I spend a lot of time speaking with leaders at different stages of their careers, across industries and sectors and from companies at various stages of maturity. I ask many of them to share their top leadership lessons and challenges. One theme that comes up often is being honest in giving difficult feedback.
One senior leader, who has had a long career in a large organization, shared that one of their greatest leadership challenges has been helping their colleagues address their blind spots. While this leader came to recognize that being direct in giving feedback was a responsibility that comes with leadership, it never got easier.
Another leader, who is at an earlier stage in their leadership career, indicated that their greatest challenge is managing staff performance issues, particularly related to behaviour and conduct. They are still working their way through this and experimenting with different ways of speaking their mind.
For me, giving difficult feedback has required a deliberate effort and development. I have become stronger at it with experience and age, but I am still studying the art of being honest and direct in delivering difficult feedback.
I expect that this is true for many people. Whether it be at work, in volunteer roles or with friends and family, we are not always honest with our feedback. There is a built-in dilemma in our lives.
On the one hand, in order to achieve the best possible outcome, to collaborate well and solve problems effectively, we need full information and open sharing of views and ideas. Misleading and withholding information and feedback is detrimental.
On the other hand, social forces work against always being honest. We sometimes rationalize that the reason we hold back from giving difficult feedback is that we don’t want to offend or be impolite. Other times, our fears and the limbic-driven instinct for self-preservation holds us back.
Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation, in his book Creativity Inc., dives into this topic to share how his company attempts to overcome lack of honesty – which he re-labels ‘lack of candour’ – in the service of producing the best possible movies.
He says, “A hallmark of a healthy, creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candour, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.”
He acknowledges that there may be good reasons to be careful about what you say. A person may want to be polite or respectful or they may not want to appear to be a know-it-all.
More often, though, holding back comes from fears of saying something ‘dumb,’ of being judged or of an emotional reaction or retaliation. Catmull says that these are the tendencies his team works hard to overcome at Pixar.
Brené Brown, the vulnerability research professor, has commented on this in her work as well. Her findings are that delivering honest feedback requires a balance between both courage and vulnerability. It makes sense, right? Giving honest feedback requires putting yourself in an uncertain position. You don’t know how the other person is going to react, so you feel vulnerable. Doing it anyway requires courage.
A few years ago, Google initiated a study called Project Aristotle to understand why some work teams were more effective than others. The goal was to figure out how to predictably create the perfect team.
There were many hypotheses prior to completing the study: better to put introverts together, perfectly balance individual competencies, put highest performers together, people that got along socially work together more effectively, etc. After studying 180 teams, researchers could not find a consistent pattern based on any of the hypotheses.
What they did determine was the most effective teams. The most important dynamic was “psychological safety,” which Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson defines as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
Putting it all together (Catmull, Brown, Google) suggests that the most effective teams are made up of people who have the courage to be vulnerable and have leaders and members who explicitly discuss and re-enforce norms of psychological safety. Not easy to do, but worth the effort!
Read more about Candor on Shakeel's website
Shakeel Bharmal is an executive coach helping Leaders and Teams find clarity. Learn more about Shakeel Bharmal in Finding Clarity