Chatting to a client last week and they were discussing their relationship with their line manager (you won't be surprised to hear that's a pretty common topic of conversation in Exec coaching sessions!) and she said something that really stuck with me. So much so, that I wrote it down on a tiny post-it note to reflect on later and craft into this blog post, for your reading pleasure!
The quote I have, written down before me, says this:
"My boss only adds value by pointing out the faults"
When she said it, and even now as I read it back, my mind is flooded with my own experiences and with conversations which have taken place in coaching sessions, where exactly this sentiment has been shared. Line managers whose idea of helping their people to grow, is simply by highlighting all of their faults and giving them a laundry list of things to work on. I wouldn't be surprised if you have your own experience of this same thing. Maybe it's not a boss - maybe it's a partner, or a friend. Maybe it's a parent. And here's the kicker...maybe it's you!
I firmly believe that most people have within them a desire to help others. I assume positive intent until I'm given strong evidence to the contrary and so when I heard about this line manager focussing on the negative aspects of someone's performance or shining a spotlight on the development areas required, I wanted to approach this topic from the perspective that they think they're helping. Of course, that might not be the case. It might just be true that the line manager is a bit of a prick - but that's a much harder issue to fix, so I'll leave it for a future blog!
When you're helping someone to develop. it's important that they know what they're doing which is sub-optimal, or which is holding them back. Your outside perspective as a leader, observer or coach is valuable to them, because that area for development might well be a blind spot, where they don't even realise that they're behaving in a way that's holding them back. By holding up that mirror, you're giving them a new perspective which will allow them to reflect and be more intentional in future. Perhaps despite your belief that the thing they're doing isn't good, they might wish to keep doing it that way, and that's up to them. All you can do is offer that insight and let them do with it as they wish. Feedback, after all, is a gift, and sometimes we get some gifts which we immediately put in the bin.
Despite the importance of holding up the mirror or shining a light on the areas for development, however, the feedback you give cannot all be developmental. When I'm working with leaders on how to give feedback and to create an environment in which their people can thrive and grow, one of the points I always make sure to emphasise is that if you only focus on the areas for improvement three things happen.
Firstly, it's not particularly motivational, at least for most people. In giving feedback, you're not only looking to motivate someone to improve, you're also motivating them to seek further feedback! If all I hear is a list of things I'm not doing well, I'm motivated to do neither.
Secondly, it can damage the relationship. If I only tell you what you're doing well, does it feel as though I've got your back? Am I likely to confide in you when I'm having challenges or something has gone wrong? Every interaction we have in a relationship leaves a small impression and each of those impressions adds up. Is the way you behave in this moment reflective of the relationship you want to have with the person? If not, change it.
And thirdly - and this is crucial - if I only hear the areas for improvement and I go away and exclusively work on those, there's a real danger that I stop doing some of the things which I'm currently doing well and as a result, my performance gets worse instead of better! No performance is all bad, so you need to make sure I know what's working so that I can keep doing it or even do more of it!
So what should you do instead? Well you should consider feedback in a few stages, as follows:
Y - I ask you for YOUR opinion on the things which are going well (or which went well if the feedback relates to a specific, discrete event) and then the areas which you think didn't go so well or could improve
M - I'll then give you MY feedback on the same two things - what went well and where could you improve. I'll look to tie my feedback into yours wherever possible and make sure that I find an appropriate balance of successes and development areas for you. If your self esteem is rock bottom and you're struggling in role, I'll emphasise more positives. If you're a high performer with a rampant desire to be the very best, I might turn up the dial on the development opportunities to help you get there.
C - Next we'll reach consensus on the key things that we have discussed which went well and which didn't go so well; this gives you a chance to challenge or query my feedback and gets us to a place of shared understanding around what you should keep doing and areas to tweak or change.
A - Finally, I'll ask you to consider the ACTIONS you need to take (and we'll be granular about what, when, with whom, etc) in order to take your performance to the next level.
As a leader or coach, you can use this straight away, but if you're the coachee and your line manager, friend, partner or coach is obsessed with giving you only the things which went wrong, you can still work to influence them to give you more useful and motivational information by asking for it. 'What did I do, which went well?' 'Which bits of that did you like/enjoy/value? 'What am I doing well that you'd like to see more of?' You might not always get what you want, but you've got a lot better chance of getting it if you ask!
Each of us has the chance to have a positive influence on the people around us, by helping them to shine their light just a little bit brighter. Think about the last person you gave feedback to and where the balance was between the positives and development areas. If it wasn't where you'd like it to be, dust yourself off and go again!