Being able to give clear feedback makes you a better manager

A manager had someone in one of his teams with performance issues. This employee was leading a crucial project, but wasn’t communicating nor cooperating well with others. Not within his department, and certainly not with people from other departments. This employee reported to a junior teamleader, who hadn’t been successful in improving performance.

When other senior managers grew concerned about the delivery of the project, the manager realized he had to take action. He felt he couldn’t let his junior teamleader solve the problem, and decided to get more involved himself. He informed HR that he was going to have a serious talk with this employee. He was going to state it as a last chance, where he would personally monitor the performance of the employee. He was sure it would be an important signal, to show the seriousness of the situation.

A few days after this talk, the employee walked into the HR department. He seemed inches taller, with head held high, and puffed up chest. He demanded HR to increase his grade (and salary). Baffled, the HR advisor asked why. Well, he was now reporting directly to a more senior manager, wasn’t he? He moved up in the organization, which was long due of course, because he managed such a crucial project. The only issue remaining was to finally get him to be rewarded accordingly.

Obviously, the manager had not gotten his message across. If the employee had been aware he was given a last chance, he probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to demand a raise.

Communication, especially about performance issues, is often watered down too much. We shouldn’t be blunt to people of course, but we need to be honest. People have the right to know how they perform. How they can become better at their job. And certainly how they can avoid being fired.

There are many good courses and books on how to improve your feedback skills. But many people feel they don’t need it. They hate training sessions where they have to role-play. They feel awkward having to try in front of their colleagues. Or they just feel they are capable enough. But giving good and effective feedback is difficult. Especially when addressing performance issues. It is much easier to water down the message, and remain the nice boss, or the easy going colleague. It really is a skill to address someone’s behavior.

Giving good feedback is one of the most important things to master as a manager. You can’t get your team to perform well without letting them truly know how they perform. So if you want to perform as a manager, you have to get your people to perform by letting them know what they do well and where they need to improve. Next time, ask yourself: are you sure your message came across as intended? You can’t afford not to give the feedback. Otherwise the work, the team, and you will suffer.

Anyone can create a good leader (more effectively than most leadership training can)

“Ladies and gentlemen. I am the captain of this flight, and I would like to inform you about our departure.” A wave of sighs and apprehension ripples through the hundreds of people, forming a line, about to board the aircraft. “As the airport of our destination has delays due to bad weather, I have decided to not let you board yet, until traffic control can give us a more precise time window for departure. I am very sorry, I apologize, and in thirty minutes I will come back to you with more information.” He then walked around through the crowd, and checked whether people had additional questions.

I love to see an unexpected example of great leadership in everyday life. With those few lines, the captain:

  • showed he wasn’t afraid to stand in front of a crowd to give a bad message;
  • took responsibility (“I decided not to board yet”), in order to divert potential angry passengers away from his colleagues, towards himself;
  • was clear about what information he did and didn’t have, and when people could expect additional information.

The situation had the potential to become messy. Nobody likes an unexpected, unintended change to their plans. And frustrated, often tired, passengers can get angry quickly if they feel they’re not helped immediately and adequately. But because this KLM captain was brave enough to face the crowd head-on, in a courteous manner, he defused a potential explosive situation, and protected his crew.

Another example.

“I am proud to start as the new director of this great school. My ideal is for parents and teachers to work together, to not only educate, but raise your children in the best way. We all need to responsibly interact with each other, with this goal in mind. That said, I will not accept the way one teacher was trashed last year by several parents in the class whatsapp group. In case you disagree with a teacher, please talk to the teacher directly, or to me. And I also expect every parent to stop a whatsapp thread that’s being disrespectful or downright damaging to anyone. Please, let’s work together to make this school and it’s culture a great environment for your children to grow up in, and look up to for guidance.”

With this, the director:

  • addressed the most important purpose of his job: to educate children attending the school – not only to teach them math and history and grammar, but also to raise them to become responsible and respectful citizens;
  • stood up for his teachers;
  • made clear what he expected of parents, as nowadays parents seem very vocal about their expectations of schools and what they feel they and their children are entitled to – but are sometimes less aware of their own duties playing a part of creating a good school environment.

Both stood up for their people (invoking my immediate admiration), communicated information well, and addressed their audience respectfully, clearly, and adequately.

I’m happy, every time I encounter great leadership like that. For them. For the people they are responsible for. For passengers, or parents, or clients. And for me, because it’s heartwarming to see many real-life examples of great leadership.

Some of you might say: that’s their damned job! Well, yes. They handled it the way any captain and any school director should. But we all have experiences where they didn’t, so we know excellent leadership behaviors aren’t that common. With bad examples we are usually quick to express our disapproval and criticism. So why wouldn’t we equally express our appreciation of good ones?

