Patiently Impatient Leadership- The Art of Feedback
When was the last time someone sat you down and said, “wow, you are really bad at that”. Or husbands, when your wife says, “how does this dress look on me”… do you answer? (I would recommend not). Or a President plans on how to pardon himself… too soon?!
One of the principle foundations of my marriage and subsequently how we raise our children is built on a number of core values, and one of the most valuable values is feedback. My wife has this thing she does when she gets frustrated with me (yes it does happen). She starts the conversation out with, “**Nickname**, I’m a little frustrated… ” and I know we are about to sort out some issue or misunderstanding. It is an artful practice, but those four words plus my name, triggers an emotion in me that I need to listen, let her finish, and then speak. If I don’t understand the concern, I ask thoughtful questions, if I disagree I ask for clarity, but I do try to acknowledge, apologize, and course correct. The apology is the hardest step, but no one every said I was a finished product 🙂
We take tone and words very seriously when interacting with our boys. Never have we defamed or shamed them out of anger or frustration. Never has there been a word that would wound them for life like, “you are stupid”, “shut up”, “go away”, etc. If we are aggressive in an unhealthy way with them, we always apologize and then have a conversation about our frustration, but start it with, “Daddy shouldn’t have yelled”. Now before you roll your eyes, please understand, this does not mean we do not discipline our children or speak assertively when needed, such as, “COLIN, GET OFF YOUR BROTHER”! or “JACKSON, DO NOT TALK TO YOUR MOTHER LIKE THAT”. Any time we discipline our children it is followed by, “Jackson/Colin, come here please”. We then open the dialogue to root out what caused their behavior or action, help them understand why that was inappropriate, help them solve (on their own) how they could have responded differently, and have them respond with an acknowledgement and apology.
Over the course of my life I have found that the theory of feedback is a wonderful thing, yet the action is something to run like hell from, both giving and receiving. Up until the past year, when feedback was delivered to me I took it as “Jason, you suck… why do I even bother with you”! Yet the lack of feedback left me open for negative self-talk like “I must really be bad or they must be trying to get rid of me, they never critique my work”. You’ve been there, right?
Over the past year I have enveloped myself in a variety of studies, particular around improving my emotional intelligence, and subsequently, my leadership skills. One quote that has stuck with me over the past year is from Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel”. When I read that I decided I wanted to be a different person and a different leader.
As leaders we have an opportunity to shape generations of people into sound decision makers, strong character, healthy risk takers, and impactful leaders. We cannot do that if our focus is handing out trophies for every win, mean mugs for every loss, or confusion during every challenge. The art of leadership begins with your ability to read, recognize, and act on the behaviors of your team through feedback.
This past week we completed our midyear reviews. As I mentioned, most of my adult life, any negative feedback delivered to me sent me to this place of self-doubt, negative self-talk, and consequently self-sabotage. This year, my boss gave me a 3-page midyear with the most thoughtful feedback I have ever received. The biggest criticism, I can be impatient. When I see an opportunity I want to drive it to immediate completion without taking into consideration other matters, such as politics (my words, not my boss’s). When I read the feedback, I laughed because it was true. I immediately called my wife and said, “boy does BOSS know me”. We chuckled and, a couple times this weekend, she has reminded me when I have started down an impatient task on something, such as baseboards.
I know impatience can sometimes get the best of me, and I discovered this last month. I’ve been reading studies on improving impatience and trying to gain perspective on how to not push my impatience to my team and family. It’s a learning curve, but I have confidence that I will get there.
So how do I deliver feedback? I lean into that important discomfort. It’s uncomfortable because it is never easy to look someone in the eye and give them constructive feedback. Human nature is to deliver the feedback as quickly as possible and end the conversation just as quickly. What this does is puts you into an uncomfortable position to also rush through the positive feedback and thus diminish the efforts of the person. So after months of tuning, here is my strategy.
Step 1: Set Expectations: “Person, thank you for giving me the opportunity to deliver some feedback on your performance. I want to make this meeting productive and a two-way street, so lets discuss some of the great things you have done and some areas for opportunity”. Notice, I invited them into a conversation, set the expectation that we would discuss good and bad, and noted the good things as “great” and the bad things as “opportunities”.
Step 2: Always Start with the Good: “Person, what do you feel are some of your strongest accomplishments so far this year”? You start with the good, allow them to self-reflect, and invite them to participate immediately. I make it a practice to reaffirm what they have pointed out, because it is clearly top of mind for them, but I also make sure I add a few points. This lets them know that I take note of what they do, not just what they tell me they do.
Step 3: Opportunities: Now is the time to really lean into that discomfort! “Person, on the flip side, what do you think are your areas of opportunities”? Seldom do I get “none”, and more often than not I get a laundry list of trivial things. I listen intently (do not take notes at this time) and focus on their words and emotions. I thank them for their transparency and spend several minutes digging into why they feel those are opportunities and helping them build accountable action plans to improve on the opportunities. Typically I craft my observations into their observations, which makes the conversation flow with buy-in. Is that always possible? No, so…
Step 4: Critique- When critique is needed and not identified by the person, I start with a targeted entry of the discomfort, “person, I have a couple additional areas of opportunity that I would like to discuss and see if we can collaborate on a strategy”. I then follow up with a broad topic and then pinpoint it with examples. “Bob, I appreciate how passionate you are about the quality of the product of your team, it shows how much you care about the work and development of your people. However, some of the feedback I have received, and on a couple instances I have observed, you are dismissive of the feedback of your peers and do not engage on finding a solution for disagreements. For example,….”
Step 5: Action Plan- I am a believer in the positive notation of an action plan and do not always view them as a negative. I avoid the terminology when I can, but I put a strategy together to help develop the opportunities. In the example above, I would let Bob respond and I would listen. I would then circle around to the corner of my desk to get a bit closer to Bob, without invading his space, and draw out some ideas on paper. I would give that written document to Bob, because it isn’t on a formal template and it is less intimidating.
Step 6: Set Expectations- I would set expectations with Bob, very clear and concise, and obtain is acknowledgement and buy-in. After Bob leaves my office, I document every detail of the conversation
Step 7: Feedback alone is useless without follow-up. I make sure that I follow up with Bob in two weeks on the actions we laid out.
Friends, feedback isn’t easy whether we deliver it to our employees, peers, or family. It is never easy to look one of my little boys in the eye and correct their behavior. I get the watery puppy dog eyes that are heart breaking. Similarly, it is never easy to deliver that feedback to an employee. In each case, improvement and development only comes when you lean into that discomfort and give the feedback they NEED to hear in a way they WILL hear it.
I would love to hear your thoughts and tips on delivering feedback if you care to share in the comments section!