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Are You Sugarcoating Your Feedback Without Realizing It?

Managers tend to inflate the feedback they give to their direct reports, particularly when giving bad news. And by presenting subpar performance more positively than they should, managers make it impossible for employees to learn, damaging their careers and, often, the company.

Previous research into this kind of feedback inflation has centered on the idea that managers deliberately sugarcoat tough messages for fear of retaliation, or to protect their employees from feeling bad about themselves. But our research shows that many managers deliver inflated feedback unintentionally, and in fact think they’ve been much more clear than is the case. These findings point to some simple ways to improve how managers impart criticism.

We believe that managers’ assumption that their direct reports understand what they mean is due to a common cognitive bias called the illusion of transparency, in which people are so focused on their own intense feelings and intentions that they overestimate the extent to which their inner worlds come across to othersAs a result their words may be too vague to convey their true intent. The illusion of transparency is one of the most common causes of misunderstandings when we communicate with others.

We conducted a series of studies to learn more about this phenomenon as it relates to performance feedback. First, to confirm our hypothesis that managers suffer from the illusion of transparency when delivering feedback, we surveyed 173 managers and 566 employees at a multinational nonprofit organization. We asked the employees to rate how well they thought they had performed in a recent performance appraisal, and managers what they thought the employees would say. As we expected, the employees perceived their feedback as being more positive than their managers thought they would. The effect was stronger as the feedback became more negative; people under emotional duress (such as those nervous about delivering bad news) have less mental capacity to consider how others perceive what they’re saying.

We also wanted to understand what we could do to reduce this gap between managers’ and employees’ perceptions. We suspected that managers fall prey to the illusion of transparency because they aren’t sufficiently motivated to consider how their employees will perceive their comments. While of course they want employees to understand what they’re saying, they’re bogged down by multiple demands, especially during the end-of-year period when appraisals usually take place. Stopping to think about whether their feedback is clear doesn’t rise to the top of their mental to-do lists.

We ran a test to see if an intervention alerting managers to their illusions of transparency would prompt them to be more accurate. We recruited 117 MBA students as “managers” and paired them up with “employees” recruited from an online panel. We told all of the participants to imagine that they were going through an appraisal process. We gave the managers data about how well employees scored on various capabilities and then asked them to deliver reviews to the employees.

Before the review, we told one group of the managers that the evaluations would not be evident to the employees, and that the employees would be unlikely to see the evaluation the same way as the managers. We found that the managers who were given this warning delivered much more accurate feedback than the others — the gap between the perceptions of the evaluation disappeared.

In another study, we observed that managers no longer suffered from illusions of transparency when employees themselves prompted the managers: Could you please communicate your feedback regarding my performance during the past year as accurately as possible?”

In a final study, we tested whether financial incentives could lead managers to give more accurate feedback. We told study participants they could earn a $10 bonus if their employee was able to accurately estimate their performance rating. As we predicted, managers communicated more accurately when their bonus was contingent on the accuracy of their feedback. Of course, one downside of this intervention is that monetary incentives can be costly to implement and removing them later could have adverse effects.

What to Do About It

While it can be helpful to become aware of unintentional behaviors, overcoming them is notoriously difficult. Our research points to several ways to combat the illusion of transparency.

First, increase the frequency of feedback. As a manager, you can augment your annual appraisals with continuous reminders, ongoing training, and structured weekly or monthly “pulse checks” to break the discomfort that may be preventing you from communicating more clearly. Research has found that giving feedback more frequently makes feedback more accurate. This repetition will also help reinforce your message.

Firms should also promote a culture that encourages employees to request more candid feedback from their managers prior to appraisals. Failing that, firms can institute a formal process obligating them to do so.

 

Ultimately, clarity and specificity of language are managers’ best tools. Use clear language and avoid phrases that could obscure your meaning. One phrase to avoid, for example, is “a real possibility,” which people interpret as conveying a likelihood of anywhere from 20%–80%. Also, ask your employee to paraphrase what you’ve told them to make sure they fully understand your message. Managers also need to actively encourage employees to tell them how they see their own performance. As a manager, ask open-ended questions like, “What am I not seeing here? What may I be overlooking?”

