In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg discusses how important feedback has been to her career. She understood, for instance, how important her relationship with Mark Zuckerberg would be to her work at Facebook, so she asked that they sit down every week to talk over anything that bothered him so they could settle it quickly, face to face. Zuckerberg agreed, and insisted that the feedback be mutual. They kept up the weekly meetings for quite a while before they moved the feedback into real time – just telling each other when they have an issue that needs some discussion.
In my experience, it’s rare to find people who are willing to risk being that open with each other. “Feedback” is a euphemism for many things, but almost never for anything positive. If you have something good to say, you never preface it with, “Do you mind if I give you some feedback?”
We avoid telling each other fierce truths for many reasons. Conflict is not comfortable for most of us, and delivering unpleasant feedback is hard in the moment and creates lingering tension in the relationship afterwards. It’s not surprising that we avoid it whenever possible. Here are some other reasons I might avoid giving feedback.
- The relationship is not that important to me. I can more easily shrug off the behavior of someone I see only occasionally, or with whom deepening trust and respect is not crucial to me. I’d rather let it go than start a conversation that risks making the relationship worse. We sometimes call this “being the bigger person,” but I think it’s often based on fear rather than courage.
- After consideration, I think better of telling someone how I feel. In the heat of the moment, someone’s words or actions may seem bigger (and badder) than they do after a good night’s sleep. Sometimes, I even realize that maybe I should be the one to apologize or explain my behavior.
- I haven’t yet asked permission to give feedback. Sandberg writes that one of her personal foibles is an extreme impatience with delays. She says that one staff member can tell by her voice when she calls whether he should bother to complete a task or whether she is about to do it herself.
Sandberg says that being the boss can put you in a tough spot; you may be driving people crazy, but no one has the courage to tell you so. If you’re in that situation, here is my formula for coaching, and it can work both ways: boss to staff or staff to boss.
After an incident where your behavior (again!) caused a tense situation to become worse (again!) and created a bad outcome (again!), you can take some quiet time to talk it over when everyone has cooled down. “I realize that I did (the thing again that makes everyone crazy.) First, I apologize – my behavior made it harder for us to do what we needed to do. Second, I’m asking you to tell me when I start to do it again. Remind me in the moment, before I get started, so I can rein it in.”
Sandberg writes a great script for that: “Sheryl, you asked us to remind you when you get nervous and started to push the teams too hard. I think you’re doing that now.” This speech has it all right: it reminds the boss (or the staffer) that she asked for feedback; it’s specific about what’s happening in the moment; and it states the case softly enough to be heard: “I think you’re doing that now.”
This real time feedback can save a situation, but it works best if the parties agree to it in advance. So find a quiet moment after the crisis, when everyone is calmer, and set down the invitation to talk openly about what didn’t work. Repeat if necessary; remember that very few people have the courage to take honest feedback, even if they have asked for it. Your patience and unflinching acceptance when people actually tell you what they think will pay off during the next crisis.