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Feedback Is a Gift, Give it!

It's one of the most important jobs you have as a leader or mentor.

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. And because 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 to tell it like it is (candidly and with compassion). 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 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 your favorite part of leading, but I suspect you are highly motivated to see others make huge leaps in their success, simply by making incremental changes in their behaviors or approach. 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 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:

1. Ask your employees or mentees how they would like to be perceived. Get them to give you specifics.

  • What words would you most want others to use when describing you at work?
  • What do you want others to say it is like to work with you?
  • How would you like others to describe your unique contributions?

2. Ask them to tell you if they see alignment between how they want to be received and how others are actually experiencing them.
3. If there is a gap (and many times there is), ask them to speculate about what could be keeping them from their desired perception.
4. Then, ask them for permission to add/discuss/give your feedback about how they are either supporting or detracting from their desired profile.

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 mentees. Any tips for finding that candid sweet spot?

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