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I’ve been managing people for more than ten years. As part of my role, I advise other leaders in organizations across the country. I’ve learned an irony of leadership is that as we rise in the ranks, more people are impacted by our decisions, but less people give us feedback.
Those of us who want feedback can empower others to give it by being vulnerable, acknowledging our mistakes, asking for advice, having open-door policies, and acting on the insight provided.
That same behavior also has a less desirable consequence. Leaders who are open to feedback, hear a lot of complaints. Feedback and complaints are very different. Complaints point the finger. Feedback lends a hand. Complaints feel problem-oriented. Feedback feels solution-oriented. Complaints lead to fixes. Feedback leads to change.
The problem is that when people give upward feedback, they often deliver it like a complaint. That tension, however, represents a great opportunity. If you learn how to effectively give upward feedback without sounding like you’re complaining, you will become a trusted voice with influence on those in leadership.
Don’t forget the basics. Even when directed upward, the basics of effective feedback are still important. You can find general advice for giving feedback here and here. In the meantime, a few reminders:
- Be as specific as possible and provide concrete examples.
- Keep it timely, i.e. related to something recent.
- Don’t just give constructive feedback. When things go well, share that feedback too.
- Provide it privately, not in public.
Put yourself in their shoes: Do your best to understand what your leader is facing and how your feedback might help. What pressures do they feel that might have driven their actions? Does your feedback help within that context? This mental practice isn’t done to change the content of your feedback, rather to change your tone from judgmental to supportive.
Don’t walk too far in their shoes: Although you’ve put yourself in their shoes, don’t assume you have enough context to know what they should have done. Your assumptions will muddle your message. Do your best to avoid the words “should have” and “just.” Don’t say:
- “You should have…”
- “Why didn’t you just…?”
Like anyone else, leaders have egos. A sure way to trigger their ego is to over-simplify solutions or to insinuate they didn’t consider alternatives. That language can make leaders feel they need to justify every action and puts them on the defense. Feedback doesn’t break through if they’re defending.
Instead start with acknowledgements: You want to assume that there may be complex issues at play behind the concern that prompted your feedback. If the issue is behavior, you want to assume miscommunication or unawareness of how it was perceived. Start sentences with that acknowledgement and end with the result.
- “I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but when you did X…it resulted in Y…”
- “You may have considered this, but when you did X…it resulted in Y…”
- “I know you didn’t mean it, but when you did X…it resulted in Y…”
That language shifts your message from blaming to providing insight. It tempers the entry point while keeping the message concrete. Your leader still may feel the need to explain, but they’ll be less defensive. The additional context they provide and their shift in attitude opens the door to you sharing relevant ideas on what could have been done instead.
Write it down: Putting pen to paper is not about documentation. It is about clarity of thought. Feedback isn’t something you want to wing. Writing helps you prioritize and focus on actions and/or behaviors and their outcomes. It is a roadmap that helps you recognize assumptions that can get you off track. In addition, when you deliver your feedback – use the written notes. That sends a signal that you’ve invested time thinking through the feedback and that it matters to you.
Own it: Your feedback should be your own. If you say you are speaking on behalf of others, it won’t add weight to the feedback, it will be a distraction. It will shift your leader’s attention from your insight to them wondering who the “others” are and how long they’ve been whispering. It also positions you to potentially throw others under the bus if asked who they are. If you don’t share their names, you’ve preserved your colleague’s trust, while losing some of your leader’s.
If you need to share feedback that affects others, tread lightly. Unless you’ve built a trusting relationship with your leader, it’s best to encourage colleagues to share their feedback directly
Find themes: If your feedback seems like a complaint, don’t share it. That doesn’t mean forget it. Instead, note it privately somewhere. If it continues, you might see a theme. Coupling a theme with real examples is how a one-off complaint becomes valuable feedback. Now when you share it you will be perceived as a strong observer of action and impact, which is much different than complaining.
When delivering feedback, you must remember that what is being said is as important as how it is being said. Leaders are inundated with decisions, usually tough ones. If your feedback sounds like a complaint, it just adds to the pile. Choosing the right strategy and approach will separate your message from that pile. In doing so, you will discover a powerful way to manage up and distinguish yourself as a trusted voice.
March 15, 2019 at 01:04AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs