leadership incorporated blog

February 20, 2011

How to destroy engagement, commitment and good work in 30 seconds or less.

This week I experienced first hand 5 huge mistakes leaders make in giving feedback — and the negative impact of those mistakes on forward movement toward their goals.

Last Tuesday I was the speaker at a local professional organization. As a growth engineer and consultant, I often speak to companies and other organizations about creating growth.

Rather than do all the talking, I like to create interactive experiences for my audiences that I intend will give them tools they can use immediately in their work and lives. This mini-workshop focused on helping professionals to flesh out their business growth goals for 2011.  I do this a lot and I usually get feedback that I open people’s eyes to fresh viewpoints.

This talk initially appeared  like any other. Of the 40 people in the room, most were actively engaged. As I introduced new perspectives on vision and the nature of growth, I saw widened eyes, expressions of contemplation and nodding heads. Only one person in the room was more focused on their BlackBerry than on what we were doing. Pretty darn good for 2011.

When we concluded, the group’s leader said “It’s our practice here to critique the speaker. OK with you?”  My inner voice hissed at me that “critique” was not the best way to set up a feedback situation. I didn’t listen to my inner voice. I should know better. She always knows what’s going on.

What happened next was about 10 minutes of people in “critique” mode telling me how others have done this before. What they thought I should have talked about instead. How I should have structured it.The leader went last and (thankfully) offered some positive feedback, speaking to the value he had received from the experience.

I  received some valid and useful comments. I also received some unrealistic perspectives: ideas that would have taken far more time than I had to work with. Ideas that were irrelevant to my topic. Ideas that were interesting for follow-up sessions, but which they framed as criticisms that I hadn’t covered those here and now.

Usually after I speak, there is a lineup of people who want to ask a question or connect later. This time, everyone averted their eyes from me and I found myself standing alone at the front of the room. I remember noting this same phenomenon when I was in the audience for another speaker in a similar situation (ironically in the very same room) about a year ago.
My coaching training helped me to keep all this in perspective. But many of the people to whom you may want to offer feedback won’t have had this training.

Here’s how employees react when leaders mishandle feedback:

  • Humiliation, disappointment, judgment of self and others
  • Certainty that the work in its entirety was a failure
  • Experience of themselves as a failure
  • Internalized or externalized anger at group and self
  • Disengagement from the group
  • Generalized insecurity, hesitation and loss of confidence for similar future work

All devastating stuff if you want to create growth in your organization!

What this leader did well:

  • Asked permission
  • Focused on what worked

Where this leader failed:

  1. Not providing a framework for the feedback
  2. Calling the feedback “critique”
  3. Leading with the negative
  4. Focusing exclusively on what didn’t work
  5. Giving suggestions instead of reactions


Begin with some detailed appreciation. It’s amazing how much better we can hear constructive criticism when positive acknowledgment comes first

Start by asking us to give ourselves feedback.

What did we think was working?

What did we think could work better?

We usually know. If we find it ourselves, we integrate it better and believe it more.

Only then, ask permission to add to our understanding. It may seem unnecessary but this formality makes a real difference in the person’s ability to hear and integrate the information.

If a group will be giving feedback, provide parameters for the feedback. For example: “Let’s stick to the content presented here. Please share with Sharon what worked for you and what might have worked better.”

Share only observations and reactions. For example: “The point about vision changing over time really resonated with me.” Or “At the beginning, I wasn’t clear where you were going.”
Don’t tell us how fix it. Let us find her own solutions.

Ask if we have any questions or wants anything clarified. Often when people are receiving feedback they shut down. This re-engages them in the process.

As leader should you give feedback last or first? It’s important to remember that people look to you for guidance to their own behavior. If you go first, you can set the tone for everything that follows. Of course, you may also inhibit differing viewpoints. One solution: lead with an example to get everyone started, and reserve most of your comments for the end.

Think this takes too much time? It only takes a few minutes more and the results save more than time. They save the engagement, commitment, confidence and future of not only the person but the project…and potentially your organization’s ability to reach its goals. This is what leadership looks like.

Wishing you an inspired week.

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