It takes patience, practice and even mistakes to discover the fine line between blunt criticism and constructive feedback. But the wait is well worth it, once you hit your stride and find your “candid sweet spot.”
Not many of us have the innate ability to be diplomatic, genuine and gentle while delivering feedback. Most of us have to hone that skill over time, with practice and effort. In my case, I learned more about what not to do by observing others than by having someone show me how to give effective feedback.
And since most of us sense that giving feedback is a challenging art form, we tend to avoid it altogether rather than master it ourselves. It’s the most counterproductive approach of all, but an all-too-common response. People in positions of leadership will go out of their way to avoid giving feedback that makes them uncomfortable, and then wonder why their intelligent, hard-working professionals are walking around scratching their heads, left in the dark about what is hamstringing or stalling their careers.
While I’m a huge proponent of self-awareness and proactively seeking feedback, I also believe it is incumbent on us as leaders and coaches to tell it like it is. Developing those under your guidance is one of the primary goals of a leader. This means much more than sending folks to class, handing them the latest business book or giving them new assignments. The practice of telling people about their “blind spots” is probably the biggest gift a leader or executive coach can give.
I personally had the benefit of some hard-to-swallow but ultimately true feedback that helped me become a better leader. Suffice it to say, there was a time when I believed that the more serious I was, the more serious others would take me. Boy, was I wrong. And ultimately, I ran the risk of being perceived as taking myself too seriously.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should go around revealing everyone’s bad habits and annoying quirks. On the contrary, harsh delivery of criticism, no matter how relevant, is unlikely to be heard or heeded and can even damage your professional relationship. But revealing the behavioral subtleties that can sabotage careers is not only crucial to building a successful and functional team, it’s important to the evolution of each individual's career progress.
It may not be my favorite part of leading and coaching, but I am highly motivated to see others make huge leaps in their success, simply by making incremental changes in their behaviors or characteristics. Once we move beyond our tendencies to underestimate others' capacity for change or receptiveness to feedback (a rather condescending notion, when you think about it), we open the doors for some rather stunning progress. If delivered correctly, professionals are usually grateful for revelations that may have been eluding them. Leaders and coaches can give voice to how others perceive us.
So, if you want to close the gap between where you are now and where you want to be, seek a mentor, leader or coach who truly cares about your success. Great mentors don't put their comfort before your needs, and they don't shy away from giving you candid feedback. If you are a leader or mentor who would like to surface otherwise-touchy topics, try this approach:
- Ask your employees or mentees how they would like to be perceived.
- Ask them to tell you how they believe they are currently perceived.
- If there is a gap (and many times there is), ask them to speculate about what could be keeping them from their desired perception.
- Then, ask them for permission to add/discuss/give your feedback about the discrepancy or gap.
These are the strategies that have worked well for me. I’m interested in hearing how you approach the sometimes-uncomfortable and delicate issues that can plague your employees or clients. Any tips for finding that candid sweet spot?