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Until several years ago, I had a hard time confronting my subordinates with direct, straight-up critical feedback. I didn't want the awkwardness I thought would come from telling someone he wasn't doing his job correctly. However, I grew out of this feeling over time and found constructive, professional ways to provide critical feedback.
A New York Times interview with Karen May, Vice President for People Development at Google, got me thinking anew about my period of feedback insecurity. Below is an excerpt from the article:
Q: Many CEOs I've interviewed talk about how hard it is for people to give direct feedback. Have you seen that, too?
A: Absolutely. I would say it happens for a couple of reasons. It's simply harder to give difficult feedback than positive feedback or no feedback. It's harder because it can be an uncomfortable conversation. It creates tension. You might be disappointing somebody or potentially leading them to feel worse about themselves.
Q: If you've identified something that isn't going well, then you're likely to be asked, "How do I fix it?" If you don't know the answer, you might not want to start the conversation. I think that's the primary reason managers don't give feedback. They're willing to give the feedback, but then they won't know how to help fix it, so why start the conversation?
A: As a coach, I was often in the position of giving people feedback they hadn't heard before, after I interviewed a bunch of people they work with. It was always difficult for me, too. Just at a human level, it's difficult to tell somebody that something that isn't working about them. But I came to find that people are incredibly grateful. If I'm not doing well and I don't know it, or I don’t know why, or I can't put my finger on what's not working and no one will tell me, I won't be able to fix it.
And if you give me the information, the moment that the information is being transferred is painful, but then I have the opportunity to change it. I've come to realize that one of the most valuable things I could do for somebody is tell them exactly what nobody else had told them before.
There are ways to present critical feedback in a non-threatening manner. I have leveraged reflective questions to engage my faculty in fruitful conversations about performance (particularly during post-observation meetings). For instance, I will pose the following reflective question: "I noticed three out of the 20 students in the class were talking about something unrelated to the lesson. What ways could you have redirected these students back to the lesson?" The more traditional approach to discussing student management could have had me state: "You did not effectively engage three students in the lesson. I would like you to work on managing students so all of them are focused on the task at hand." The reflective question above addressed the same issue but compelled the teacher, in a nonthreatening manner, to think about the issue I had with the lesson.
My reflective questions are loosely based on ideas I borrowed from The Three-Minute Classroom Walk-Through: Changing School Supervisor... (Downey, et al., 2004). I start by stating a fact and then pose an open-ended question laced with a targeted message that speaks to the intent of my feedback (my emphasis in the example above was on getting the teacher to have all students focused on the lesson).
There is nothing wrong with intrinsically motivating people to think critically about the performance feedback they are given. Finding creative ways to provide this feedback will embolden leaders to help their subordinates grow through their professional needs, and will encourage these people to use the feedback to excel.