The other day, my husband and I were talking about what I had learned during my 40-year career in health care. During the conversation, he asked me what I thought had been the best compliment I had ever received over the years. This was a really tough question, because I have worked with so many people who have generously shared their positive thoughts with me. As I thought about this, the story of an associate with whom I had worked early in my career came to mind. She had been one of the managers at the same small medical school in Central Illinois I mentioned last week. I’ll call her Susan.
Susan and I had worked together for nearly ten years, and it was a pleasure working with her. She was older than I, but she didn’t have a lot of experience working with faculty, so there were times when her decisions were not as inclusive as they could have been, or she had made decisions without gathering sufficient input. As I worked with her over the years, I provided feedback to help her improve in those interactions and to fully develop the potential I knew she had. I always appreciated that she listened attentively and made appropriate adjustments in her management style.
Years later at my going away party, I remember talking with Susan. She had been asked to take my position! Although I cannot recall everything she said that evening, I do remember that she said she would miss me, and I had been the only person she’d ever worked with who was willing to take the time to talk to her and give her guidance on ways she could improve. Even though I was giving her corrections, she said she still left the conversations feeling good about her performance and about herself. Without a doubt, that may be one of the best compliments I have received in my career.
I have always found giving constructive feedback to others about their performance to be very difficult. But when I think of Susan, I remember that it not only helped the team succeed, it also helped Susan achieve personal success. I think most people would agree that such conversations can be challenging. As a result, people handle it differently. Some would rather ignore problems to avoid conflict, even if it means the problem will grow. On the other hand, there are individuals who have very little difficulty pointing out what someone did incorrectly, yet they often deliver the message in a way that leaves the person on the receiving end feeling discouraged.
Whether you are a manager or a colleague, delivering your message in just the right way takes thought, skill and practice. I always try to keep in mind that most people come to work because they want to make a difference. So, I like to balance positive feedback with constructive feedback. I try to begin with something positive and complimentary, focusing on what the person is doing well. Then, I give feedback on what they can do to improve. The latter may not mean they are doing something wrong. It may simply be that there are suggestions for ways they can achieve their full potential.
I like to think of providing feedback like coaching. Coaches give feedback in real time, rather than letting things pile up. Regular feedback allows people to focus on one or two areas for improvement, rather than feeling bombarded. At the end of each practice session, the team huddles. After carefully listening to the team, it’s time for the coach to offer some helpful advice. It isn’t the time for negative criticism; rather, constructive criticism is what people need. These conversations should always happen in person (never send constructive feedback via email). This gives both parties—the coach and the team—an opportunity to talk about things in context and share their perspectives. Giving feedback is a conversation!
Suggestions should be complete so people know what they should do, and they should feel encouraged. The best feedback leaves people feeling empowered. It’s also helpful to ask questions, which gives the person receiving feedback a chance to reflect on what they might do differently. I’ve found that most of the time, people feel more motivated to make changes when they’ve realized something on their own. This does not always work, but it is a great place to start.
Meanwhile, asking questions is also an opportunity to discover what I can do to help the person improve. Am I providing clear enough direction? Am I allowing the person to have development opportunities? Am I sufficiently available for discussions? Do I listen well enough? Sometimes, in the course of the conversation, we find ways we can improve, too!
I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that it can sometimes be difficult to receive constructive feedback. However, as recipients, we need to be willing to focus on what is being said and not take it personally. We need to want to improve and to do that, we have to be willing to listen to and consider what others are saying to us. Constructive criticism is a two-way street. For the best results, you need to not only be a skilled coach but also someone who is coachable. In order to effectively communicate, you must be good a listener.
Above all, I believe it is important to remember that people want to feel appreciated for their effort, especially when they were proactive or showed initiative to take on a project or task. Without a sense of appreciation, a motivated employee or colleague may take a step back in the future, finding it safer to stay silent, or preferring to wait to be told what to do instead of taking a hands-on approach.
Tom Peters is an American writer on business management practices, who asserts that leadership is about nurturing and enhancing. Leaders who lift people up get farther than those who push down. Do everything you can to support your employees and colleagues, whether it’s resources, knowledge, information, or thoughtful and constructive advice.