Employees themselves can dispel many incorrect assumptions by asking questions, or by requesting that managers use precise, explicit terms when delivering feedback. If your manager doesn’t ask you to rearticulate what they’ve told you, try using statements that begin, “So if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying…”

Employees want more accurate and candid negative feedback, so it’s a win for all if managers can give it. But managers should be aware of potential implications for their employees’ well-being and on retention if evaluations become too harsh. As a manager, consider your cultural environment when determining just how blunt to be. For example, in countries where communication is more direct (such as the United States, Australia, and the Netherlands), an employee may appreciate straight talk, while in countries with more indirect communication habits (say, China and Japan), you may want to be more subtle. In either case, being aware of the illusion of transparency can help you compensate for it and make sure your employees understand what they need to do from your appraisal.


Michael Schaerer is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Singapore Management University.


Roderick Swaab is an associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD.

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The Assumptions Employees Make When They Don’t Get Feedback

Feedback is a daily staple of my work as an executive coach. I am often giving direct feedback to the leaders I work with, sharing 360-degree feedback from the leader’s colleagues, and then helping them process and reflect on the feedback they receive.

One piece of feedback that the executives I coach receive over and over again from their direct reports is: “She doesn’t give enough helpful feedback.”

When I ask these direct reports about the impact this has on them, I find that, in the absence of understanding why they’re getting so little feedback, they often make up their own explanations.

Here are three of the most common stories that employees tell themselves about what their manager is thinking when they don’t get enough helpful feedback, why these stories are a problem for them (and for you), and what you can do as a manager to rewrite these stories:

Story 1: “As long as I’m not creating trouble for my manager, I’m doing fine.”

Why this is a problem: While some people are perfectly satisfied just staying out of trouble, most professionals would rather know what impact they’re having — both the good and the not-so-good. If the bar for satisfactory performance is “not a problem employee,” then your bar is way too low. And, as a result, you will likely get more of what you focus on, which means a whole bunch of “non-troublemakers” as opposed to high-performing, committed, and engaged professionals.

Furthermore, communicating this mindset (overtly or covertly) is likely to keep an employee from bringing important issues to your attention for fear that they might “create trouble” — and then lose out on the only input they’re getting from you.

What to do instead: “Not creating trouble” should become your minimum expectation, not the highest goal you set for your people. And after you change your expectation, change your mindset and your language. Let your employees know specifically what you appreciate and value when they meet or exceed expectations, and also share your perspective on what they could do differently when they fall short. Also let them know what constitutes unacceptable “trouble” (like making inappropriate remarks, repeatedly showing up late, poor follow-through on tasks) vs. acceptable “trouble” (such as difficulty obtaining a resource, not knowing how to do something, or needing a personal accommodation).

Story 2“My manager doesn’t think I can take feedback well.”

Why this is a problem: Giving feedback that helps people achieve better business results is part of a manager’s job. It’s also her job to create a climate of psychological safety — which is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake — for a direct report to receive feedback well.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

If you’re not giving feedback because you actually fear that it won’t be well-received, then you’re falling short on three counts: first, you’re not helping your direct report to have more impact (which also means, by extension, that you’re not supporting her to better help the team, the clients, and the organization). Second, you’re not modeling accountable behavior if you skip giving feedback because you fear how it will land. And third, you may be contributing to a lack of psychological safety by failing to create the opportunity for your direct report to experience support rather than retribution.

What to do instead: Separate out the story from the facts of how your direct report receives feedback. If you aren’t giving regular feedback because you assume or fear that your colleague won’t receive it well, ask yourself, “What concrete, observable evidence am I basing that assumption on?” If the list includes behaviors like, “He walks out of meetings abruptly when he hears something he doesn’t agree with,” or “She often asks, ‘Am I going to get fired for this?’ when I bring a client concern to her attention,” then you may be justified in your concerns. In my article,“When Your Employee Doesn’t Take Feedback,” I suggest that managers start giving feedback on how the employee receives feedback (or in this case, how you think he or she is likely to receive feedback based on similar situations).

