One of the reasons giving feedback is so hard is because, in US culture at least, there is a powerful social norm that tells us that it’s impolite to talk about impolite things. When leaders and managers give someone feedback about their performance they might give them the good, the great, and the stuff they need to address. Additionally, if they care to build their relationships with their followers then their feedback is regular, relevant, specific and mainly focused on what is working well. If the manager or leader takes a typical approach then they address the good, the bad and the ugly, spending the most time on the bad. When leaders focus only on what is not working they don’t help their followers develop critical competencies. Competency flows from right and effective action. So letting employees know what they are doing well is more important for learning and sustained high performance then letting them know where they are failing.
Some managers view the act of “managing” as a second job. I hear managers complain that they, "have to get back to their day job" versus spending time doing performance reviews. These are the leaders who only give feedback once a year based on limited observation. This approach leaves much to be desired and occurs far too frequently in part because of the strong norm that it is impolite to discuss impolite things.
Because it’s impolite, implicitly, to point out another person’s failings in our culture we avoid doing so and when we must we often are less direct and effective than we would like. I say implicitly because we know this without being told. Since we were toddlers our parents told us not to comment directly on others’ faults and differences. I remember going to my friend’s house for the first time as a 6 year old and my mother telling me before we arrived not to stare at my friend’s mother’s port wine birthmark that covered half her face. Of course when we got to their house, it was all I could look at and in under a nanosecond I pointed to it and asked, “What’s that?” Not one of my finer moments. We learn at early ages the importance of being polite. Turn the clock ahead 30 years and we are managing others and it’s our job to tell them what they are doing well and not so well. Its our job to delve into the inherently impolite.
If you are a consultant and specializing in change interventions, then you are often in the position of telling whole teams of executives about what they are doing and not doing in the room. A simple way consultants do this is the use of process consultation (thank you Edgar Schein) interventions such as, “Let’s take a moment to look at where we are in the process of this work. We set this time aside to brainstorm the problem but after only two minutes we are making decisions. Is the group ready to move to decision making?”
An example of a deeper group dynamics intervention (thank you Wilfred Bion and my friend Ara, a talented group dynamics consultant) is when the consultant says, “I am falling asleep here. Is anyone else bored with this topic?” This is how organizational development and change consultants intervene in their client systems to help those involved become conscious of what is really happening in the meeting. They must bravely name the elephants in the room and point out disconnects between say and do – all in the territory of the impolite.
So how can leaders and consultants give corrective feedback and make interventions and still preserve relationships while also increasing productivity and the other person’s confidence? How can they overcome the very strong societal norms about what it means to be polite?
Cultivating self-awareness is an important first step. Yep – it starts with you. We are a species that engages in psychological projection much of the time. Projection is when we place our own fears, or annoyances, or issues we are dealing with onto others. Often when we judge other’s behaviors we are actually projecting our view of reality, which is incomplete, onto the other person. When we do this it is more revealing about our own state of mind and far less revealing about what is going on with the other person because we are not seeing them clearly.
This plays out in subtle and not so subtle ways. A famous example is the case of Heidi and Howard that my friend Maria, an expert in leadership development, details very well. You can see that based on societal norms around gender, male and female students judged this one leader very differently depending on whether they thought the leader was male or female. In companies this is pervasive. When a man speaks out confidently and challenges another, he is an assertive strong leader we want to work for. When a women acts the very same way she is aggressive and not someone we want to work for. This is the pure projection we place on others based on societal norms that are ingrained in us from the earliest ages.
For another example of this, consider the manager who likes to approach tasks from start to finish in an orderly step by step fashion. This manager may be overly critical of an employee who thinks of the end product first and then skips around in what may seem chaotic but results in an equally great work product. If the manager is not self aware of their preference for a step by step approach to work and that there are other equally effective approaches, they may under value a brilliant employee who simply has a different work style. The authors of the book Difficult Conversations give the example of the manager who keeps their own desk neat and tidy and is hyper critical of the work product from an employee who keeps their desk messy. It can literally be as simple as that and just as insidious. Our unconscious judgments are quick, deep, and often inaccurate. We all judge others poorly at times because we have not stopped to examine the lens we are looking through. There is an old saying that only the fish doesn’t know that its water it’s swimming in. This lack of self awareness can cause leaders to devalue the work of employees based, not on the work product itself, but the employee’s personal traits – some changeable like a messy desk but many not so changeable like gender.
Understanding what you value and what you don’t is the foundation for your judgments of others. Self-reflection on your own values is critical to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which is what happens if we only value employees who are most like us. Reflecting before acting is important to ensure we are acting as consciously as we can. Ask yourself simple questions like, why does that person bother me so much or why do I feel less confident about their work versus another employee? Ask these questions each five times to get to the root. Questioning the accuracy of your judgments is crucial.
The best leaders and consultants do the hard work of self-reflection AND they ask for feedback – often. Asking your employee or client for feedback on what you could do differently and what you did well garners valuable information about how others experience you as well as leveling the playing field, which engenders collaboration. Getting feedback is the best way to increase your self-awareness, and if you take the feedback well while it’s being given, it builds trust with your employees and clients.
21st Century leadership is inherently collaborative due to the increased complexity of work. Collaboration for success requires trust and understanding the similarities and differences in work styles and values. Sharing these things up front in a low stakes setting saves time and garners more success than ignoring these differences and then having to deal with them when crisis hits. Taking the time to reflect on your own judgments and feelings of others, having those tough conversations about “impolite things” and asking for feedback are acts that demonstrate what I call productive bravery – a leadership competency worth cultivating.