Leadership Between the Lines

*The Game of Feedback & Performance Improvement…How Do You Play? *

Do you play front and center or from behind and to the side? Do you engage your team mate directly to help him “up his game”? Or do you do it through others? The coach, the other players, the water boy? Where does your energy go when you think about giving feedback (up, down, out, in)? What’s the energy you hold when you provide it?

I get to work with people on feedback quite a bit. Giving it. Receiving it.

Fearing it. Loving it. Making sure it is in service of. Cleaning it up so it’s not personal. Cleaning it up so it actually helps. All in service of creating better results, better relationships, smarter collaboration, safety for risk taking, and ultimately cultures and leaders that inspire trust and the best results possible.

As always, I notice trends. I notice when people are careful. And why. When they pull their punches. And why. When they sabotage the feedback. And why.

When they avoid it. And why. When it gets totally distorted. And why. When it’s productive or not. And why. It’s a simple, yet complex game. And one that is important in creating trust and good results in your organization.

Being in the position to help folks give feedback in some cases, and to help clients integrate it in others (discerning the good from the bad, the helpful from the not, the service oriented from the personal), I am often sought out by their peers, direct reports, bosses, even their spouses, to “give me just a little bit extra feedback” on the side, or to tell me about something that’s happened that they disagree with or are “concerned about.”

I notice that with this often comes speculation about what might be going on for the subject, analysis, etc. – a lot of it based on assumptions and the individual’s discomfort or personal preferences of what it should look like.

Depending on the scope of the work and the agreements designed with my client, how these interactions are handled may be different. And one thing that is consistent is that I’ll always ask the person if they’ve delivered the feedback directly before bringing it to me. Sometimes they have, often they haven’t, and even more often they don’t want it “traced” back to them.

I can understand where this comes from for many, after all feedback can be a scary thing and rouses up many underlying beliefs for all of us whether (we’re giving it or receiving it), and I’d like to offer that there is a tremendous opportunity for “walking through the fire together,” holding ones “space,” strengthening relationships, and achieving an even better outcome through all of this.

*Here are two common scenarios that interfere with trust and results when it comes to feedback. *See if either of these offers you anything:

For these examples we’ll look a “Mary” and “Mark” and “Clyde” and “Sue.”

*Scenario 1:* Mary gives feedback about Mark to a 3rd party (ie. Mark’s coach or his “boss” or another colleague, etc.)- instead of delivering it directly – and hopes that it will get delivered “appropriately” for her. (Often this is because she doesn’t want the confrontation, she doesn’t think it’s her “job,” she doesn’t know how, or it’s not “clean” and she senses or knows it.)

*Impact: * Triangulation (which rhymes with strangulation and I think they have similar impacts!) A “triangulation” situation, in which someone is in the middle of the two people who should be directly engaging, actually takes the power out of the primary relationship (Mary and Mark), creates passivity, abdicates leadership to the 3rd party, compromises the integrity of the feedback, and ultimately ends up in diminished trust and results.

*Alternative:* If Mary notices the feedback to be given and isn’t sure how to go about it – I believe it’s fine, and even responsible, to engage a TRUSTED* 3rd party to get support in making sure that it’s clean and useful feedback (it’s not personal, it’s specific, it gives them somewhere to go, it’s co-active), and that it’s handled with care and delivered with the best approach in order to be most helpful. (*By trusted, I mean someone who will hold it with confidence, hold her “accountable”, help her truly navigate through it, make sure it’s clean, AND not collude, gossip or nitpick with her about it.) In this scenario Mary owns the feedback. She commits to delivering it directly to Mark (what he does with it is another post!) This keeps the 3rd party outside the system, and there to help “clean up” and optimize the feedback if needed, and keeps the power of the relationship with Mark and Mary (allowing them to experience the trust as their relationship grows.)


*Scenario 2:* Clyde gives feedback about Sue to a 3rd party but he DOESN’T want them to share it, repeat it, etc. He just wants them to “be aware” - but he also wants Sue to change and “get it” (and therefore hopes it will get handled somehow.) There’s a complaint there, with a request underneath, but it’s not being addressed directly – nor is he willing to “put it on the table.” Uggh.

*Impact:* This is even trickier than scenario #1 as the 3rd party can’t really do much with it, it’s not direct, it’s given in confidence, it’s passive, and therefore it’s not really helpful. (In fact, before I learned the lesson of how to more proactively design for this scenario, I once “returned to sender” saying there was nothing I could do with it if it was “in confidence” and they weren’t willing to participate. There wasn’t. If they’d been willing to share it outright or even with anonymity, we could have done something productive, but in this case, it was a no-starter.) Back to Clyde and Sue…By Clyde sharing this with the 3rd party, sure it’s possible that he/she might be able to keep the feedback in back pocket and be aware of it, and somehow use it to serve down the line…But, there’s a huge opportunity lost for supporting Sue (if the feedback comes from a good place.) And what I find even more interesting about it is to explore the learning underneath that scenario about what’s going on for Clyde and what might be happening in the relationship with Clyde and Sue….

*Alternative:* If you’re Clyde, explore your feedback more fully. Check out the questions that I list below. Identify the request you have underneath that complaint. (Complaints are generally uncommunicated requests.) Consider what “being in service of Sue” might look like truly. Check the feedback – if it’s personal or crooked – either don’t give it or clean it up (or call me and we’ll work on it together.) If you’re the 3rd party in that scene, you have a great opportunity to coach Clyde through what’s going on for him. If I happen to be that 3rd party we’ll often explore the feedback and what’s getting charged up for “Clyde” (because that’s often the case in this scenario – it’s personal.)

*I’ll also often ask one or all of a series of five questions to support a “Clyde” in moving forward:

1) Have you given the feedback to the individual directly? Is it in service of? What are you concerned will happen if you give it directly?

2) What’s the intent of sharing the feedback with me?

3) What do you hope to gain from sharing it? What might be different? What’s the outcome you seek? Or even (depending on my intuition) what are you really looking for here?

4) What would be wrong with my telling them you brought it up with me? (This will open up a lot…look deeply here, this is where the gifts are.)

5) How can I be most helpful to you? What is your next best step?

Try it on. If you answer those 5 questions, you’ll often find some pretty interesting answers as to where there’s a gap in the relationship or where you’re holding back, where you’re personally getting triggered, and at a minimum better clarity on what you hope to accomplish through that feedback…it also helps keep it clean so everyone is working together…the more direct and service oriented the feedback is, the greater the trust created, the more effective the feedback and the better the result.

Obviously it goes much deeper than this, and this is just food for thought for the next time you give feedback, are tempted to give it “through” someone else, or even better, someone comes to you (try on the questions with them, see what happens.) I offer these scenarios and “noticings” for other coaches and consultants doing this kind of work to “beware the lure of triangulation” and I also offer it to leaders in general as you lead your team and work to help your folks optimize performance. I believe the best way to build trust and to create the best end result is to in fact directly engage (dare to engage), to work through it and if needed to ask a 3rd party for support in being most helpful. As always, use these principles as they resonate for you and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

BTW, if you’re interested in more on feedback (models, methodology, training and exercises) – please contact us about subscribing to the DTE Power Pack Program. Next month’s 30 page module and audio is, in fact, on Feedback – giving it, receiving it, and loving it!