“If you do not have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Growing up in a Middle Eastern society, these words were the cornerstone of what it meant to be respectful. Far better to be quiet and accommodating than to risk causing offence by speaking up. As a result, while respect is always a given, difficult yet important conversations are rarely had.

However, over time, I have come to realize how impractical this is. If we really want to make a difference, then this “hard talk” is crucial. We do ourselves and others a disservice by keeping silent.

At Sheraa, respect lies at the core of our culture – not only to external stakeholders, but towards one another. When we say “respect,” what we mean is valuing each other’s work, time, and individual strengths and work styles. Appreciating that everyone on the team has an important job to do, and supporting them, while also holding them accountable for it, is essential to a respectful environment.

In order to maintain that sense of accountability, we work hard to instil a growth mindset amongst the team in the belief that through dedication and hard work, any skill can be improved. We have paired this with a culture of feedback, necessary to encourage growth across the board. Of course, psychological safety plays an important role. The team must feel secure when both giving and receiving feedback, which is why we host regular workshops on how to do so objectively and with respect. We emphasize that it is not only top-down, but omnidirectional, because we know that we must all grow together in order to improve as a team.

However, giving feedback is only one piece of the puzzle. Unless you establish a culture of openness and transparency, you run the risk of the critique, however constructive, remaining only at surface-level. We have learned to address things that others may hesitate to bring up because they may be considered “sensitive” topics. For example, microaggressions, such as coworkers speaking Arabic in front of non-Arabic speakers, or certain people taking advantage of a perceived “protected status” to shirk their duties, or an antagonistic colleague always engaged in unhealthy arguments with the team.

Issues such as these must be addressed head on because over time, it could lead to discord. I confess, having these “harder” conversations is one of the things we have struggled with most. Sheraa is made up of a small, close-knit team. We’re good friends – often referring to each other as “family” – we socialize outside of work, and while this strengthens our bond, it does blur the boundaries between the personal and the professional. However, as we grow in size and scope, we are beginning to acknowledge the necessity of separating the two when evaluating job performance.

Recognizing and addressing patterns of behavior has helped provide structure to these call-outs. Once-off errors can be overlooked, but if there is repeated behavior that is affecting performance, then a serious one-on-one conversation must be had. The aim is not to lay blame, but to point out examples and note how it affects the workplace, then explore options to correct it.

Having said that, we have also have learned to pick our battles, deciding which conversations are truly mission-critical. Just because we can provide feedback on everything, does not mean we should. All that does is create a constant state of insecurity.

Let’s be honest, things don’t always go as planned. In fact, we have on a couple of occasions been forced to acknowledge that things were simply not working out and it was time to part ways. But for the most part, this respectful approach towards giving feedback has worked well.

It is not easy to change the years of socialization which have taught us that respect is about keeping the peace at all costs. We all struggle to have the tough conversations—they are uncomfortable, and difficult (otherwise it wouldn’t be called “hard talk”). However, they are essential for healthier, more productive working relationships. And while we still have a lot of work to do, every moment at Sheraa where we have gotten over that discomfort and spoken openly and honestly, we have only been better for it.

 

Najla Al-Midfa is Chief Executive Officer of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa), a government-supported entity with a mandate to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Sharjah, and support the next generation of entrepreneurs as they build and grow innovative startups that will contribute positively to the region’s economy. She also spearheaded the creation of the annual Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival and is founder of Khayarat, a platform that empowers young, high-potential Emiratis to make informed career choices, and enables them to succeed in the private sector.

Najla also features on the cover of this month’s Entrepreneur Middle East magazine – if you’re interested in reading more about her journey, you can view the article here.

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