And if it turns out that you don’t have compelling evidence to support your belief that he or she won’t receive it well, then you need to, as Nike suggests, “Just do it.” Give your employees the feedback they crave.

 

Story 3: “My manager doesn’t think I can change.”

Why this is a problem: If you actually believe that your employee cannot change, you will not offer him the resources or opportunities to do so. This will set you up to be right, but at the expense of your employee’s current success, and future career trajectory. As Chris Miller, a program director at UNC Executive Development, writes in his white paper, “Expectations Create Outcomes: Growth Mindsets in Organizations”: “managers with fixed mindsets often fail to recognize positive changes in employee performance. They are also less likely to coach employees about how to improve performance or to offer constructive feedback…This leads to a loss of talent in organizations.”

What do to instead: Adopt a growth mindset, for your employee and for yourself. As Miller writes, “Employees with growth mindsets welcome challenges, work harder and more effectively, and persevere in the face of struggle, which makes them more successful learners and better contributors to their organizations than employees with fixed mindsets (Briceno, 2015).”  If you hold a growth mindset for your employee, you will give more feedback because you believe she will welcome — and rise to — the challenge. And if you hold a growth mindset for yourself, you’ll be more comfortable giving feedback because you trust that you will welcome the challenge.

As Dr. Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “In the absence of data, we will always make up stories.” By giving more helpful feedback, you’ll be providing your employees with the data they need to do more of what’s working, less of what isn’t, and with fewer opportunities to make up their own stories.


Deborah Grayson Riegel is a principal at The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She also teaches management communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

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How Leaders Can Ask for the Feedback No One Wants to Give Them

Tad knew he was losing his hearing. What he didn’t know was that everyone around him knew as well.

Tad (not his real name) was a senior executive in a multinational company. Much of his work was done in lengthy meetings with dozens of participants. His hearing loss was making it difficult for him to keep track of what was happening in meetings — but his vanity kept him from getting a hearing aid. So instead, when he missed important points, he would try to decipher what was happening from slides or fill in the blanks from the fragments of conversation he could catch. Others in the meetings were, by turns, embarrassed for and frustrated with him. People began trying to hold meetings without him in order to improve efficiency. They would feign strong emotion when making a point so that they had an excuse to raise their volume. But no one dared raise the issue.

It turns out, Tad is not alone. Most managers aren’t aware of what their employees really think about them.

We and our colleagues at VitalSmarts recently conducted an online study to understand if employees feel comfortable and able to share critical feedback with their manager — especially when the feedback is about the manager’s behavior. Eighty percent of the 1,335 respondents said their boss has a significant weakness that everyone knows and discusses covertly with each other, but not directly with their manager.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If there’s something about your boss that frustrates you (and everyone around you), here’s how you can broach the subject in a thoughtful, productive way — and what managers can do to encourage their employees to open up.

How to Share Uncomfortable Feedback with Your Boss

Don’t start with your complaint. Start with consequences. Help your boss understand not just what the problem is (they overschedule and then cancel meetings) but why they should care. If the boss has a why for listening to uncomfortable feedback, they’re more likely to hear what you’re saying. For example: “As you know, we’ve missed three customer deadlines in the past six months. The problem is fixable, but it involves working with you differently in the future. May I describe what I see going on?”

Offer workarounds rather than turnarounds. It would be nice if your boss committed to a major personality change as a result of your conversation, but don’t bet on it. Even if they listen well and care about your concerns, their behavioral patterns may be so longstanding that they’re unlikely to change anytime soon. That’s why you should propose a workaround that mitigates the boss’s weaknesses. For example: “I’ve examined the kinds of things we wait on you to decide. Of the eight kinds of decisions, four of them are ones you have followed the team’s recommendations on 100% of the time. We can eliminate a chunk of our delays, and free up significant time on your calendar, if you delegate those to the team. We would notify you so that you could countermand the decision if you have concerns, but if we don’t hear back in 24 hours we will move ahead. Would that work?”

