First, a bit of context.
This is a big week for me. I teach my first class for eCornell’s Engineering Leadership curriculum. Not only am I thrilled to help STEM leaders learn and grow, I’m extremely impressed with the quality of the content in each course. Learning the content has reminded me of the significant challenges associated with being a great leader. Providing effective feedback is one of them. It is a large portion of the content in the fifth course in the six-part Engineering Leadership series. It’s entitled Courageous Conversations. In many cases, offering feedback is a more daunting task for STEM leaders. There are a couple of reasons for this.
- Despite the increased focus on team-based projects in engineering schools, feedback isn’t associated with people. It’s associated with designing engineering systems. People-oriented feedback is rarely discussed.
- Many organizations fail to incorporate regular feedback into their employee conversations. There are lots of talented and hardworking folks out there whose only performance guidance comes in the form of an annual performance review that is subpar on many levels.
- Many people who go into STEM are less relationship-oriented than those going into fields like sales or hospitality services. I’m a mechanical engineer and have observed this first hand. I use a strengths-based approach to enable STEM leaders to overcome this challenge.
Here’s the good news. Providing feedback is a skill that can be learned because there is a process associated with it. Follow it, and you will build respect and trust. Ignore it, and your feedback my do more harm than good. On page 99 of my book, Destination Unstoppable, I wrote about being verbally pummeled by an executive vice president in a very public feedback session. My knees were shaking under the table. And you can imagine what it did to my morale.
Bottom line: Learning (which implies practice!) to give productive feedback will make you a better leader.
REAL LIFE FEEDBACK
Some years back, I worked with a female VP of Engineering who was born in another country. She was very bright and cared deeply about her team. In our first meeting, we evaluated her strengths and took a deep dive into how she used them as a leader. It went great. In our second meeting, we focused on stories around success and her strengths. It went great. During our third meeting, we began to get specific about personal and professional obstacles. One in particular seemed to haunt her.
She occasionally felt disenfranchised in leadership meetings. Sometimes things went perfectly well. Other times, her peers and leadership seemed to “not hear her.” She felt overlooked and ignored. As I listened, it dawned on me that she did indeed face a significant communications obstacle. I was experiencing it firsthand.
She had a deep accent which worsened as she got excited about a topic. I had worked with people from that part of the world, so my ear was tuned to her accent. Even so, sometimes my brain ran 10 seconds behind, like a tape delay. Sometimes I missed her point entirely. I wondered if this was one of the contributing factors behind her observation that her leadership failed to “hear her” in meetings. To fix it, we would have talk about it.
A little voice inside my head was saying, “Oh gosh, should you broach this? What if she’s offended? What if she thinks you are prejudiced? What if…” But I am in the business of guiding others to Destination Unstoppable. They can’t do it in a vacuum. I had to drum up courage to speak up.
“It sounds to me like you feel overlooked or ignored in leadership meetings,” I said. “If we were to work on that problem together, would that be a priority for our partnership?”
Her eyes widened, and she nodded. “Absolutely!”
Good, I thought. Mutual buy-in to address the problem. But I still had to move closer to my assumption.
Together, we eliminated a few other potential contributing factors. She was on the bleeding edge of some mission-critical projects. Was it possible that others in the room were less technical and therefore unable to grasp her points? She said no.
Then, I probed some of the societal dynamics. Sometimes she was the only non-white and female person in the meeting. Was she treated respectfully? She confirmed that she was. That led me to open the door on the potential root of the problem.
DIGGING DEEP FOR COURAGE
I cleared my throat and shifted in my seat. “To summarize, you know your stuff. They like you. They believe in you. They respect you. I wonder if it isn’t something else entirely that might contribute to the problem. Have you noticed that your speech accelerates when you’re excited about your work?”
She laughed, and said, “Yes. I’ve been told that many times.”
“It is possible that in these leadership meetings you get excited about your projects and begin to speak so quickly that, combined with the fact that English is not your first language, it might it result in them having no idea what you’re saying?”
She stared at me, processing the information. (Note: STEM people may need time to think. Give it to them.)
It was then time for me to be honest about my own experience with her.
“To tell you the truth, sometimes I don’t understand what you’ve said. I must listen hard, and even then, I miss some things. If the same thing is happening with your peers and leadership, then there are times that they do not understand you. They may be afraid to tell this to you. And they may be afraid to continually ask you to repeat yourself. Therefore, they may not say anything, leaving you feeling that you’re not heard or ignored. What do you think about what I’ve just said?”
She sat quietly. My brain raced through the possible outcomes. She might resent me. She might not believe me. She might… but, I let the information sit with her until she felt ready to explore it. Our subsequent conversation led to a dissection of previous incidents that seemed to support my theory. She looked relieved, and I am sure I did, too. The great news was this was totally fixable! We agreed to a few action items.
- She would record herself speaking about her work and then listen to it. This would help her experience the potential problem herself.
- She would intentionally slow down when she wanted to convey critical information, and we would work on it in our coaching sessions (practice in a safe place.) I promised to call it out when it happened.
- She would explore accent reduction training.
Over time, those action items paid off handsomely. She was more effective in communicating her points and that did not go unnoticed by her peers and leadership. Later that year, she was asked to give a speech at a STEM leadership conference. She confided that our work together made it possible for her feel confident as she stood on the stage. Many attendees approached her afterwards, eager to know more about her and the process of rising up the ranks to become a VP in engineering. They heard her message loud and clear. I was thrilled for her.
Research shows that while providing feedback can be challenging, there are a few basic building blocks.
- Create trust – there are no shortcuts. Invest in the human connection before offering feedback.
- Accentuate the positive – we started from a position of her strengths & success stories. Then we moved to obstacles.
- Be specific – once we targeted a problem, I was specific in the context, problem statement, and suggested action items.
- Be timely – current observations are infinitely more relevant than ancient history.
Want more info? Click here for an article from Entrepreneur.com.
NEXT STEPS FOR YOU
In addition to adopting the pointers above, I highly recommend this Wall Street Journal article. A fellow embarked on the journey of providing feedback to everyone who contributed to this enjoyment of a morning cup of coffee! What if we tried this with our own work projects? Ah, the possibilities!
Oh, by the way, how do you feel about this topic? I invite you to use the comments section to give me some feedback! 😉