Giving effective feedback is a core skill for leaders. Without feedback, our teams don’t know whether they’re on track or not. All the texts tell us we need to know how to challenge performance that isn’t what we need it to be. Fewer of them, however, remind us that reinforcing the good stuff is equally — perhaps more — important.
If we want our teams to be self-motivated and resilient, able to cope without our constant attention and direction, and if we don’t want to lose our brightest stars — then we need to spend at least as much time catching people doing stuff right as we do correcting things that are wrong.
And for the things that aren’t right, one of our core responsibilities as leaders and managers is to offer support, guidance and direction on how to get it right, how to improve. It’s our responsibility to the organization we lead — after all, it’s our job to make sure it is delivering.
So, if it’s important — how do we make sure we do it effectively?
For me, the starting point to this has to be intent — why are we raising the issue in the first place? What’s our motivation? If we give feedback from the stand point of showing someone up or proving them wrong — how effective is that really going to be?
We’re all human. Our natural reaction when we’re attacked is to defend. Or withdraw. It’s hardwired into our systems — the fight or flight (or freeze) response.
Our bodies actually go through biological changes. We put all our resources (brain, energy, focus) into (unconsciously) preparing to either attack back or run away. We get tunnel vision, we focus on what to do next, not what’s going on now, we close down. Which makes it really hard to hear what’s said and process it with any degree of rationality.
Instead — when we think about giving feedback — if we start from the perspective of genuinely wanting someone to succeed, it changes how we present it, which in turn will change how it’s received.
Having a success oriented mindset should make us more more curious about why something is going wrong, rather than just the fact that it is.
Are we sure that we know the full situation? Listening is a much under-rated skill in giving feedback! If we don’t have the full picture, how can we give meaningful advice or guidance? We should be prepared for our improvement conversations to include questions as well as directions.
Also, if we come from the perspective of wanting the other person to shape up rather than ship out, we put ourselves in the mindset that there is potential for improvement, and we give ourselves permission to provide them that opportunity.
Tackling underperformance is a leader’s core responsibility
Being compassionate and success oriented, doesn’t mean ducking the issue. We all have the right to know if what we’re doing isn’t working. Without that knowledge, how can we ever improve?
As leaders we need to start the conversation — and be clear about what’s not working. We also need to be clear about why it’s a problem, the negative impact we see as a result of what’s going on.
Sharing the why and the impact as well as the problem has two benefits.
First, it gives the other person context and a bigger picture about the situation. If I understand that my small (to me) mistake on the size of a widget makes it impossible for the next person to fit their component and in turn makes the whole build impossible, will I be more careful? Probably.
A second benefit is that we don’t know all the answers. There may well be a problem but our solution isn’t necessarily the right one. Sharing the impact allows the team member to help find the answer — meaning we get a better result and they feel part of the solution.
Making it happen
Start from a success mindset, be curious about why something is a problem, not just that it is. Be clear about what’s wrong and share why. Remember that feedback can be hard to hear. Frame your comments carefully. Be prepared for reactions but don’t let them distract you from the fact of under-performance. Accept that even though you’re the leader, you might not have the solution. Be prepared to listen as well as tell.
Doing all these things increases the probability of us having successful and effective improvement conversations. Hopefully we will see positive change in 99% of cases.
But ultimately there will be times when it just doesn’t work, when the mistakes and poor performance continue. The other person may not be able to improve. Or they may just not want to. When it gets to that stage, there is only one option left — and that’s for them to go. It can feel hard, but it’s something as leaders we have to do.
Having a team member who can’t (or won’t) improve is a costly strain for any business. It affects productivity not just through their own poor performance and the impact that has on the rest of the team, but also because it pulls our focus as leaders away from the needs of the organization as a whole.
When it comes to the crunch, we have to act. We owe it to our organizations, our teams and our customers.