Suspend judgment. Find a way to replace your judgments with empathy. If you’re juiced up on resentment when you approach your boss, no amount of fakery will keep you from telegraphing your frustration. Conversations like these work only if the other person feels safe with you. And nothing destroys safety more reliably than a sense of derision. Examine your weaknesses. Examine your boss’s strengths. Be honest with yourself about the ways in which you are part of the problem. For example, has procrastinating on having this conversation made matters worse? We’ve found the longer you wait, the more your resentment grows toward the other person. It’s easy to let our own faintheartedness alchemize into disgust toward the boss.

How to Encourage Your Employees to Give You Feedback

The main thing leaders can do is make it safe to point out their weaknesses. This demands humility.

Sharing this article with your team is a great way to open this topic. Email it to your direct reports with the following statement: “This made me think about me and us. I want to know what everyone but me knows about what I can do better. In coming days, I want to create some opportunities for you to help me learn how I can support you better.”

Then, use these three suggestions to follow through on that commitment:

Make it normal. Make employee-to-manager feedback a regular agenda item at team meetings. If you have made commitments to improve, take a moment to report on what you have done, and then ask team members to rate your effort on a scale of 1 to 10. They’ll struggle the first few times you do it, but frequency will overcome timidity. Make it normal and it will feel less risky.

Adopt a coach. Ask a direct report who’s usually candid to be your coach. Meet regularly to request feedback. Make the coaching relationship public to demonstrate your sincerity about improving.

Prime the pump. One of the most powerful ways to encourage feedback in a group or one-on-one setting is to “prime the pump.” Give examples of concerns your coach has raised to demonstrate that it is safe to share tough feedback with you. For example, you might say, “What can I do better? I’ve heard from Gail that I am often inaccessible. I spend a lot of time out of the office, which makes it difficult for you to involve me in critical issues. I am working on a plan to fix that. What else would you like me to do better on?” If you can quote feedback you’ve received in a way that shows you aren’t threatened by it, you generate evidence for your team that other issues might be safe as well.

The old cliché is wrong — ignorance is not bliss. The frustration and concern people keep from their bosses eat away at productivity, performance, and results. Our research shows that what people don’t talk out, they will act out in the form of resentment, turnover, apathy, or deference. The path to results is paved with candid and direct communication. Leaders aren’t exempt from bad behavior — and they shouldn’t be exempt from feedback either.


Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.


Brittney Maxfield is the Director of Content Marketing at VitalSmarts.

 

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What Good Feedback Really Looks Like

According to a recent Harvard Business Review cover story, it’s rarely useful to give feedback to colleagues. The authors argue that constructive criticism won’t help people excel and that, when you highlight someone’s shortcomings, you actually hinder their learning. They say that managers should encourage employees to worry less about their weaknesses and instead focus on their strengths.

Our research and experience at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) lead us to a different conclusion: Feedback — both positive and negative — is essential to helping managers enhance their best qualities and address their worst so they can excel at leading.

There are several ideas in the article with which we agree:

  • Harsh feedback does not help people thrive and excel. Indeed, effective criticism needs to be delivered with respect and care. Frequent or exclusively negative comments can spark defensive reactions that cloud perceptions and dampen motivation.
  • Positive feedback is critical for learning. People are often quick to notice what’s wrong, but it’s equally important to pay attention to and provide input on what is working to support development.
  • Telling someone how to fix a problem is often the wrong approach. You’ll foster more learning by asking questions that stimulate reflection and coaching people into exploration and experimentation.

However, we disagree with other points:

  • People are unreliable assessors of others and thus give feedback that is more distortion than truth. Feedback is never purely objective since it is delivered from a human being with a unique perspective. However, for a leader, knowing how others see and experience her is incredibly valuable since those people make decisions based on their perceptions—decisions about who to listen to, cooperate with, trust, support and promote.
  • Feedback about weaknesses creates a threat that inhibits learning. Research indicates that 360-feedback recipients who get unfavorable ratings tend to improve their performance more than others. And, in CCL’s work, we’ve found successful executives credit all types of potentially threatening events (e.g., horrible bosses, making a business mistake, being demoted, and firing employees) as key drivers of their development.
  • People should just focus on their strengths. Our work has shown that ignoring one’s weaknesses is one of the greatest contributors to individual derailment in organizations. No matter how well-tuned a leader’s strengths are, one unaddressed “fatal flaw” (e.g., arrogance, inability to build a team or difficulty adapting to a new context) can lead to failure — particularly if it is unacknowledged by the individual.
  • You can best help your organization by getting better at the things you are already good at. This assumes that everyone is already good at the right things — that they have the critical skills and competencies that organizations need to succeed. Our colleague Jean Leslie’s research demonstrates that this is rarely the case. In fact, she found that leaders are weakest in the four most important future leadership skills—inspiring commitment, leading employees, strategic planning and change management.

