“The most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.” W. Edwards Deming
I fret over feedback poorly provided. I also recognize that not all feedback is worth listening to—a great deal depends upon the source and the motivations of the feedback giver. However, I worry a great deal about the incredible and immeasurable cost of important feedback never given. As Deming suggests, this value is unknown and unknowable. And that worries me.
You should worry as well.
When the Right Feedback Changes the Future:
I’m grateful for the one person who dared to stand up at a point in my career and let me know I was failing as a leader. Without the blunt, spot-on input I might not have altered my career as a manager-dictator.
Another individual I am close to was on the receiving end of feedback that suggested she was much more effective and competent than she was giving herself credit. Fast-forward a decade, and she’s a senior executive. The right feedback was the trigger. After that, she had context for where to exert her energy.
I’m thankful I found the moral courage to give feedback to a CEO that the individual he was supporting ran afoul of and stomped on every value we ascribed to live up to in our firm. We became a better organization the second this individual was sent to ply his toxic ways somewhere else.
In each of those situations, the right feedback delivered properly created a significantly different timeline than the one that might have come to pass. I had a great corporate career and now do the work of a lifetime helping develop emerging leaders and career reinventors. My colleague found her mojo and self-esteem. And that tone and tenor of that firm changed for the better for all involved.
The cost if this feedback is not given is unknown and unknowable. And frighteningly high, I believe.
Beware the Narrative About You Playing in Your Mind:
We all run around with a narrative in our minds based on our perception-of-self and our view of reality. The story tends to run in one of two directions. One storyline flirts with hubris and occasionally crosses into arrogance. The other finds us believing we’re not good, or worthy. Both are mostly wrong.
Unfortunately, this perception-of-self exists in one place only: our mind. This narrative amplifies our perception of our strengths, glosses over our weaknesses, and skips the storyline on our character flaws. Oddly, something I find with many professionals is a self-narrative that masks their superpowers, keeping them trapped in the wrong jobs and perpetually struggling to find professional and personal happiness.
It takes quality feedback to help edit this personal movie to reflect better how the rest of the world sees us.
Cutting Through the Noise—Ask a Swim Buddy for Help:
All feedback is biased. The challenge for each of us is to find feedback sources where the intent is constructive and not mean-spirited or provided with selfish aims in mind.
I love the swim buddy approach. Find a few people you trust who are willing to tell you your baby is ugly, your words and actions aren’t matching, or, you are whiffing on what you are trying to achieve, and then listen carefully.
True swim buddies are rare. The best way I know to cultivate these precious career assets is to volunteer first to be one. The need to reciprocate is a powerful drive for all of us. Help someone, and they will help you. If they don’t, they’re not a good swim buddy.
Managers—What’s the Feedback Culture on Your Team?
Here’s a quiz.
- How many times in the past month has someone who works for you given you feedback on some aspect of your performance?
- How many times in the past month have you asked your team members how you are doing as a manager?
- How many times in the past month has someone hit the metaphorical “STOP” button because something you advocated for was a mistake?
If the answer to these and similar questions approaches the limit of zero, it’s possible you have a feedback problem on your team. At a minimum, you are leaving performance on the table. At worst, you are missing incredible values to help people (and yourself0 create new timelines. It merits exploring.
The Bottom-Line Now:
The most significant source of heartache and the biggest missteps in your career may very well owe their existence to the absence of the right feedback. As I suggested at the outset, not all feedback is created equal. However, the value of the critical feedback about you that is never spoken is unknown and unknowable. And that should worry you enough to take action.