting to address low morale in the office. There was a lot to unpack, but it boiled down to a lot of tension, mistrust, and a culture that did not support open discussion of feelings and misunderstandings.

Enter: the Teachable Moment.

I talked to the team about the concept of Teachable Moments — accepting into the organizational culture the practice of constructively discussing upsetting or sensitive situations, and listening to feedback without defensiveness. We’re all human, and we all have different personalities, work styles and preferences. In order for a team to work together harmoniously, it needs to agree to create a space where these differences and misunderstandings can be aired, and where each team member agrees to try to change their own behaviors as well. None of us like to have difficult discussions or to confront our coworkers, so this real-time feedback loop makes it easier to  initiate these discussions and improve work relationships moving forward.

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At the crux of it, Teachable Moments are about trust – building trusting relationships with your coworkers, trusting that someone’s constructive criticism comes from a good place, and trusting that your colleague will make a sincere attempt to change their behavior in the future.

Adopting Teachable Moments into the Work Culture

Have an open discussion with your team. Acknowledge that inevitably, there will be conflicts from time to time, and ask if everyone is comfortable trying out the Teachable Moments practice. To be successful, every team member must commit to speaking up calmly and to listening calmly.

Here are some techniques to initiate a Teachable Moment, illustrated by Jon Snow and Ygritte of Game of Thrones:

1.) Reach out to the person immediately.

Example: Ygritte and Jon Snow are in a team meeting. Jon says something that offends Ygritte. Instead of disappearing immediately after the meeting and furiously yelling at Jon later that he knows nothing, a more productive approach would be to approach Jon immediately after the meeting, tactfully asking if she can speak to him for a moment. This signals to the offender that they may have said or done something upsetting, so they will be more aware of their behavior.

2.) Ask if they are in a space to talk about the incident. This is very important. You need to have the teachable moment discussion during a time when the other will be open to hearing feedback, and will not be defensive, distracted or rushed. Likewise, you need to be in a calm space. If you’re feeling too heated or upset to have a calm and productive conversation, schedule a time to speak later. It might even be a good idea to schedule a coffee or walking meeting, to get out of the office and be in a more informal, friendly setting.

Here’s how Ygritte and Jon’s conversation might go.

Ygritte: Jon, I felt like you said something very dismissive at the meeting. I’m upset. I think this is a good Teachable Moment. Are you available to talk now, or would it be better to schedule something for later? Maybe over coffee?  

3.) If both parties are ready to talk, tell the other person what action upset you, how it made you feel and why, and how you can both improve the situation moving forward.

Jon: Of course I’m free to talk now, Ygritte. What’s up?

Ygritte: During the meeting, you pushed back our meeting on that big project again. I can’t move forward on it without meeting with you. This is the third time you’ve pushed our meeting back. I feel disrespected — that you feel like my time isn’t valuable, that you can just schedule over it.

Jon: Wow, I didn’t realize that it was the third time I had pushed our meeting. I’m so sorry. Some urgent matters came up, but I will be more considerate about not scheduling over our meetings in the future.

Ygritte: Thanks, Jon. I understand that sometimes big client meetings come up. Should we try to schedule our meetings for times that are less likely to be impacted by last minute needs?

And now, Jon and Ygritte have made up and she won’t have to shoot him with an arrow anymore.

4.) If you need to reschedule, take the time to jot down what happened, how it made you feel and why, and how you can both improve the situation moving forward. Try to schedule within a week of the incident, so it will still feel timely. Do not have an email / text discussion in lieu of an in-person meeting! This is sensitive stuff, and it works best when you’re face to face so you can read each other’s body language and establish a deeper connection.

5.) Express gratitude. After the Teachable Moment, do a quick check-in with each other to see how both of you feel now that the issue has been aired. Thank the person for their time, and in turn, the listener should thank you for raising an action to their attention that they didn’t know was bothering you.

Engaging in Teachable Moments increases everyone’s self-awareness, and leads to a more considerate environment. If some team members are uncomfortable with having these difficult conversations, try pairing up and role playing the above scenario.

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The moral of the story is: having difficult conversations can be uncomfortable, but establishing a culture that encourages safe discussions is better for everyone. You’re able to address issues as they arise instead of unproductively fuming silently over the situation (or worse yet, “gossipping” with coworkers about the situation) without taking action to prevent it from happening again. Over time, morale will improve because everyone on staff will be able to talk openly instead of keeping things bottled up, feeling suspicious about motives, acting passive aggressively, or experiencing/exhibiting other negative behaviors and feelings.  

A few weeks after facilitating that crisis meeting, I actually got an email from the director telling me that they had implemented Teachable Moments immediately, and that it had improved morale remarkably! The staff was feeling happier now that actions were being discussed, and the team members trusted each other more, too.

What are other effective strategies you’ve seen improve team morale and improve work culture? Share them with us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn!