What do you believe most contributes to missed performance expectations in the workplace? Too lofty of goals to begin with? Not enough talent in place to do the work? Insufficient effort or a lack of incentives to properly motivate? Perhaps. Yet, my experience is that the more significant culprit is one of two things: 1) a leader’s failure to clearly communicate expectations upfront or 2) a leader’s failure to provide proper feedback and coaching. This is not too surprising as these are challenging skill-sets to learn and can take a lifetime to master (effective coaching in particular).
There are a few key ingredients to demonstrating good coaching as a leader. First, coaching begins with practicing curiosity and a leader will benefit from adopting a coaching style that values inquiry more so than advocacy. This is unnatural for most managers who like to speak from their experience and advocate solutions based on their personal expertise. Yet, if leaders place a premium on listening before speaking, they are more likely to build trust with their coachees and help them develop their own solutions to challenges. Perhaps this highlights one of the greatest differences between management and leadership. Managers seek to control outcomes by problem solving and offering solutions to their people. A leader realizes his or her ultimate goal is to create more leaders. Thus, he or she ask questions that inspire and challenge. Leaders seek to build capacity in the coachee and lessen dependency on the coach’s expertise.
Indeed, if a leader must do one thing exceptionally well to be effective, it’s coach! Yet, because this is such a huge topic of discussion, we cannot possibly cover all that I would like to share with you in a short article. Thus, I am going to focus on one of the most difficult coaching conversations that managers seem to get wrong more often than they get right; delivering constructive feedback and then coaching towards improvement.
Oh the agony we feel when preparing for this coaching conversation! Do
we directly deliver the feedback and simply hope that they take it well? Or perhaps we should indirectly address the feedback, which will likely lower their defensiveness? No wait! Of course. We’ll go with the “feedback sandwich” and deliver a compliment, followed by the criticism, and finally, another compliment to keep their spirits high and save the relationship! While it must be noted that most everyone likes to receive feedback differently, I believe there is a universal approach that can set you up for success. One that reduces anxiety for the feedback giver, lowers defensiveness in the receiver, and ultimately inspires change. I call this framework: The Five Pillars of Constructive Feedback.
1. Create the right mindset
Why is it so unpleasant when we have to give constructive feedback to others? All that anxiety we often experience has to do with our own ego and how we might be perceived. Will they think I am a nitpicking idiot? Will they think I am just a clueless leader who isn’t seeing the whole story? Or maybe, I’ll be seen as the a’hole manager who is a demanding tyrant! Remember that providing constructive feedback to another has nothing to do with you, and it’s not about “fixing” the other person. Constructive feedback is a service and you are engaging in a conversation to help the other person reach his or her potential. If your mindset is to “fix” everything, your voice will communicate judgement and trigger defensiveness. Yet, if your mindset is to “serve,” that will also show up throughout the conversation and create trust. Nothing opens persons (coachees) quicker to your feedback than when they sense you genuinely care about them. To help promote this mindset when delivering constructive feedback, remember without humility, expect futility.
2. Ask permission
“May I give you some feedback?” It’s a simple question, but how often do we jump straight to the assumption that the other person is both ready and willing to hear us out. After all, you are there to “serve” them and you care about their performance. Why wouldn’t they want to listen to what you have to say? Yet, maybe the other person is not in the right frame of mind. Perhaps they are having a really bad day and no matter what you say to them, they will see your feedback as an attack. If you ask the question upfront, you are giving them power and they must choose to give it back to you. In that seemingly insignificant exchange, you have already established a mutual respect that will make the feedback recipient more receptive to you.
3. Remember SBI
This is a tried and true process that works like magic when done right. SBI stands for Situation/Behavior/Impact, and I find it incredibly useful in helping me to remember what’s most important when giving feedback.
(S) ituation – This is when you anchor feedback in time, place, and circumstances and it helps the receiver understand the context of your feedback. For example, “remember yesterday afternoon in the staff call, about halfway through the meeting, Bill asked me for my thoughts on our financial outlook.”
(B) ehavior – This is when you are specific to the behavior or non-performance you would like to see changed (again, so the other person may meet their full potential). Think of it like replaying a movie for the other person. For example, “As I began to communicate the importance of adhering to the monthly budget, I noticed you rolled your eyes slightly and then began to check your phone.”
(I) mpact – This is the key to your success. If you just focus on their behavior, expect defensiveness to ensue. Yet, if you speak to the impact on you or the team, you are creating space for a more empathetic conversation. Most people care about whether or not they are disappointing others. If you speak to how the behavior made you feel, you move the other person out of their head and into their heart. For example “This embarrassed me, as I feel it made us look disjointed in front of the team. Others picked up on the tension and I felt as if I was scrambling to regain credibility with them.”
4. Get curious and create spaciousness
Now is the point in the conversation where you might transition from advocacy to inquiry and facilitation. You have delivered your feedback, now give them a voice! How did they view the situation? How might have you contributed to their reaction? Are their deeper concerns that need to be addressed? Know that this is a tender moment for many, and you can possibly expect some level of defensiveness to ensue. Give them space to be heard and acknowledge their point of view. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, only that you empathize with their feelings, while respecting their point of view. Note that a common diversionary technique is to broaden the conversation to where their performance is no longer the focal point. Your job as a leader is to keep the heat on them in a respectful and supportive manner.
5. Coach towards the desired performance
It is important when you work with a coachee to determine a clear path to success together. However, there is no need to give him or her all the answers. It is important they discover on their own how they can improve. You might ask, “how do you believe we could avoid this challenge in the future?” Then after hearing them out, you might offer, “If you have an opposing opinion in the future, I honestly want to hear it rather than have you feel like challenging me will offend me. My expectation is that we have a united front when engaging with the larger team in these meetings, and, if we have differences, we should hash them out in private beforehand. Is that an unreasonable expectation or can we both agree on this moving forward?”
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