When you focus only on strengths, you lull people into believing there are no areas in which they need to improve. It also lets managers off the hook for fostering necessary — and sometimes difficult — development in their reports and co-workers, which ultimately compromise organizational effectiveness.

So, instead of encouraging people to avoid negative feedback, we should focus on how to deliver negative feedback in ways that minimize the threat response. At CCL, we teach an approach to delivering feedback called Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) to address both strengths and weaknesses in a clear, specific, professional and caring way.

Feedback providers first note the time and place in which a behavior occurred. Then they describe the behavior — what they saw and heard. The final step is to describe the impact the behavior had in terms of the feedback providers’ thoughts, feelings or actions.

Here’s an example: “In our staff meeting this morning when we were discussing strategies for funding the new initiative, you interrupted Jessica while she was talking and said, “That idea will never work,” before she had a chance to finish. This left me feeling disappointed I didn’t get to hear more from her, and I was intimidated about sharing my ideas with the group.”

Such feedback is not judgmental (“You were wrong to interrupt Jessica”), not generalized (“You are always interrupting people”) and doesn’t analyze the reasons the individual behaved as he did (“Do you have no respect for other people’s ideas?”). As a result, it is more likely to be heard and considered rather than defensively rejected.

By all means, we encourage organizations, managers, and employees to recognize and leverage strengths. But you ignore weaknesses at your own peril.


Craig Chappelow is a leadership solutions facilitator, Americas, at the Center for Creative Leadership.


Cindy McCauley is a senior fellow, Americas, at the Center for Creative Leadership.

 

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The Right Way to Respond to Negative Feedback


Feedback, as they say, is a gift. Research bears this out, suggesting that it’s a key driver of performance and leadership effectiveness. Negative feedback in particular can be valuable because it allows us to monitor our performance and alerts us to important changes we need to make. And indeed, leaders who ask for critical feedback are seenas more effective by superiors, employees, and peers, while those who seek primarily positive feedback are rated lower in effectiveness.

But processing and acting on negative feedback is not always easy. It can make usdefensive, angry, and self-conscious, which subsequently impairs our effectiveness. What’s more, we can’t take all feedback we receive at face value. While critical feedback can frequently be given objectively and with the purest of motives, it can also be inaccurate and/or nefarious in nature: a coworker who wants to throw us off our game; a boss who has completely unachievable expectations; an employee who is scared to speak truth to power; a friend who projects her own issues onto us. It’s hard to know what is real and what should be filtered out.

There are plenty of resources available on how to ask for critical feedback, but there’s comparatively little guidance on how to navigate the hard feedback we receive. Here are five empirically supported actions to help you hear critical feedback openly and calmly, intentionally mine it for insight, and harness it to improve without collateral damage to your confidence and self-concept.

1. Don’t rush to react

In my 15 years as an organizational psychologist and executive coach, I’ve seen just about every possible reaction to critical feedback. Some especially memorable responses have included punching a wall, accusing me of making their feedback up, and crying so uncontrollably that we had to reschedule the session. (Encouragingly, all three ended up making dramatic improvements once their initial emotions faded.)

All of these reactions are completely understandable. As renowned psychologist William Swann put it, when humans receive feedback that conflicts with our self-image, we “suffer the severe disorientation and psychological anarchy that occurs when [we] recognize that [our] very existence is threatened.”

