Leading Fully

Patrick Ogburn's Leadership Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Courage’

In my time flying jets for the USAF, one of the things that I learned is that feedback can be a matter of life and death. For most of us, it’s not literally life and death, but it can seem that way. When we live our working lives in a “feedback desert,” as a client once said to me about her organization, then well-delivered feedback can seem as life-giving as water when it does finally come.

Feedback is a Gift

Think about it this way: if you were barreling around a curve on a country road, and a bridge was out just around the corner, wouldn’t you be grateful for someone shouting at you to slow down? My favorite image illustrating this is the commercial aired during super bowl XLV showing a beaver who dropped a tree in front of a speeding car which was headed for a washed out bridge. (Click here to watch it on YouTube.)

While this perspective is most useful when receiving tough messages, it can also be useful in spurring us on to do the hard work of giving meaningful feedback to those around us. Remember the times that someone had the courage to tell you the truth when the message was tough. Have you ever heard “I wish you’d have told me sooner…?”

Feedback is Powerful

Giving effective feedback is possibly the most important job you have as a leader of people. It can be one of the most powerful motivators and performance improvement tools. Done well, it forges a personal connection, gives dignity, and taps the wellspring of hope in each of us. It helps keep us aligned with the direction of the organization, and gives us the clarity we need to improve.

If It’s so Great, Why Don’t People Do It More Often?

Many managers view thoughtful feedback as a once-per-year event, linked to performance reviews (if you do them). This may be the result of being trained by habits borne of processes endemic to most organizations.

It’s also true that doing it well isn’t easy. I think that leaders mostly don’t do it because they aren’t confident in their ability to do it well. Psychologists call this “self-efficacy.” You are more likely to do things that you have confidence in your ability to perform. The trick, then, is to build your confidence in your ability to do it well.

How do I do it Well?

My 7 year old nephew was playing video games with Grandma, and soundly clobbering her in every aspect of the game. Sensing his frustration, Grandma said “I’m sorry honey, I just stink at this.” My nephew sighed heavily and replied “I can’t say anything.” His mother had taught him what many of us learned at that age. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” A minister once gave me a more sophisticated version of the same coaching. Before offering corrective feedback, ask yourself: “Is it true, is it necessary, and is it kind?” If it passes these three criteria, then go ahead. Here are a few tips that build upon that foundation.

Six Aspects of an Effective Feedback Message:

1 — The deliverer has the intent to help and not to harm. That’s where the kindness comes in. When thinking about the message, try to put yourself in their shoes. Think about what benefit it will be to them, and explicitly communicate your desire to help them improve.
2 — Dialogue. Any meaningful developmental conversation I have been a part of has been a dialogue. Meaningful dialogue about the context, actions, and impact surrounding the feedback helps you to get to a mutual understanding of the facts and the significance of the issue to the organization and the individual.
3 — The feedback is true. This can be a challenging one. While you may want to believe everything you think is true – it is important to recognize that we are all subject to our own biases. See #5 below.
4 — It makes a difference. Think about whether the feedback you want to offer will help them to improve in some important way. You may not know exactly what the specific improvement will be, but you should be able to see the possibility of improvement.
5 — It distinguishes between the objective and the subjective, and responsibly communicates both. I’ve heard it said many times that you should keep the feedback purely objective – I disagree. Objectivity is important, but so is subjectivity. What’s more important than both of them is to recognize and distinguish the difference. The objective part of the message is “what happened” – the observable, verifiable facts. The subjective part of the message is the impact of their actions, which lets them know why the feedback is important.
6 — It gives everyone a path forward. Even when delivered well, corrective feedback can be difficult, and positive feedback can feel good but have little impact. A meaningful discussion about the path forward can help both parties understand the path forward. This includes next steps, agreements, offers of support, requests, and commitments.

If you’ve not been doing this well, give yourself some grace – very few leaders do. Don’t, however, give yourself an out. this is one of the most important skills you can master as a leader of people.  The reason more people don’t do feedback well is not because it is complicated, it is because it’s not easy to do well. Even so, doing these five things can be a good start toward building your skills as a developer of great performance in others.

Leading up to the final climactic scene of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, an on-screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s famous tale, Alice is preparing to face the Jabberwocky, a fearsome creature unleashed by the evil red queen. The Mad Hatter and Alice are watching as the Jabberwocky approaches. Alice, seeing the monster, says, “This is impossible.” The Hatter’s reply: “Only if you believe it is.” Alice quips: “Sometimes, I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” to which the Hatter replies, “That is an excellent practice.”

I tend to agree with the Hatter. That’s often one of the most important jobs a leader has to do – make the impossible real, and even believable. Whatever your chosen field, there are always challenges. Very often, those challenges masquerade as impossible obstacles. It’s then that we, as leaders, find ourselves in the role of making the insurmountable seem possible — not only for others, but for ourselves as well. How do we adjust our mental focus so that we can help ourselves and others see what’s possible rather than the impossibility of the obstacle that lies ahead. Difficult, yes. Sometimes even scary; but doable.

