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The Unspoken Aspect of Offering Feedback

Someone asks you to provide feedback about a colleague for a performance review or a 360 or succession planning discussions. Your knee jerk reaction is probably to say Yes. Or you feel prompted to offer feedback based on an encounter you had with someone. Not so fast grasshopper. Take a deep breath and step away from your megaphone. First answer a few questions.

  • Do you value and respect this person?
  • Do you wish only good for this colleague?
  • Are you invested in this person’s growth and success at the company?
  • Do you believe this person is doing significant harm to the business?

If you answered Yes to all of the above then plan out what you want to say and provide specific examples of great behaviors and areas for improvement.

But if you answered No to one or more of these questions it’s time to have a heart to heart with yourself. It’s likely that the “feedback” you want to offer says more about you than the other person.

I’ve had this conversation repeatedly over the past several weeks. It’s mid year review and succession planning time. If you want to be perceived as a team player, a talent magnet, a developer of people, an effective manager or a mentor then you need to make conscious decisions about when or if to offer feedback before you jump in with both feet. When we speak of feedback we usually focus on the Timely, Specific yadda-yadda stuff. I am urging you to back up to square one and examine your own motivations. We need to talk about the unspoken aspect of feedback.

Even if we assume that most of us are decent human beings who want nothing but good things for the people around us, working in an organization brings out predictable behaviors. We mere mortals (along with our animal kingdom ancestors) will naturally create pecking orders and in-groups and out-groups and informal leaders and influencers and survival of the fittest elbow jabbing. On the surface we act like well intentioned professionals but somewhere in the recesses of our psyches lurk some darker tendencies. Most of us have well trained super egos to keep all that in check but being invited to speak our minds about that jerk (oops! Did I say that out loud? Down, id, down!) we have to work with is mighty tempting.

So here’s the conversation you need to have with yourself.

Me: Should I tell M’s boss about that time he totally threw me under the bus in the ops meeting?

Self: Oh man! That kept me pissed off for days! That’s why I didn’t cc him on that email. Idiot deserved it.

Me: But was that moment part of a larger pattern? Does M always treat me that way? Have I seen him do it to others? Is he hurting the team?

Self: Come on, you know he’s an asshole and does this all the time! But mostly to people he thinks he can dominate. I think you should tell his boss or write about this on that 360 survey. But if you write it be sure to disguise yourself a bit. You know how easy it is to figure out who wrote what.

Me: But if I take that passive aggressive route then I think that’s me just venting because he pissed me off. I want him to hurt like I did. And I want his boss to see it and punish him.

Self: And your question is….?

Me: I’ve been on the receiving end of that and it ain’t pretty. If I said M can sometimes expose people in disrespectful ways in public that would be accurate but what happens next?

Self: He gets a demerit. You win.

Me: But I don’t think that’s the game I ought to play. Do I think he does a good job overall and adds value to the team and has the company’s best interests in mind? I’d give him a B on all that. Would I say he has the finest interpersonal habits? I’d give him a C. So maybe I need to find a way to raise those issues in ways that would be helpful to him and the team.

Self: You are such a kill joy! Wouldn’t you just love to stick it to him and watch him get his comeuppance?

Me: I don’t see who wins if I just toss flames. Me? I think there’s more liability than upside if I do that. M? If it isn’t presented in a helpful vein he will just get more obnoxious. The team? How does a more pissy M make things better?

Self: So you’re not going to say anything?

Me: I’m not sure yet. I do think his style messes up the team’s productivity and I have seen others withdraw because of it. But if I can’t find a constructive way to both offer the feedback and identify what would work better then I think I should keep my mouth shut.

Self: Geez! You used to be so much more fun!

Too often we let the emotions of the moment run away with us and we couch it in “I’m being a good citizen to offer this feedback” as we walk into someone’s boss’ office. If we don’t have that little check and balance inner dialogue we could actually harm ourselves…not our intended target. If you develop a reputation as someone who routinely points out the misbehavior of others (ie. tattling) things will not turn out well for you.

Make sure your motives for offering feedback are:

  • For the good of the person, team or company
  • To generate growth or development or success for a person
  • Focused on work and productivity rather than personality flaws

(If someone is behaving unethically or could do great harm to the brand and the business you have an obligation to speak up. That’s a different ball game. Here I am talking about the more common circumstances we all encounter every day at work.)

We all misbehave from time to time. That’s normal. So make very conscious decisions about whether or not to provide your two cents. Next time around the shoe could be on the other foot and we all know what a bitch karma can be.

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