To help people excel, point out their excellence, not their failure

How do you give feedback in ways that get people to actually listen and change? It’s not a new challenge in leadership circles. Every leader we work with, all over the world and at every level of management, struggles with it:

I sugarcoat it.
It’s easier over the phone, because I don’t see the face of the other person.
I never had a boss like me. Never got feedback. I could have learned a lot!
I put it off until I’m so angry and frustrated that I explode and destroy the relationship beyond repair.

There’s a ton of research, tools, and opinion out there to address what’s always been a hot topic in business. We published one of our very first blog posts about it here, because it’s such an essential communication skill for all of us, in every relationship, and at both work and in our lives. (In this post we focus on how to give it. In a separate blog post here, we talk about the flip side of the conversation, which is how to receive it.)

Netflix Stirs the Debate

Here we are again, because there’s been high-profile new debate recently. Hollywood giant Netflix has come under fire about its radically transparent “pressure cooker” work culture inarticles in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Forbes, and the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

WSJ authors Ramachandran and Flint, whospoke to more than 70 current and former Netflix employees, describe what Netflix calls their “real-time 360” feedback, delivered overs dinners and lunches where coworkers take turns giving feedback to others at the table. They also describe the “keeper test,” where on the Netflix webpage it says, “We focus on managers’ judgment for each of their people: If one of the members of the team was thinking of leaving for another firm, would the manager try hard to keep them from leaving? The criticism of this “extreme openness” approach to feedback includes words such as ”harsh,” “intense,” “awkward,” “callous.”

Forbes author Stephanie Denning further describes examples of Netflix’s “extreme transparency” practices, including “sunshining,” a Netflix term used to describe a company practice that encourages employees to air a mistake they might have made to colleagues in the name of transparency. Evaluations are also public. Employees are rated annually using a “360” tool, which is commonly used in many organizations. At Netflix, however, much less commonly, these evaluations are accessible company-wide, from administrators all the way to the CEO.

HBR authors Buckingham and Goodall entered the hoopla over Netflix’s approach by sidesteppingthe debate on how candidly transparent feedback needs to be and focusing instead on the broader question of, “how can we help each person thrive and excel?” They make a crucial distinction between instruction – telling people what to do – and feedback – telling people what we think of their performance, and how they should do it better. The two are very different. They further point out how research debunks myths we have about the source of truth, how we learn, and how we codify excellence. In short, we aren’t the most reliable raters of other people’s performance that we think we are, attention to our weaknesses smothers our learning, and “excellence” is idiosyncratic and not the opposite of failure:

…More than half your rating of someone else reflects your characteristics, not hers….Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning… Managers can’t ‘correct’ a person’s way to excellence.

The solution they offer on how to help people excel is to look for positive outcomes of behavioral excellence and respond to those occurrences. They emphasize that managers need to help their team members see what’s working, and share their experience of what the person did well.

Whenever you see one of your people do something that worked for you, stop, and point it out. ‘Yes. That!’ You’re offering her the chance to gain insight; you’re highlighting a pattern that is already there within her/him so that they can recognize it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it. That is learning.

There’s a big and important distinction here. It’s not about telling someone how well she’s performed or how good she is. It’s not about piling on the praise. Nor are you the authority on what objectively good performance is. It’s about speaking your truth. It’s you describing – very specifically — what you experience when her moment of excellence catches your attention.

…you aren’t judging, or rating, or fixing her; you’re simply reflecting to her the unique ‘dent’ she just made in the world, as seen through your eyes.

Our #1 Tip: Shift Your Mindset

At the heart of the common ground we see in the debate is the need to shift your mindset. As a feedback giver, we need to stop judging or rating or being the authority on what is excellence and good performance. Our intention instead needs to come from a place of seeing the potential in the other person, with the intention to enable their self-reflection, learning, and self-empowerment. When we’re truly not judging or rating, the impact is powerful and trans-formative. The other’s understanding of the nature of their own unique excellence will become more vivid. As HBR authors Buckingham and Goodall describe:

Her brain will become more receptive to new information and will make connections to other inputs found in other regions of her brain, and she will learn and grow and get better.

Our #2 Tip: Pay Attention to Your Words

Use language that reflects this different mindset and approach. Here are some examples of language to try now.

Use the word “I” more than the word “you,” and speak from a place of your experience, not from a place of judgment of the other. We always say to clients as they’re practicing, “in your mind’s eye as you speak, keep your finger pointed at yourself, not the other person:”

Here’s what i would do,” not “Here’s what you should do
I’m struggling to understand your plan,”not“ You lack strategic thinking
Here’s what worked best for me & why, ”not“ Here’s what you need to improve
I feel like….”not“ You make me feel…

Our Other Essential Tips

  1. Give it immediately – “interrupt”
  2. Give it continuously, not just during an isolated performance review
  3. Focus on behavior, not traits or personality – what you can see and hear
  4. Focus on the “what” and the “how” – not the “why”
  5. Focus on moving forward, into the future
  6. Be descriptive and specific – don’t generalize
  7. Check agreement with what you’ve shared
  8. Be clear about your intentions behind the feedback
  9. Come to clear agreement about any new action needed going forward
  10. Apologize for any defensiveness or blaming that may have occurred during the conversation.

The low-hanging fruit of leading with feedback

Raising the bar on candor and transparency in the workplace is one of the best no-cost, immediate, and high impact leadership behaviors when it’s got skillfulness and intention behind it that aims to help the other(s) contribute more of their uniqueness, skills, and potential.