As HR manager, I’ve seen how important positive feedback is in someone’s development. Positive feedback makes people do more of what they did. It teaches them what behavior works well, in a more effective way than most leadership training can. Once I realized this, I tried to let people know I appreciated them. Not only professionally, but also in the day-to-day examples as above. I let them know why they were great by telling them, or sending an email, or just by giving them a quick thumbs-up. I want them to know someone appreciates them for doing a great job. And hopefully it gives them the encouragement that anyone needs, no matter how good they are, to keep up their good work.

If you want to see more great examples of leadership around you, start giving positive encouragement when you like what someone does. Let them know. Make their day. Be part of improving the level of leadership everywhere around us; one compliment at a time.

What it is like to work with people who blame everyone and everything but themselves

One movie scene made a lasting impression on me. In “A few good men” Jack Nicholson screams, provoked by Tom Cruise in court, “You want the truth?!? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”

I know someone whose colleagues, family members and friends say: “Some things we just don’t say to her, because she can’t handle the truth.” When someone dares to give any kind of criticism, she gets really mad, ignores that person fully for days or weeks, and ultimately bans them from her life, bad-mouthing them to others. Effectively it has taught people close to her not to give any kind of personal feedback, or bring up any other version of the truth than hers. While the list of alienated co-workers, family members and friends is growing, she’s become disappointed and bitter because people are not honest with her. She feels betrayed when they say things behind her back and not to her face.

Over the years I’ve met several people like that, who ‘can’t handle the truth’ when it comes to any form of criticism. Even constructive feedback given in the most empathic, subtle, warm and caring manner, bounces off their shell. Of course nobody likes being criticized. However, most of us realize we need to incorporate feedback, to see what we can improve next time. Some people won’t accept criticism at first, but after brooding about it for a few days they work on it after all. But once in a while you’ll encounter someone who just can’t handle the truth about themselves. They  display several (or all) of the following behaviors:

  • When something goes wrong, they will say it is somebody else’s fault. Even if they obviously were the person making the mistake, they twist it into being a result from another person’s action. For example: they get irritated in traffic with a slow car, race to overtake it, and hit a pedestrian. They don’t blame themselves: if the driver in front of them hadn’t been so slow, it wouldn’t have happened.
  • They talk condescendingly about successful colleagues. They say: ‘They were just lucky, because they’re really not that good.’ Or ‘They must have achieved it in an unethical way, because just on their own they would never have gotten that far.’
  • They don’t reflect critically on their own behavior, and therefore don’t make changes to improve. In their mind it’s not necessary, because if something doesn’t work out the way they wanted it, it was either the other person’s fault, or it was just an unhappy coincidence.
  • To be able to stick to their ‘there’s nothing wrong with me’ attitude, they have to lie, or distort the truth. When confronted with objective information which shows they are not perfect, they either deny it, make up an explanation, or just make up their own version of the truth. For example, when they don’t get a promotion, they say it was offered but they declined. They might also claim they got a bonus or an excellent appraisal (when they didn’t), to create a successful impression.
  • They do not only ignore or ban people who criticize them, they actively undermine the credibility of people saying things they don’t like, to curb the impact of that person on others.

People with these behaviors have a strong self-serving bias, whereby people consistently subscribe their successes to their own skills, behavior and personality, and their failures to circumstances (or others). The bias is common, most people have it to a certain extent. Research has shown that this effect increases when someone’s self-image is threatened. So, when someone has an extreme self-serving bias, probably he or she is very insecure. This might not be so obvious to others, as their behavior often comes across as arrogant or self-assured. They are not: people with genuine self-confidence don’t need to blame or attack others to feel good about themselves.

Although it is difficult to manage people who can’t handle the truth about themselves, there are a few things you can try:

  • The best way is to identify what they’re insecure about, and address that. Have a good, empathic conversation about their insecurities, and help them build up their self-confidence. Make sure you tell them what’s going well (don’t overdo it, just be realistic). If it doesn’t work, suggest professional help.
  • Be consistent, factual and specific in your feedback. They will use any unclarity in feedback to dismiss it.
  • Identify whether certain situations, or a certain role, increases their negative behavior. These situations probably feel threatening to their self-image. See if you can help them through these situations, or change the circumstances.
  • Get closer to that person, and let them get to know you. The self-serving bias decreases towards people they are close with. It might become easier to have open conversations with them, after establishing more trust.

Make sure you are also attentive to the other people in the team who suffer from a colleague displaying this behavior. They can create a divisive and hostile atmosphere in the team, causing you bigger problems. Don’t let one person affect the whole team negatively. Focus on the other team members, to ensure they can function well.

If nothing works, it is better to let this person go. When people never accept well-meant constructive feedback, and even blame or sabotage others, you’re better off without them.