Feedback Without Tact Is The Lazy Way To Lead


I wanted to write this post because, as a leader, I spend a large amount of my time being very mindful of how I give feedback. I often hear the advice that it’s important for leaders to give feedback, but not often is it discussed that how you give it is just as ( or perhaps even more ) important.


Giving feedback just right, for each individual, for each specific situation is something I’ve had to work at over the years… and I’ve made my share of mistakes. It hasn’t been easy and I’m always trying to get better at it, but the time is well worth it and the results have been pretty amazing.


A shorten and better edited version of this appeared in FastCompany. Here’s the full raw post:


Feedback Without Tact Is The Lazy Way To Lead

Learning how to give the right feedback in the right context is what changes behavior


We consistently hear that great leaders need to give feedback. But since giving quality, behaviour-changing feedback is actually hard to do, the common advice is to just simply give it: good leaders give feedback, bad ones don’t. End of story.


But that’s misguided. Feedback for the sake of feedback doesn’t change behavior. “Give feedback” is not something that belongs on a leader’s to-do checklist. From a feedback perspective, the difference between a good leader and world-class leader is how he or she gives it. It’s about delivering feedback in the right way for that specific individual, for that specific situation. Said differently, it’s all about context and customization.


And this is what great performers want! They want feedback that is tailored. They need it not only to improve their job performance but it also contributes to the satisfaction they get out of the work they’re doing. And that leads to a happier, more productive employee.


So how do leaders learn how to deliver behaviour-changing feedback? Let’s start by defining the feedback pressure spectrum. On the low end (let’s call it 1.0), feedback is passive. It’s Lumbergh. It’s too soft. We all know how most employees would respond to this sort of feedback: they won’t. This too nice, “light tap” sort of feedback (almost) always results in no behaviour change whatsoever. 1.0 feedback is dishwater. If we picture a nail in a piece of wood, a 1.0 hammer won’t move the nail. (There are, of course, cases in which exceptional employees respond well to 1.0 feedback. They have a sixth sense of sorts for when things need correction. While rare, these employees are rockstars. Keep them.)


On the high end (10.0)—well, you can imagine what high end feedback is. It’s harsh. It is behaviour change by fear… but it works. Fear-inducing feedback only motivates in that “I’m going to lose my job” sort of way. (That then snowballs into a “What will I tell my family? Where’s my resume? What about the mortgage?” mindset.) Thus 10.0 feedback—or “dropping the hammer”—is counter-productive. It will actually bend the nail all out of shape.


So assuming that bookend feedback does not create the desired behaviour change, leaders need to learn how to deliver feedback—which starts with finding the right setting somewhere in between the two bookends. It’s about finding the right pressure to apply. And since each employee and each scenario is different, how you give feedback is about customization.


First, a great feedback-giving leader evaluates the individual. Ideally, over time, they’ve gotten to know them. They understand their habits, behaviors, motivations and triggers. Second, they understand the context of the scenario. They know what work, trend or issue needs to be addressed. (That sounds obvious, but next time you’re giving feedback think on why you’re giving it beyond the standard “Because he’s screwing up and needs it!”)


If you come to each feedback conversation armed with these understandings, you’re going to be able to start tailoring your feedback. As a simple hypothetical example, consider Kevin. He’s been with the company for eight years. He was on the team when there was no office, no significant product traction… but he has poured his heart and soul into the company. It’s blatantly obvious. But say Kevin has recently started getting pretty liberal working from home. It used to be a day here and there, but now he’s pretty much in the office one day a week and the speed and quality of his work is suffering. Remote working philosophy discussion aside, this is an issue.


Given the relationship and the context, a great leader knows that Kevin doesn’t need bookend feedback (i.e., 1.0 or 10.0). He maybe needs a pressure in the ballpark of 3.6. (Going back to the hammer, that’s tapping a nail not too hard: firm enough to drive it home, but not so hard that it bends all out of shape.) That sort of feedback could be provided as simply as, “Kevin. We need you here in the office. The team looks to you as an example. If I’m not aware of something, let’s talk about it.” Done. Feedback given, objective communicated contextually. Given Kevin’s experience and history, he will get that. It was subtle but it will resonate. It was the right amount of pressure. And if there is something going on like, say, an unexpected change in childcare needs, the floor is now open for conversation.


But should the 3.6 not resonate, effective leaders will turn up the pressure in a way that is progressive, not sharp. (Think of an airplane ascending gently versus a steep climb.) Sure, the goal is to send the nail home in one shot, but sometimes you need to tap harder until it’s in without hitting it too hard.


For further color, consider if our leader hit Kevin with a meek 1.0: “Hey Kev. Just wanted to check to make sure your computer in the office is ok.” It is highly unlikely that that will change Kevin’s behavior. That sort of pressure does nothing to our nail. In fact, it will probably be difficult for Kevin to figure out exactly what his boss is getting at.


Lastly, let’s illustrate a 10.0: “Kevin. You’re abusing the work-from-home policy. The next time this happens, you’re fired.” Woah! Sure, that’ll get Kevin in the office five (maybe even six) days a week, but he’s now a battered nail and not at all snug in his piece of wood.


Ultimately, a leader that can give the right feedback in the right context will change behaviours. They will achieve that results-producing mix of being liked (because they contextually appreciate their employees) and respected (because they apply the right amount of customized pressure).
Is learning how to give feedback easy? No. But each time you do, think it through first. Recall the ideas of customization and context and think about the hammer and nail. Consistently remind yourself that giving quality feedback is about changing behaviours… and great performers deserve content and delivery of your feedback to always be tailored.


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On March 8, 2015

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