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Mistake-Free ≠ Excellence

(July 11, 2023 Newsletter)

Every job has certain elements of precision, processes that need to be followed, and exactitudes, but we do our teams a great disservice if that's the end of the feedback they get.

Several years ago, my manager gave me some feedback. She told me that I have trouble prioritizing my tasks and that I should think of them like following a recipe (“You like to cook, right?”). If I start chopping vegetables before pre-heating the oven, it will take longer than necessary to finish the dish.

I appreciated the analogy (I did – and still do – like to cook), but I now know that she missed an opportunity by giving me this feedback.

If I were coaching her today, I’d suggest she approach it differently.

Principle #1: State the facts, not your interpretation

My well-meaning manager looked at a pattern and drew a conclusion that was close, but not accurate. This meant that the advice she gave wasn’t wrong, but it didn't solve for the root cause, either.

  • Be specific and focus on behaviors – “You have trouble prioritizing your tasks” is a general statement, not one that’s grounded in a time and place. And if it’s a pattern, give examples.

  • Act like a scientist, not a detective - If you have a theory, posit it more like a hypothesis to be tested than a mystery to be solved. In other words, you’re not “catching” anyone and you don’t get extra points for being “right.” In fact, if the person’s explanation is not what you initially thought, you could see that as a win; maybe they’re opening up about something that they’ve kept buried - and you’re learning something about them that you didn’t know.

  • How would this sound? “I’ve noticed recently that you leave some tasks to right before the deadline that I expect could be done sooner, like with X event and with X trip. My initial thought is that you may be having trouble prioritizing your tasks, but I might be wrong.”

Principle #2: Describe the impact, from your perspective

Let’s say my manager had shared her observation with me – that I leave some things to the last minute. The next thing I’d coach her to do is describe the impact:

  • Something like this: “We end up rushing and sometimes pushing back deadlines. It causes me unnecessary stress to get last minute requests and short deadlines and I have a sense that you feel overwhelmed too.”

  • Notice that it’s phrased from the manager’s vantage point, indicating that this specific behavior of mine doesn’t work for her. This is important because there can be several kinds of impact and what the speaker highlights reveals their specific priorities and preferences, not a universal truth.

Principle #3: Draw on their strengths and values

Encouraging excellence on your team requires stepping aside and letting them do things their way, within the framework of the goals and standards you’ve helped to set. So when bringing up something that requires improvement, establish safety by pointing out not only the challenge but also the resources you know they have at their disposal. Here are some examples:

  • “You’ve stepped up and taken on more responsibility, so it’s understandable that you also have to adjust how you stay organized.”

  • “There have been plenty of events you’ve planned without the last-minute stress I’ve seen with the last two.”

  • “I know how dedicated you are to serving ____ [our audience].”

Principle #4: Ask what’s going on

Finally, don’t assume you know WHY the person acted according to a certain pattern.

  • In my case, the real challenge wasn’t that I didn’t know how to prioritize – it was that I felt bad asking people to do things for me, so I was procrastinating certain requests.

So after you state the facts, lay out the impact, and offer some encouragement, open up a conversation. Invite the person’s thoughts on what’s going on and what they could do differently. Here are some questions you can use:

  1. What is/was it like from your perspective?

  2. How else could you have gone about it?

  3. How do you think the other side saw it?

  4. What are you considering as your next steps?

Mistake-free doesn’t equal excellence

Using these simple steps enables you to shift the feedback conversation from one of “let me tell you what you did wrong and how you can do it better” to “let me share my observations and get your take on how you can excel.”

  • Of course, there are mistakes that requiring fixing – and instruction is necessary in a supervisory role. But that’s not enough.

  • Helping me shift my mindset away from “feeling bad asking people for help” would have benefitted me in 100 other cases, not just the one she raised about last-minute stress before deadlines.

Read and listen more from HBR on this feedback fallacy – and let me know what you think. What’s the most helpful feedback you’ve ever gotten? How can you further enhance your feedback giving skills?


The Coaching Corner

Encourage your team members to take others' perspectives.

The next time someone comes to you with a complaint, ask the following:

  • If they were here right now, what would they tell me?

  • If you were in their shoes, how would you have experienced this interaction?

  • How else can you view this interaction?

  • I'd love for you to be able to solve this directly with them. How can I help you get set up for that?

  • If you were in my shoes, how would you respond?



Listen to a new podcast episode of HBR's "Women at Work" on “Communicating Effectively When You’re Running on Empty”. A conversation between three smart women on timely and all-too-common situations.

Listen to a recent episode of "A Slight Change of Plans" with Maya Shankar: “Let’s Agree to Disagree More”. Debate World Champion Bo Seo makes the case beautifully for why and how to learn to disagree - and the importance of listening skills in coming together.


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