As part of a research program for my new book, Insight, my team conducted dozens of interviews with people who’d made dramatic improvements in their self-awareness. These participants reported frequently seeking critical feedback that would help them improve. But they weren’t necessarily fond of the experience. One participant, a non-profit executive, quipped, “Are you kidding? I hate hearing that I’m not perfect!” We found this reassuring — even the most self-aware among us are still human. But as we dug deeper into what they did next, we saw a clear pattern. Where so many of us pressure ourselves to push past our emotions and respond right away, these highly self-aware people gave themselves days or even weeks to bounce back from difficult feedback before deciding what to do next.

Specifically, many reported actively working to change the way they saw the feedback — they’d think of upsetting or surprising information as helpful and productive data — something psychologists call cognitive reappraisal. One simple yet effectivereappraisal tool is affect labeling, or putting our feelings into words. For example, after a critical performance review, we might simply acknowledge, “I feel blindsided and a little scared.”

Another technique is self-affirmation. Taking a few minutes to remind ourselves of another important aspect of our identity, besides the one being threatened, lessensour physical response to threat and helps us be more open to critical feedback. For example, if you’ve learned your team sees you as a micromanager, you might remember that you’re a supportive friend, devoted community member, or loving parent. When we see the bigger picture, it helps us put feedback in its proper perspective. Then and only then should we decide how to respond.

2. Get more data

It can be disorienting to learn that people don’t always see us the way we see ourselves. I once had a coaching client named Kim, a smart, dedicated manager whose entire world had just been turned upside down by a 360 report. Even though she’d struggled with feelings of insecurity her whole career, her colleagues saw her as aggressive and arrogant in meetings. She had no idea what she was doing to create this perception. (Despite the benefits of some 360s, they can leave many questions unanswered.)

We can’t act on feedback until we truly understand it. Especially when we hear something new, it’s usually a good idea to ask a few trustworthy sources whether they’ve noticed the same behavior. Not only does this give us more detail about what we are doing to create a certain impression, it helps us avoid overcorrecting based on one person’s opinion. After all, as Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius stated, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.”

But who should we ask? Our interviews with highly self-aware people provide some helpful guidance. Surprisingly, most reported keeping their feedback circle relatively small. One customer service manager noted, “I get feedback all the time, but not from all the people. I rely on a small, trusted group I know will tell me the truth.” These “loving critics,” as we named them, were people they trusted and who would be brutally honest with them. Loving critics don’t necessarily need to be people we’re close to (even complete strangers have strangely accurate perceptions of our personalities). Out of the three loving critics Kim selected, I’d argue that the one she knew least well gave her the most valuable information.

With the help of her loving critics, Kim was soon able to build a better picture in her mind of how her behavior was coming across, which gave her the power to make different choices. Months later, Kim’s boss told me that she’d gone from one of his bottom performers to his most valued team member. If she hadn’t taken the time to understand the feedback she was given, it’s hard to imagine such a dramatic transformation.

 

3. Find a harbinger

Even when we’ve significantly improved a certain behavior, it doesn’t mean that the people around us will automatically notice. As leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith has aptly noted, it can be harder to change the perceptions of our behavior than the behavior itself. And if we spend energy improving based on feedback from our colleagues, but those same colleagues don’t notice, it can be discouraging.

For this reason, I also work with my coaching clients on the “public relations” aspects of their behavior. Shortly after receiving their feedback report, we choose one highly visible and symbolic action that will show how serious they are about changing. I once worked with Paul, who ran the radiology department in a large regional medical center. When I interviewed his employees, their morale was suffering. They told me that Paul didn’t seem to understand or care about their day-to-day challenges, which was frustrating and demoralizing.

In my interviews, I kept hearing the same example. A few weeks prior, the doorstop in the entrance to the radiology department had broken off. Employees transporting patients in stretchers had to precariously prop the door open with their hip and quickly squeeze the stretcher through before it closed. They’d put in a work order but weeks later, the doorstop still wasn’t fixed. This relatively minor issue clearly had spoken volumes to Paul’s team.

The plan that Paul created contained many excellent, longer-term strategies to gain his team’s trust. But before he even started executing it, we selected his harbinger. Tomorrow, he would walk down to the department during the busiest time of the day and, in plain view, replace the doorstop with his own two hands. Paul’s employees immediately noticed and appreciated this symbolic step, which made it far easier to spot the other changes he made moving forward.

