Here's an example of a mistake I've seen too often: Juan receives feedback from his manager, Kristi, telling him he needs "to do a better job of communicating with the staff." Kristi is frustrated; it shows in her curt tone in the hallway as she and Juan walk out of a meeting together. Others around them overheard and Juan didn't have a chance to respond-Kristi simply turned and walked away.
Because of the way Kristi communicated, Juan was confused and spent a lot of time wondering if he was about to be put on a Performance Improvement Plan or worse, lose his job. He didn't sleep well that night, worried that the morning would bring a call from HR. He did not know what to do with the feedback.
One problem here may indeed be that Juan needs some communication help. As a manager, Kristi does too. Because she didn't put any context around her feedback, she triggered a lot of fear and anxiety in Juan, rather than an understanding of the problem and what steps will be needed to turn it around.
In a private, one-on-one conversation with Juan, Kristi could have had a greater impact, because she would have had the time and space to discuss the circumstances leading up to her moment of frustration. She let her emotion hijack her effectiveness as a communicator.
If she had not taken action on her frustration and instead though out what her intention really was. She wanted to help Juan grow. If she had created a conversation that sounded something like this: "Juan, you have done a wonderful job of providing the research and procedures for the team. You ensure that all of the team members understand the system-wide rules for the work that they are doing. My intention now is to help you see the next area for your development as a manager." Now Kristi has put whatever she is about to say into a context Juan can understand-he knows why Kristi is giving him feedback, even if that feedback isn't what he had hoped to hear.
Kristi can now say, "Juan, I've observed that sometimes you seem cool, aloof and distanced from some of your team members. You are using facts, research data and logic to communicate at times when the other team members are coming from a more creative, brainstorming, innovative, perhaps even emotional place. Sometimes Juan, you shut down their creative brainstorming with judgmental questions and comments. I suspect you are not aware that this is happening." Kristi can move on from there to suggest ways Juan might engage in a more collaborative way-as opposed to condescending and judgmental-with his team members. Kristi can also ask Juan if he's open to learning some new communication styles with her help or the help of a coach, guiding Juan as active participant in his own development.
This story is important because it illustrates two points. First, providing context is crucial if real understanding is to occur. And second, when someone is being reprimanded, they need more time to process the feedback and understand the context in which that feedback is being given. World-class leaders aren't afraid to give feedback and to help the person they are coaching to understand the action steps needed -even if that feedback is negative and could be controversial. Great leaders aren't afraid to address developmental needs; they know how to get individuals and teams back on track when a derailment occurs.
As a leader, knowing how people get derailed and the questions to ask to help them stop the negative behaviors that lead to that derailment are keys to creating meaningful conversations for getting back on track.
You'll find a chapter that takes this deeper in Conversations for Creating Star Performers.