What Do You Believe is Possible?

What do we have to believe to make it happen? Let’s use Alice’s six “impossible things” to challenge our beliefs about what is possible.

1. “There’s a potion that can make you shrink…”

I can remember wondering what it would be like to shrink to a microscopic size. Imagine what you could learn about the inner workings of the world around us. It would be a leap to say that early inventors of the microscope were thinking of a “potion that could make you shrink” when developing a tool that gave us insight at the microscopic level.  But it’s the kind of curiosity stimulated by imagining such things that can lead to new discoveries. Just read up on recent advances in nanotechnology – it will stretch your mind.

2. “…and a cake that can make you grow.”

My youngest son Jamie has a way of stretching my imagination, often at bedtime as we lay staring at the bottom of the top bunk. On one such occasion, Jamie asked with a distant look in his eyes and dreamy smile playing at the edges of his mouth, “what if I was so big that I could hold the world in my hand?” I don’t remember my answer, but I ask you, what if you applied the same thinking to your business or your career? Do the answers excite you?

It’s popular to talk about growing your business in terms of what it would take to make it happen: grow market share, increase top-line revenue, profits, etc., but have you thought about it in terms of “what if?” Generally with a phase-change level of growth comes an entirely new set of challenges, demands, and expectations. Many times, we know the answers to the “how” questions, but our fear of the answers to the “what if” questions keeps us from moving forward.

3. “Animals can talk.”

OK, not really. Sometimes, however, there are assumptions that we make which may not be true. In our way of thinking, it looks as impossible as animals talking. Assumptions are natural, sensible, and often useful shortcuts that allow us to make sense of our world. We know, because it’s always been that way. Where are you or others in your organization limiting your view of what is possible based on past history? One simple question can help you look beyond this: What if (animals could talk)? What would then be possible? What would we be able to accomplish?

What is the equivalent of animals talking in your business? Who or what are you underestimating based on your history? Have you considered what would be possible if that were not an obstacle?

4. “Cats can disappear.”

The Cheshire cat, with his disappearing act and enigmatic grin, reminds me of a particular breed of person I’ll call the “savvy survivor.” They are keen observers and have learned (rightly or wrongly) when and how to avoid notice. They step in to help when the outcome is relatively certain, but when the going is dangerous, they stay out of the way.

The people in your organization usually know more than they are letting on, and often know more than you imagine. When your organization faces difficult challenges, there are almost certainly people in the organization who have a pretty good idea of what is limiting your business and how you might tackle these issues. This is a leader problem. Your challenge as a leader is to identify and draw out the sources of expertise and talent.  Are there hidden abilities that members of your team have that are not being expressed because of our limits as leaders?

5. “There’s a place called Wonderland.”

I have often wondered whether Lewis Carroll started with the story or the title. I could easily imagine it happening either way. I guess I like to think that he started with the title – fashioning a world on the proposition that it is filled with wonders that challenge the imagination. If there were a place filled with things that challenge your imagination and excite possibilities, what would be there?

6. “I can slay the Jabberwocky.”

There is almost certainly a Jabberwocky somewhere in your business. Is there a problem that seems too big to overcome, a competitor that seems unassailable, or a dream or hope that is suppressed by your belief in its impossibility? It is impossible because of your belief that it is so.  There are times that we don’t take the risk because we are sure that it’s impossible to realize our dream.

One thing that most of us learn early in life is that we can’t control our outcomes because there are so many influences beyond our control. That may be – but the real question is, who are you in the matter? Are you willing to pursue the purpose of fulfilling the worthwhile hope that is hidden in your heart, or are you going to give it up as lost, rather than dealing with the uncertainty inherent in pouring your life into something with an unknown outcome? What is your “Jabberwocky?”

The whole family was together, gathered on the back patio and around the pool to celebrate my youngest son Jamie’s fifth birthday. My siblings and I were talking about the state of our economy and the political climate, which can hardly be discussed without emotion, especially among those of us who care about the future. As a family, we tend engage topics with passion and spirited debate. I engaged, and in short order, my brother and I were in a high-energy, full-on debate about nothing (interestingly, we agreed on this topic). As I look back on the incident, I’m embarrassed by my conduct.

One thing that leaders have in common with everyone else is that we are human. None of us has a 100% record in living up to our ideals. What differentiates a leader in such circumstances is what you do when you fail. Do you have the humility to take responsibility for your failures and the courage to make it right? If you are challenged (as I am) by that question, pick the thing that made the skin prickle on the back of your neck when you read the word “failure” – yeah, that one – and do something about it. Whether you need to get more honest with yourself about what you did or didn’t do, or whether you need to garner some courage and act, now is the time. Action is the only effective antidote for regret. Honesty, humility, and courage are required to make it work.