4. Don’t be a lonely martyr

Getting critical feedback can feel like an exercise in isolation, and not just because it’s uncomfortable in the moment. Research by Francesca Gino, Paul Green, and Brad Staats has shown that we tend to avoid people after they give us negative feedback. And while it can certainly feel easier to see ourselves as the aggrieved party in a vast workplace conspiracy, sequestering ourselves from people who tell us the truth is a big mistake. Gino and her colleagues found that participants who did so experienced declines in performance one year later.

If anything we should pull people who tell us the truth even closer. Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan tracked the behavior changes of more than 11,000 leaders after completing a leadership development program. Those who engaged in an ongoing dialogue with their coworkers showed dramatic improvement, while the improvement of those who didn’t “barely exceeded random chance.”

In this regard, critical feedback can be an excellent excuse to reset our relationships—and with the right approach, our biggest critics can become our greatest champions. When I was conducting interviews with the coworkers of a new coaching client, Rachel, I learned that her colleagues in another department felt disrespected by her lack of proactive communication.

Because the two heads of that department were critical to Rachel’s success, she decided to make the first move. She thanked them for their feedback, sincerely apologized for her part in their conflict, and suggested they reset their expectations moving forward. She also committed to meet with them monthly to seek suggestions on how she could be a better partner. A few months later, she received a glowing email from them thanking her for her responsiveness and partnership. As Rachel worked to make changes, they continued to celebrate with her when things went well and gave her the benefit of the doubt when they didn’t.

5. Remember that change is just one option

Most successful, ambitious people probably believe that when a behavior is limiting their success, they should work to change it. However, the best way to manage our weaknesses isn’t always clear cut. Sometimes feedback can illuminate flaws that are tightly woven into the very fabric of who we are.

Levi, a successful entrepreneur, is an illustrative example. For most of his career, he saw himself as an effective leader and strong communicator. But after a 360 process, he discovered that his team didn’t share his opinion  not only were their ratings consistently much lower than his self-ratings, the lowest score they gave him was for the competency of communication.

Levi embarked on a process to better understand this feedback and came to the informed conclusion that he might never be genuinely personable, no matter how hard he tried. But instead of stopping there (which may have been tempting), he knew he needed to come clean to his team. He called a company meeting where he admitted that he wasn’t the most likable or communicative leader. Next, he explained to his team that some behaviors were a personal shortcoming and certainly no indication that he didn’t care about or value them. Finally, he asked for their help and understanding as he worked to navigate this weakness.

To Levi’s great surprise, his employees were instantly more understanding. Over time, they even began to (lovingly) joke about some of his communication blunders. Levi saw that as a signal that they were more on his side, even if he couldn’t be the perfect leader. Sometimes the best response to critical feedback is to admit our flaws — first to ourselves, and then to others — while setting expectations for how we are likely to behave. When we let go of the things we cannot change, it frees up the energy to focus on changing the things we can.


Tasha Eurich, PhD, is an organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times bestselling author. She is the principal of The Eurich Group, a boutique executive development firm that helps companies—from start-ups to the Fortune 100—succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams. Her newest book, Insight, delves into the connection between self-awareness and success in the workplace.

 

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Bring in Outside Experts to Mentor Your Team

Organizations depend increasingly on independent, temporary workers, even for mission-critical work. We call this subset of freelancers who do strategic work in companies or nonprofit organizations agile talent. They contribute technical expertise that an organization does not already have to a critical project or initiative. By providing temporary support, they make it possible for organizations to resource their critical activities more cost efficiently.

Many of the benefits of agile talent have been widely reported. But a benefit that has received less attention is the contribution they can make as mentors to an organization’s full-time staff. Tapping into your outside experts to help in the development of internal employees is a valuable way to address the needs of both. Experts are often looking for ways to help junior people in their profession, and younger employees are hungry for training and development. For example, research by Google, reported by Jolt, points out that less than 20% of tech employees in Silicon Valley believes the training they receive fits their goals and needs.

