Over the years, I’ve spent many hours on trains (and sometimes planes) alongside people travelling for work. Often, it’s people with their teammates, having discussions about their work. As someone who suffers from the dreaded travel sickness, I can’t look at a computer or even listen to a podcast. I must sit there (if I’m lucky enough to get a seat!), facing forwards and concentrate very hard on not feeling ill. This means my ears are open and, without wanting to be a nosy neighbour, it’s impossible not to hear the conversations going on around me.
I’ve overheard conversations about things that really shouldn’t be discussed openly (some people need to be more mindful about confidentiality…). I’ve listened to many people moaning about their work. I’ve been accidentally included in many a rant about people’s bosses and their teammates. In these situations, I’ve always been fascinated with how negative the conversations are, lacking empathy and kindness. Talking behind people’s backs and putting them into a “they’re wrong or they’re bad” category.
Then something wonderful happened. I hopped on a train into London and found the last seat at a table with three women who all worked for the same organisation. From their conversations, I’m going to guess they were regional managers in high-end retail. It seemed like they had just been to a conference or a big meeting of some kind. In this conversation, they started to talk about several people they mutually knew:
It made my 55-minute jaunt into London joyful. After so many years of hearing the miserable conversations that act like a total mood-hoover, it was so refreshing to listen to people be inspired, be supportive and, most importantly, lift people up. This is the kind of talking behind someone’s back I could get on board with! They noticed growth in skills, they were proud of people, and they were grateful of the effort put in by others. This was a conversation that lifted people up, showed pride in their workmates and to me, as a nosy train neighbour, it felt like they were advocating for their colleagues – even when they weren’t in the room (well carriage in this case!).
I’m going to give what they were doing a name: Casual Advocacy
It got me thinking about the act of being an advocate and how often it happens only through a structured process. Sponsorship programmes for talent development would be a great example of this. These programmes are brilliant and can make a real difference in people’s careers (especially when supporting people from underrepresented backgrounds). Yet, they are often limited in numbers, so the impact is individual and not necessarily felt across an organisation.
Then I considered how important the acts of praise and recognition are for individual, team and organisational performance and development. When we choose to praise though, it sometimes gets categorised as a performance review type activity. Then the tendency is to focus on the ‘what’ (outcomes, delivery, achievements etc) and forget the importance of the ‘how’ (behaviours, growth, relationships etc). If informal praise happens, it risks being quickly delivered and become a compliment (thank you / well done etc) rather than real feedback, it then misses out on the critical information about the impact. It’s also something we may do privately and via email, rather than openly and outwardly.
I’m now thinking about how wonderful it would be if we could all Casually Advocate a little bit more. What if (in addition to the formal stuff, not instead of), we chose to invest a little more time and effort sharing more about the great things other people do? What if we started answering questions like these in our team meetings, in our water-cooler conversations or when we logged onto zoom when we’re waiting to start the conversation?
That’s a conversation I’d like to have. That’s a meeting I’d want to be engaged with. That’s an organisational culture I’d want to be involved in. How about you?