The Power of Focused Feedback

Posted by on Apr 15, 2014 | No Comments

A girl looking up through binocular isolated on a white backgrou

You would think that by now we would have all developed amazing mind-reading skills, but that’s clearly not the case.  In order for us to really understand what someone wants and needs from us, we usually need it to be said out loud or we’ll assume all is good.  And for caring leaders this can be tough.

Take for example Jeff*.  Jeff is someone I would definitely define as a caring leader.  He’s invested in his team.  He sincerely wants them to grown and develop.  He’s smart, intuitive, passionate and driven.  What Jeff struggles with is transparency.  It’s not because he doesn’t care – on the contrary, he cares so much that he’s concerned about how something will land.  How they’ll receive his feedback.  And I suspect, when it comes to his team, he’s also a tad conflict-adverse which makes him shy away from any topics that might go sideways.  He wants them to like him.  He understands that if they do, they’ll be more committed to him and comfortable telling him what he needs to know for all of them to succeed.  And yet, when it comes to their development in spite of his great intentions, Jeff isn’t doing them any favors.

Enter Lisa*.  Lisa is on Jeff’s team.  Lisa has been with the company for 15+ years and was on the team that Jeff inherited.  Lisa is sharp, a good manager, and knows the business inside and out.  Jeff sees a lot of promise in Lisa and starts giving her opportunities to gain visibility with senior leadership.   But now Jeff is in a pickle.  Lisa, for all her business-savvy is a terribly boring presenter.  She talks at people instead connecting with them, unloading reams of well-prepared-data like bullets in the boardroom.  Jeff’s boss tells Jeff, “Fix it”.

Soon after, Jeff runs across a cool, innovative little company that runs programs on leadership which also addresses presentation skills and he thinks, “Ah ha!  A solution!”  So Jeff sends Lisa to the program, and she’s all excited because she’s thinking Jeff is positioning her as the leader she is meant to be.  She focuses all her attention during the program on issues that she’s facing as a leader and pays no attention at all to the content around presentation skills.  Why would she?  Jeff has never mentioned a problem with her presentation skills, and he is giving her all these opportunities to present so she assumes she must be good.  At the end of the program, when the rest of her group has made tremendous growth in their ability to present, Lisa…not so much.

Our brain’s ability to focus and see when directed is magnificent.  We see what we look for.  That’s why you’re in the market for a new car and you’re looking at Honda Accords, all you’ll see around you is Honda Accords.  It’s not that there are so many more Honda Accords on the highway than normal, it’s just now you’re noticing them.  You were looking for them so you saw them.  My family tested this theory in the Miami airport on our lay-over to Costa Rica in February.  As we sat noshing on our burgers, we decided to see how many people we could spot who were wearing stripes.  By the end of the hour we were convinced that Miami had some kind of stripes-conspiracy going on as it seemed everyone who passed us was wearing them.  A few days later, as we were walking around the tiny town of Quepos in Costa Rica, my kiddo shouts, “Look mommy!” as he pointed to a woman in a striped dress, “she must be from Miami!” “Probably so, honey,” I say smiling, before leaning down to whisper, “It’s not polite to point.”  We see what we look for.

In a world with so much stimulus and in our businesses that require we pay attention to so many different things, the ability to focus the attention for those we lead is critical.  They cannot read our minds.  They need to know what we want them to see in order to see it.

Imagine how differently Lisa would have focused her attention if Jeff would’ve had a conversation going into the leadership program that went something like this:  “Lisa, you are a great manager and you really know your business.  I see a tremendous opportunity for you to take an even bigger role in leadership so I’m going to do everything I can to help you get the visibility you need.  One thing that will make a big difference as you move in this direction is to focus on growing your ability to really engage your audience when you present.  Senior leaders have higher expectations when it comes to presenting, so you’ll want to raise your game so they become your advocates and ambassadors in the business.  Work on connecting with them, in addition to giving them the information they need.  I see this as a real development opportunity that could set you apart.  If you can make the progress you’re capable of making in this area I think you’ll be unstoppable.”

Had that little chat taken place, Lisa would have shown up very differently when she attended the leadership program.  She would have been paying attention to every move I made as a presenter, would have lasered-in on every word I uttered around presentation skills and, at the end of the session, could have probably  given me a tip or two!  Her growth would have been tremendous because she would’ve been focused.

One of the things I’ve learned over the past 10 years is how powerful, caring and focused feedback can be.  If we take the time to make sure we give feedback in a way that it can be heard, it can be transformative.

Tranformative to the person.  To our team.  And to our business.

But it must be focused.  We can’t leave them guessing what we need them to learn or it won’t happen.  When we want them to see stripes, they’ll be looking for polka-dots.

So whatever you do, don’t stop the caring part (caring is good!) but do work on developing the courage and the mindfulness to focus the attention of the people you lead so they can grow.  They’re looking to you to help them shine – don’t make them read your mind.

*All names have been changed to protect the caring and those who report to them.

©OnStage Leadership, 2014;  Kimberly Davis is the Founder/Director of OnStage Leadership, a full-day experiential leadership workshop. 

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