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

Winning the Long Game: Developing a Strategy Mindset

This article was originally published in Real Leaders magazine. Winston Churchill famously said, “It’s always wise to…

Read

How My Old Dog Taught Me a New Trick about Team Performance

Who doesn’t like a good dog story? And this is also a leadership lesson that resonated strongly…

Read
Artemis Patrick, Sephora

VIDEO | Our Clients Speak to the Impact of Trium Coaching

Our clients share the reasons they selected Trium as their partner in executive coaching, leadership development, and more.

Watch

5 Key Workouts for Building Management Muscle

Now more than ever, managers adept at creating environments that inspire others to achieve at a higher level are…

Read
Photo credit to Drew Garcia

Leading When the World is on Fire

Autumn is typically that time of year associated with gathering the harvest and leaves falling to the…

Read

VIDEO | The Impact of Executive Coaching

Trium Founder and CEO, Andrew Blum provides the REAL value of executive coaching.

Watch

The Art of Delivering Inspirational Feedback

This article was recently published in Real Leaders. Giving direct, difficult feedback is one of the most…

Read

Resilient Teams Lead from “And,” Not “Either/Or”

This article recently appeared in Real Leaders.  If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we…

Read

VIDEO | Executive Coaching from Gandalf

Trium Founder and CEO, Andrew Blum shares insight from Gandalf.

Watch

What if it’s Better to Be Wrong than to Be Right?

When we do work around innovation and strategy with our clients, at some point the dialogue turns…

Read

After the Adrenaline, the Actual: Moving from Crisis to Business as Usual

As another Zoom meeting came to a close and I shut my laptop for the day, I…

Read

Your Strategy and Team Building Should be Like Yin and Yang (not Apples and Oranges)

“I know it’s critical, but we spend a lot of time on this and I’m frustrated because…

Read

Are You Enabling Destructive Leadership?

This article by Annette Templeton was recently featured in Psychology Today. Working in today’s world has become…

Read

Faster, Better, Happier: Why it’s Essential to Put People First

Most companies — large and small — don’t seek outside help when things are going well. Often,…

Read

Meeting Complexity with Compassion

When I was in my early thirties, something very interesting happened to me. I changed my mind….

Read

One Simple Practice to Bring Your Team Together

In a world where business decisions are being made over Zoom calls and emails, the ability to…

Read