I believe that leaders can be anyone, regardless of title, who are willing to invest time and energy in others in the pursuit of growth. That aside, let’s be more specific to leaders in title, or managers. These managers set the tone for the rest of the team and are held at a higher standard. One expectation of managers, and probably one of the toughest, is giving feedback. These conversations require tact and keen observation in the moment. What’s troublesome is that most managers are either unequipped or unwilling to have these conversations. Although it’s an older Harvard Business Review article and the population was small, the numbers still surprised me. Two-thirds of the managers surveyed are uncomfortable in this setting.
As the article suggests, on the opposite end, employees yearn for valuable feedback. Teammates in their first or second position are especially interested in feedback. They’re on their maiden voyage in unexplored waters.
Setting sail from the shores of schooling where their habits and tendencies may have been more…in the wind. These younger professionals are at their most impressionable and therefore feedback is critically important. If executed correctly, feedback can quickly course correct an otherwise oblivious captain from rough waters.
Not All are Created Equally
The best feedback I’ve gotten has always been in the moment or shortly after. Whatever occurred is still fresh in the mind and it’s easier to reflect on where I went wrong and the subsequent correction for next time. Timing is crucial and the most important factor in feedback. Timing can ruin decent, productive feedback. Maybe after an interview…
I was going for my second promotion within a company and after learning it wasn’t my time, I was told the following: “Over the past few months, a few managers have told me you appear apathetic in meetings. Some of your actions, like leaning back in your chair and making slight comments gives off the impression you aren’t engaged. I know that’s not entirely true but it’s something you need to work on. That was a factor in preventing your advancement.”
In the moment, I was saddened over being passed up. Afterwards, my melancholy mood was replaced by disappointment. It was legitimate and valid, I should not have been doing either but the timing was all wrong. It was striking that at a time when it really mattered, this was the first I’d heard of it. I kept getting hung up on “Over the past few months.” Months? This could have been a non-issue. I was engaged in meetings. In fact, I believed to be more engaged than others as when I was leaning back, it forced me to look up and away from the stream of e-mails on my laptop. Unfortunately, the position comes more natural to me. I’ve never been one to sit correctly and even as I’m writing now, my leg is tucked underneath the other. It takes only a brief moment to check myself at the door but taking a more professional stance in meetings was a quick correction and I did benefit from it in my next opportunity. I continued to wonder though, how long that feedback had been kept a secret because someone lacked the courage to give it.
We Can Show Up
I was personally reminded of how much courage that can actually take last week. An opportunity came up to flex that muscle by giving a small piece of feedback to a co-worker. To my regret, I missed taking advantage of it. I made excuses claiming office politics or that the responsibility to tell them lies not with me. Reflecting later, it went against my own definition of leadership and my mantra of Showing Up. I know all too well what it feels like to be withheld constructive feedback. Who am I to deny what was once denied to me? We can’t expect courage without it being in ourselves first. Nevertheless, it was only a speed bump and not a dead end. There’s always road ahead.
Another excuse I hear we make to ourselves is that over time, without intervention, it’ll get better. We’ll deal with it. Someone else will tell them. It’s just the way they are. We convince ourselves of these notions and allow it to creep into every interaction with them seeding animosity. After it doesn’t get any better, we conjure another excuse. “It’s been so long it will be awkward now.” Indeed the conversation will be harder. The alternative though is living with a permanent stain in a one-sided relationship. You suffer, while the other could have no idea the angst they’ve been causing. They believe inquiring about life out of work is small-talk and building a relationship. In reality, because of tone or choice of words, it may be received as intrusive.
The best thing we can do for each other is routinely take pulse checks and create spaces where feedback is normal. Honesty truly is the best policy here. Heed the pointers from the article remember that early is always easier. If you do find yourself in a spot when it’s been happening for months, focus on recent examples. Be concise and stay away from broad characterizations. “Part of the image you are projecting to people is that you are always late” sounds much better than “You’re lazy.” The conversation won’t go perfect and words may get jumbled and that’s ok. Having the courage and decency to say anything is empowering in it’s own right.