21 Sep 2017 17:11 IST

Leadership conversations: the tough talk

Giving immediate, honest, open feedback is very important; especially if the topic is uncomfortable

One of the really powerful ‘inflexion-point’ scenes from the series The West Wing is when Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff (played by John Spencer) confronts President Josiah Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen). Leo tells the President that he is running a tentative administration and not taking a stand on the things they believe in.

This is powerful, because once the President acknowledges Leo’s feedback, the whole administration takes a new turn — gutsy decisions are taken, there’s a fearlessness in the crusade on key issues and a renewed vigour in the whole team. Feedback has that power and is one of the most important conversations a leader can have.

Losing your temper or shouting at a colleague does not qualify as feedback. Feedback begins with caring about the person who is being assessed and is rooted in a commitment to his/her and the organisation’s growth. There are a few things a leader must get right while doing so. Here are three of them.

Honest and collaborative

For feedback to work, it must be honest. The leader should be sure of the facts and circumstances before giving the feedback. She should look for consistent patterns rather than a one-off instance, and support her response with specific examples so the person receiving the feedback can understand exactly where and how he veered off course.

When the topic is unpleasant, it becomes even more important to be honest and open, rather than couch the feedback in vague words and round-about sentences. The leader should reassure the team member of her support and get him involved in exploring how to address the feedback.

Being open

I remember a lady colleague, who was the butt of all jokes at the office because she had a severe body odour problem. Once, she had to travel with me for a client meeting. When they heard, everybody giggled their hearts out because they made me aware of what a terrible auto-rickshaw ride I was going to have.

When I got into the auto with her, I realised they were not exaggerating. Immediately, I knew I had to tell her, but at the same time, it felt quite awkward, bringing up such a topic with a lady colleague.

I decided that if I genuinely cared about her interests, then I owed her the honest feedback. She was, at first, shocked. But the shock quickly gave way to gratitude. She remedied the problem and I learnt a lesson about being honest, open and at the same time, being caring in my comments, especially while tackling an unpleasant topic.

It is also very important that the leader earns trust before sharing feedback. Often, sharing of honest feedback itself can be a bridge for building trust. But the leader must also walk the talk — if a person receiving the evaluation sees a gap between the behaviour asked of him and the leader’s own behaviour, not only does the feedback lose its impact, but the leader also loses her credibility.

Immediate feedback

Think of a ship that’s drifting off-course. Do you think the captain will wait a few days before correcting the course? Or is he more likely to give ‘feedback’ to the team manning the ship and course-correct immediately? The answer is obvious. And the same applies to us as human beings too.

Unfortunately, many leaders struggle in this area. Sometimes, they hold back their thoughts for the fear of hurting a teammate. But often, not sharing feedback promptly results in more hurt to the teammate, the organisation and other stakeholders like customers and suppliers.

Many organisations have now moved away from the traditional annual appraisal process to something that is more dynamic and live. This allows leaders to give short bursts of quick, immediate feedback to ensure that team members don’t have to wait an entire year to hear about their performance take action.

‘Immediately’ does not mean being insensitive to the timing and environment. Pulling a teammate out of the room just after he has had a crash-and-burn at a client presentation and immediately giving him feedback may not be the best approach. An evening coffee on the same day could be a great time to help him self-assess and guide him on what could have been done better.

You-focussed and positive

MS Dhoni was a good football goalkeeper as a young lad. It was his coach’s feedback that made him give wicket-keeping a try. He listened, took action and the rest his history. This is a key goal of feedback — how we as leaders, identify strengths, help a person know how and where it can be best used, and prepare him for success.

Sometimes, feedback can be motivated or driven by selfish reasons. Sometimes, the only objective is to criticise and put down a person. Then the comments are no longer authentic. A boss who tells his colleague, “See how bad your actions made me look” is betraying a self-seeking agenda rather than a genuine focus on the employee’s growth.

It takes preparation. It is important for the feedback to be positive and forward looking. Some even use the term ‘feed-forward’ to ensure that the conversations result in a specific plan for the future rather than letting the person wallow in memories.

There is also a tendency for leaders to give feedback only on things that have gone wrong. It is equally, if not more, important to ensure that comments are given on what a teammate is doing right too. This is not the same as providing a compliment or a praise. Positive feedback helps a person see what he did right, why it worked and how he can replicate it. There’s validation, there’s reinforcement and self-confidence.

Being detached

D Shivakumar, currently the Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, India, tells of an incident during his Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) days, when a couple was working on his team. The batch was coming up for promotion, and it so happened that the wife was promoted and the husband wasn’t. When she learnt about it, she anxiously told Shivakumar how she couldn’t go home and tell her in-laws that she was promoted but their son wasn’t.

Shivakumar took up the matter with his boss and the HR Director but they couldn’t reach a decision. The matter was then taken to R Gopalakrishnan, then the Vice Chairman of HLL. His feedback was clear and unambiguous — there was no need to get emotionally involved with your subordinates. Only the best would be promoted — period.

Shivakumar writes: “We never discussed it again but it was a lesson well learnt: I was a professional manager, not a marriage counsellor.”

Honest feedback, given immediately and with a focus on helping a teammate understand what matters and what doesn’t, is important. A real leader uses feedback, learns and grows.

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