Many leaders credit receiving a critical, and often tough, piece of feedback during their developing career as contributing to their current success.
For example, “You know, Kim, I can tell I’m not really getting through to you. I’m going to have to be clearer here. When you say um every third word it makes you sound stupid.” Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, shares this stinging feedback that she received from her then boss at Google, Sheryl Sandberg.
Scott suggests replacing the word feedback with guidance because who doesn’t resonate with that?
Reverse engineering great feedback, like Sandberg’s, reveals these core elements:
- Direct and candid
- Example-driven (usually with facts from past performance and observations)
Like Scott, are you beholden to a mentor or boss who cared enough to shine a bright light on a blind spot or a potentially career defeating behavior? I recently received a radically candid piece of feedback from a VP of sales: “Your self-deprecating humor undermines your credibility and makes you look weak.” Ouch, but thank you.
In those moments, feedback— err, guidance— feels less like a gift and more like a vaccine shot. If the individual internalizes the medicine they build immunity to behaviors that may no longer serve them. Thanks to the guidance this VP shared with me, I have severely cut back on my inward-focused humor and am grateful for the advice.
However, many of these same gifted bosses who have benefited from such feedback report that their biggest management shortcoming is providing the same guidance to their direct reports. It’s perplexing, but reasonable to conclude that receiving career enhancing feedback doesn’t translate to naturally being effective at this key management skill yourself.
We know most managers don’t like giving feedback and most employees complain they receive too little. This counter-productive dynamic becomes self-reinforcing. Managers quickly offer a host of reasons for not providing more consistent and direct feedback. A common justification, burned in most of our memories runs along this theme— I gave candid feedback one time and the employee called HR charging me with creating a hostile work environment. Who wants to touch that hot stove again, right?
My coaching to managers is to stiffen up and pay it forward! Embody the ethos of the person who made a difference for you. While guiding those who report to you may take you out of your comfort zone, and almost feel confrontational and unpleasant, this feedback and discipline could steer that person onto a better path within their career. Consider the cost of not sharing your observations and how overlooking these potentially damaging and negative behaviors will affect your professional relationship, and their ability to self-reflect and move forward.
Potent coaching questions, like radical candor, can also cause useful cognitive dissonance.
An accomplished and well-respected leader shared with me an early development epiphany. He was asked, “What are you known for?” He confidently blurted, “My strategic technical abilities,” quickly summarizing his analytical prowess. The follow up question, “What else are you known for?” however, hit him like a ton of bricks because, as he says, “I couldn’t think of one leader I respected known only for analytical skills.” Two simple, direct questions ignited his commitment to be known for many, not one, leadership capability and charted his path for being a widely respected and gifted leader today.
The objective is to candidly address issues or behaviors, not tear people down.
Avoiding tough issues is a management sin. But confronting situations by asking sincere, open questions can foster the psychological safety critical to an honest, respectful dialogue. Begin building your leadership legacy by developing a reputation for growing tomorrow’s leaders. Pay forward the servant leadership that enriched your career and life.
Keep it simple, keep if focused, and definitely keep it inspiring! – Steve
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