“Our job is to excavate the unsaid,” Brené Brown tells us in her Netflix special, The Call to Courage. It’s a critical but underemployed lesson in management.
People often share with me their frustrations about a lack of progress at work – not being appreciated, not being promoted, not being given opportunities to realise the potential they know they have. So I wonder: “What’s actually going on here? What’s NOT being said?”
It isn’t that they are hiding something, just that they may not know the answer (on a conscious level, at least). They haven’t engaged deeply with this question before and, importantly, they haven’t brought it to their managers. Or not in the right way.
To my mind, this is a missing link in many workplace interactions, especially performance review processes: a deeper curiosity about the truths and half-truths that underlie feedback; a willingness to explore these in an open, empathic way; and a commitment to clear, radically honest discussion of “what’s really going on.”
Focusing on these areas would help to close the gap between people’s expectations and the reality they experience. It could vastly improve the sense of fulfilment and personal growth they find in their working life. And it would create more engaged, higher-achieving employees.
WHY MANAGERS STRUGGLE WITH CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACK
In an ideal world, all managers would handle this part of their role proactively and skilfully. So their charges wouldn’t need to come to a coach like me to help navigate their promotion path, to crack the code of management decisions and rationales. But many managers struggle to give genuinely constructive feedback, perhaps for these reasons:
- In fast-paced work environments, it can seem like there’s not enough time for thorough evaluations and carefully considered feedback. When managers feel under pressure, they are quicker to jump to harsh judgments.
- On the other hand, they may be squeamish about causing awkwardness, anger or upset if they say something perceived as negative. This can have cultural roots – national or organisational. Managers steer clear of confrontation, trying instead to be nice, friendly people.
- There’s a fear that an employee’s anger and upset could escalate into a dreaded ‘HR situation’, with formal complaints made against managers involved.
- Best practice suggests that performance reviews should be objective, specific, evidence-based and, in some sense, impersonal. The intention is to be professional and fair but the resulting feedback can feel mealy-mouthed and confusing.
TRANSLATING PERSONAL IMPRESSIONS INTO LEADERSHIP APTITUDES
In truth, feedback is sometimes unavoidably personal and impressionistic. When we were junior consultants, my colleagues and I used to joke that there must be some covert reason holding back our promotion – a reason nobody would ever dare to tell us, but would nevertheless prove to be career-limiting. “He has a weird walk,” for example.
When I joined the senior ranks myself, I realised that we hadn’t been far wrong. In management team meetings to nominate candidates for promotion, someone might venture: “She has this annoying intonation at the end of sentences,” or “He comes across as quite naïve,” or “She’s a bit stroppy and just not very likeable.” But nobody had brought this up directly with the person concerned.
Of course, any discriminatory comments, implying that the subject didn’t fit the right demographic mold for success, were swiftly and rightly struck out. But on other occasions, I feel that we missed opportunities to excavate deeper insights beneath the surface-level observations. We didn’t ask ourselves: “What’s really going on with this person? What’s the impression we’ve formed, and what does that actually point to in terms of specific areas for improvement?”
Although some observations may have sounded overly personal or nebulous on the face of it, they highlighted important issues. “Faltering voice” (or even “weird walk”) could translate into “Currently lacks strong leadership presence”. “Seems naïve” could partly mean “Must learn to read a room and respond intuitively”. “Not liked by junior team-members” could be reframed as “Needs to build more rapport with others in order to maximise their contribution”. That’s what needed to be said.
By their nature, these areas can be difficult to translate into objective feedback because they feel less tangible and more perception-based. It’s a lot easier to tell someone that they need to improve their quantitative analysis skills.
But so-called soft skills are increasingly the ones that hold a premium in the workplace, differentiating the highest-value leaders. Organisations urgently need more employees to enhance their soft skills, so it’s essential that we learn to give clear, honest feedback and coaching support in these areas. Here are my top recommendations for doing so.
10 WAYS TO SUPPORT HONEST FEEDBACK
- Stay curious; challenge yourself to dig deeper to the core issues at the heart of your feedback on someone.
- Take responsibility for your own feelings and triggers, which may be based on prejudices, projections or unmet needs in your own life. Is this really someone else’s issue or (also) your issue to resolve?
- The language of Nonviolent Communication is very useful in this regard, helping people to separate their observations from their evaluations and to connect with their own core needs. Try this approach: “When you do/say [x], I feel [y], because I need [z],” Or “When you do/say [x], are you feeling [y], because you need [z]?”
- Give people the benefit of the doubt. They are always doing the best they can with what they have, even if the effects are less than optimal. If someone’s performance dips, it’s more likely that they’ve lost confidence or motivation than that they’ve suddenly become inept or lazy. And people generally respond much better to being listened to, trusted and encouraged than to being browbeaten, micromanaged or written off.
- This isn’t about being a bleeding heart pushover. Boundaries are important, and should be clearly defined and discussed. Ultimately, the organisation needs to have its employees performing at a high level, and you can emphasise this firmly and supportively.
- Personality profiles sometimes seem to suggest that, as individuals, we’re predisposed to be either a) honest (‘thinking’ types), or b) kind (‘feeling’ types). It’s a false dichotomy. Remember that true kindness requires honesty, and also that honesty needs to be delivered with kindness.
- Honour someone’s honesty and vulnerability – this is the basis for real connection, transformation and growth. Never exploit the vulnerability they share with you by using it in evidence against them.
- Help other managers to learn and practise the same skills by mentoring them and by modelling and guiding the right behaviours during group review meetings.
- Many managers have ascended by being good at certain aspects of their job, but not necessarily by being natural or diligent people managers. Never mind. You can guide them in managing you according to the principles above, and it’s in your interests to do this. When done in a tactful way, ‘upward management’ is generally appreciated. You’ll be marking yourself out as someone with the emotional maturity and soft skills that indicate strong leadership potential.
- Think about how you receive the feedback your manager gives you and how you respond. Again, it’s in your interest to hear the unvarnished version, even if it’s based on a vague perception or a misunderstanding, so try not to feel or sound defensive. Hear someone out, ask questions and then be involved in exploring what’s really going on.