A practical framework for mentoring is based on the career stages work of Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson, former professors at HBS. Their research has found that high-performing professionals tend to transit through four distinct stages of development:

  1. Apprentice: Helper and learner; establishes a reputation for trust, teamwork, and cultural congruity.
  2. Individual contributor: Builds recognized functional expertise; makes a significant independent contribution; demonstrates accountability and ownership for results.
  3. Mentor/coach: Contributes through others as a formal manager, an idea leader, a project owner, or an informal employee developer.
  4. Sponsor/strategist: Sets or influences strategic direction and important decisions; exercises power on behalf of the organization; prepares future leaders.

Stages 3 and 4 are developmental stages where mentoring skills are typically developed and sharpened. And, it turns out, agile talent in stages 3 and 4 is often eager to provide coaching and mentorship to junior professionals working with them.

But it’s not only their career stage that makes agile talent potentially excellent mentors. For example, successful agile talent is, almost by definition, entrepreneurial. They are actively involved in building their business, developing their strategies, growing and maintaining strong customer relationships, and creating a service offering that’s attractive to their market. This type of entrepreneurial mindset is extremely helpful and is very often lacking among full-time employees who don’t have significant market or competitive contact.

How can an organization encourage the mentoring of employees by their critical outside experts? We suggest five steps that leaders can take.

Establish Informal Coaching Relationships

Experts are often brought onboard an organization to solve a crisis. When this is the case, it may be difficult to arrange for a formal coaching relationship with members of your full-time staff. And it may be difficult for agile talent working remotely to provide mentorship to those on-site. But when circumstances are more supportive, stage 3 or 4 agile talent may be eager to support the development of young high potentials or junior professionals in your organization who would benefit from a coaching relationship. In past work, my arrangements with outside experts always included time for them to teach me as well as work with them. These experiences were some of the most valuable of my career.

Provide Channels for Sharing Knowledge

Managers tap these outside experts for help because of their knowledge and experience. Beyond the project contribution, technical and functional experts should be asked to share their expertise and educate the team on best practice insights and new innovations in their field of expertise. A brown bag lunch with the team, for example, helps to build the team’s relationship with these experts and reinforces collaboration and engagement. More-formal methods, such as after-action reviews, are useful too.

Involve Experts as Part of the Brain Trust

Smart project managers know that bringing a team together to collaboratively solve tough problems both builds teamwork and improves performance. Extending this participation to agile talent is a potentially powerful opportunity for young professionals to see new or alternative approaches to problem solving. And it is very likely to lead to closer relationships and greater developmental engagement between outside experts and internal staff employees.

Engage Experts in Providing Developmental Feedback

Many years ago an HBS colleague asked me if I was interested in developmental feedback. I was, and his comment was tough to hear: “You are talented but sloppy. You need to be more organized and disciplined.” It was one of the most helpful bits of advice I’ve ever received. While painful to hear, over the past couple of decades I’ve learned to appreciate the clarity and sincerity of his comments. It put me on a developmental journey that has made me a better professional. In the years that have followed, I’ve consistently done something similar, asking my students and consulting clients if they are interested in feedback. They almost always are.

Connect with Experts’ Networks  

Agile talent is often connected to different networks than the internal team members with whom they are working. I’m frequently asked: Who has interesting ideas? What are you reading? What are the innovations you find most exciting? As a result, I spend a fair amount of time introducing people to one another and suggesting networks to join or individuals to meet. We encourage managers and team members to seek the advice of outside experts and to explicitly have the conversation about who is worth getting to know and where interesting or innovative things are happening.

We live in a time when keeping up technically and professionally is increasingly important and difficult. Mentoring is one of the important tools that managers have to contribute to the development of their team. Utilizing agile talents as mentors and coaches is a way to multiply the value of an organization’s investment in outside experts.

Jon Younger is the founder of the Agile Talent Collaborative, a non-profit research organization, and works with several start-ups in the on-demand staffing space. He is the co-author of several books in talent management and HR, including Agile Talent (HBR Press, 2016). He teaches in the executive education faculties of the University of Michigan and the Indian School of Business. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/01/bring-in-outside-experts-to-mentor-your-team?referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date&spMailingID=17082340&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=1002089593&spReportId=MTAwMjA4OTU5MwS2

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