The Art of Delivering Inspirational Feedback

user Will Harper
calendar

This article was recently published in Real Leaders.

Giving direct, difficult feedback is one of the most important and most anxiety-inducing leadership tasks. Yet, the leaders who master this skill find that clear, connected conversations about what’s working and what’s not, actually reduce the emotional turbulence in an organization and give people the critical information they need to develop.

Early in my career, as a first-time startup leader, I managed a woman (“Mary”) who was wonderfully talented in many ways, but who routinely underperformed in a few critical areas. Despite this consistent underperformance, I found myself unable to give her direct, effective feedback. It felt unkind to criticize her. I wanted to lead an egalitarian organization, and at the time, I felt like the “do better or else” message others were asking me to give her would fly in the face of that ideal. It didn’t occur to me there might be another way to deliver the message.

Eventually, the company entered a difficult period and we decided to reduce our staff. As a result of her performance, Mary was included in the layoff. The decision didn’t sit well with me at the time and, over many years of reflection since, I see now that it wasn’t her underperformance that led to the loss of her job, but my own.

Many of us find it difficult to give critical feedback. One study of over 7,500 leaders found that over a fifth of leaders don’t bother doing it at all. Is it just the interpersonal discomfort that naturally arises from making critical assessments of others? Maybe not. A 1996 review of the feedback literature found that over one-third of “feedback interventions” actually reduced performance! We’re not just avoiding our own discomfort, we’re avoiding sharing a message that could actually hurt performance.

In the decade since that layoff, I’ve been working to discover the art of giving feedback, for my own sake and as a tool for the leaders I coach and advise, from first-time managers in the fast-moving startup world to the leaders of some of the largest and most important institutions. I’ve found that when we are anxious about giving feedback, it’s often because we’re trapped in a critical mindset.

So, how can a critical message be transformed into an inspirational one? The key is not the message you deliver, but in how you orient yourself. 

From critical boss…

Often, we approach difficult conversations as if we are a boss delivering bad news. As a result, we over-focus on the content of the message and under-focus on the outcome we’re trying to create (better performance). We get stuck managing our own anxiety rather than designing the experience for the receiver. The subconscious mindset driving all of this is: “something is wrong with the person I’m giving feedback to.”

To inspiring coach…

The shift that the best leaders make is from criticism to possibility. They hold the mindset: “this person has even more potential than what they have realized so far.” The fact that the feedback even occurs to them is a reflection of the potential they see in the other person. How would you communicate this potential and what advice do you have to help the person achieve it?

Rather than speaking down to the person you are giving feedback to about your criticism, imagine standing behind the person and guiding them in how to achieve their goals more quickly and effectively. Instead of showing up as a critical boss, you become an inspiring coach. You recognize that while they are the one in the ring, you’re both facing the same opponent and ultimate goal. Your job is to build them up, even when you are delivering corrective advice.

If I could go back and give feedback to Mary with this orientation, it would go something like this:

Mary, I really appreciate how you connect with potential clients. You have an infectious enthusiasm for the business and that’s perhaps the most powerful sales tool we have as a company. I think there is an opportunity to take that skill to an even higher level. I’m seeing a drop in enthusiasm in the handoff between your contact with clients and the rest of the team, which means their client experience goes downhill after their first encounter with you. I want to see us build on the momentum you create rather than waste it. To do that, I really see a need to tighten up the reporting and handoff process between you and the other teams. Do you agree? What do you think we could do to make that happen? 

I have no doubt that would have been a productive conversation that would have tapped both of our best thinking and de-escalated the issue so we could talk about it openly. Having this conversation would have served her much more than my silence did.

When I imagine myself in the corner of the person I’m cheering on, I am excited by the potential: I can suddenly see what’s possible for them, how they might get there faster, and what I can do to help. With this orientation, my anxiety about what to say drops considerably and I can connect more deeply and with more respect. Extraordinary leaders realize that when they have feedback to give, the burden of responsibility for the performance gap lies in them, not the person they are giving feedback to. As a result, they master the skill of delivering corrective feedback in a way that affirms the potential of the receiver and inspires committed action.

Find out more about the state of your managerial and leadership capacity by taking our Management Essentials survey. You’ll receive a scorecard revealing how your team/organization stacks up, with suggestions on where to hone in and focus your development efforts.

Back to TriumIQ

Let’s Talk

Contact Us

Trium IQ

Fire Yourself

Intel is best known for its microprocessor. With the introduction in the 1990s of the Pentium chip…

Read

VIDEO | The Architecture of Performance

Leaders are paid to drive results, however, the actions we take don’t always drive the results we…

Watch

Moments of Knowing

There are moments in time during which one experiences a deep sense of certainty that cannot be…

Read

Our Recipe for a Successful Strategic Leadership Offsite

Taking time to pause and bring your team together is important and it’s also a huge investment…

Read

VIDEO Case Study on UiPath | Leadership through Rapid Growth

We recently completed a 6-month leadership development program with UiPath as they prepared to go public. Learn…

Watch

Playing Big

What is it about our willingness to stay small? Have you noticed it? In yourself? In your…

Read

The Case for Congruent Leadership

Extraordinary leaders regularly ask one very powerful question, “What am I doing or not doing that is…

Read

3 Ways Leaders Can Make Difficult Conversations Feel Easier

Leaders are expected to act as the guiding lights and role models for everyone else. And every leader, no…

Read

The Gift of ADHD: How My Son Taught Me To Be a Better Leader and Coach

I have a 15-year-old son who is a wonderful, intelligent, sensitive being who, in many ways, is…

Read

How to win in a post-pandemic future

Now that we are turning our collective gaze away from the immediate global crisis, it’s time to…

Read

The Paradox of Leadership

At its core, leadership is about the ability to leverage paradox. There are five polarities that are…

Read

“Maturity begins when one lives for others” – Hermann Hesse

Reflections on my new role as Founder and Chairman of The Trium Group I founded Trium in 1998 inspired…

Read

How to Effectively Leverage Executive Coaching: 3 Steps to Hiring a Coach

I lead the executive coaching practice at The Trium Group, where we serve senior leaders and their…

Read

How to Make Your Post-pandemic Leadership Offsite a Huge Success

With vaccination rates climbing, many companies are now considering how they’ll get their leadership teams working together…

Read

What Good Leaders Do When Replacing Bad Leaders

Those who are replacing poor or controversial leaders have a special challenge. Every leader who fills a…

Read

Catching Up with Reality

One of the great challenges that all human beings face is aligning their behavior with reality. This has…

Read