Why can’t we just be honest?

Why can’t we just be honest? Feedback as a gift.

How many times have you heard that “Feedback is a Gift”? When I was working at Target Corporation, this phrase was used so many times, that I had more gifts than I knew what to do with. Feedback piled up in the corner to the point that I felt like I had a scarlet letter on my chest declaring: “Moves Fast, Doesn’t Bring Others Along, Can come across arrogant, Overly Confident.” In fact, what I learned at my time at Target was that with all the gifts I received, I did not always get the context required for me to understand the impact that my strengths and opportunities were having on my career. In essence, while I was getting feedback that I had to work on (opportunities and strengths), I wasn’t always read in on the impact my actions, performance or behaviors were having on my future at Target. The conversations lacked that brutal honesty that may have sparked an effort to truly address the feedback I was getting.

What I often didn’t know is that the feedback around “Moves fast,” meant I was excluding others from discussions, making superiors feel inferior, glossing over others’ ideas, or not bringing others along on my thoughts. This outcome from my behaviors cemented perceptions about me in the organization, that I wasn’t totally aware of. What I didn’t always appreciate was how these perceptions may color a person’s willingness to support my initiatives, ideas, or advancement in the company, even if it was a subconscious reaction from them.

What I did appreciate about Target’s approach to talent development was that they were focused as much on your “How” you did your job vs. just the “What” you did. No matter the results you drove, if you left lots of dead bodies along the way, you would hear about it. Target recognized that to build the culture that they wanted, employee performance had to put equal weight on how you drove your results. I have had numerous discussions with employees in my career why the “How” you do your job is as crucial as the “What.” Where I believe Target fell down for me, is that if you weren’t leaving dead bodies on the side of the road, but just bruised or lightly scratched bodies, you didn’t always hear that your ‘how’ wasn’t working in your favor. These subtleties can be the difference between advancement and stagnation.

In the various companies I have worked for, what often fell short during feedback/review sessions was putting the feedback into the context of my career progression. The higher up I climbed in an organization, I received less and less feedback. In fact, when I started reporting to a CEO, the performance expectation totally changed. I had to seek out input vs. expecting it from my boss. I would, of course, hear about blunders, but day to day feedback wasn’t readily forthcoming. I chalk this up to two key factors: CEOs expect you to be able to perform, and CEOs often aren’t in the room with you on a day to day basis.

Earlier in my career, rarely did I hear from my leaders that I didn’t have it what it took to get to the next level. Or that a critical leader who I needed their support didn’t like me or didn’t appreciate my confidence. The organization had a queue of great talent that needed to be worked through and fostered. I always felt that I sat 6 people back from the front, regardless of my current performance. I rarely got the feedback that I lacked the qualities to get to the next level and to get there, I had to demonstrate a specific set of behaviors. There wasn’t a checklist of actions I could take, and frankly, there should never be a checklist. It really was a combination of internal advocates, availability of the role, the ability to add responsibilities, and a track record of exhibiting the behaviors expected of a person in the position that I wanted to be in. During this phase of my career, due to the lack of actionable feedback, some bad behaviors were cemented, and it took me quite a while to unwind them or mitigate them as I progressed in my career.

As I have thought back on the best way to provide feedback, keep my employees engaged and push them to the next level, I believe providing honest feedback in the sense that it is blunt and direct is best. However, in taking this approach, you have to be prepared that an employee may be turned off, choose to disengage, or leave an organization. In fact, if they do decide to leave the organization, in my mind, the approach worked. In giving blunt and direct feedback, you have to be willing to give it in context of the behavior observed, ideally as close as possible to when you saw it. For example, if an employee missed the mark in a meeting, you need to pull them aside and give them the feedback and, better yet, a pointer or two on how to deal with a similar situation in the future. It is unfair to hold feedback for weeks until the next status update or, worse, an annual review, no matter if the feedback is positive or negative. One of my worst career experiences I had is when I resigned from a company, only to have my boss tell me I was the number one ranked employee in his department. If he had shared how I was performing along the way, I might never have left.

With this in mind, there may be specific employees that you don’t want to lose, that you want to shape their perspective such that they can accept the feedback, and will choose to stay engaged and continue to contribute to the organization. We are often trained that our staff should all be superstars. When, in fact, much of the work will get done by your solid contributors. These are the employees that can deliver for the company day in and day out. They are the ones that truly define the culture of the organization, shape its success, and stay engaged through the good and hard times.

It is ok to share with an employee that you view them as a solid contributor and that you want to understand what their core motivations are so you can provide them the right incentives to stay engaged with the company. This could include recognition, personal development, challenging work, and/or monetary incentives. Sharing with them that at this time, you view them as a solid contributor, and they have reached their full potential in regards to their upward mobility is ok. It’s a hard conversation to have, but it is better to set the expectations for the employee and let them make their decisions from there. In these conversations, you will undoubtedly come across the employee who is a strong contributor, but refuses to accept it and sees themselves having upward mobility. Coaching an employee through this definitely requires direct and blunt feedback and a deft hand, but it may result in an employee choosing to leave. I am ok with that outcome because, in the long run, your employee will better off, and the organization can move on.

Being blunt with your feedback isn’t for the faint-hearted. Though, it doesn’t have to be mean spirited or transactional in nature. Feedback should always be given with a dose of empathy, and you should still be cheering for the employee to rise to the occasion and accept the feedback and improve their performance. Even giving positive feedback can be uncomfortable. Shifting your cadence of providing feedback to at the moment vs. hoarding it for status meetings or semi-annual reviews will ease the process as a whole.

Finally, I believe that soaring with your strengths and finding ways to mitigate your opportunities will lead to better results than focusing solely on eradicating your opportunities. We are all human and have innate qualities that are hard to change, accepting that, and figuring out to be our best selves through our strengths will lead to excellent outcomes.

Tidbits

There are several tools I have used across my career that help facilitates recognition, but I haven’t found any tools that help with constructive feedback. On the recognition side Bonus.ly, Achievers, Disco and there are many others. These often integrate with messaging apps like Microsoft Teams and Slack. They enable quick “high-fives” or “kudos” to be shared and can be tied to a points system that can lead to small monetary gift cards or badges for bragging rights. A few other useful articles to read are:

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Technologist | Board Member | Advisor — with 25 years of experience across Retail, Manufacturing, Utilities, Financial Services and Start-ups.

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