Spinach in Your Teeth (Why Feedback Matters)

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Imagine you’re at five-star restaurant with an important business client. After the first course, unknowingly, a big piece of spinach has wedged itself between your front teeth. Would you want your dinner companion to point it out to you? Or would you rather discover it later that evening when you went to brush your teeth? [gasp!] After conducting hundreds of 360-degree feedback interviews, I can tell you with confidence that most people would prefer that their companion tell them about the spinach and endure a brief moment of embarrassment as opposed to the feeling of horror at finding it themselves later on.

From a leadership perspective, we all have our blind spots; perhaps we micromanage, or we’re slow to make decisions, or we delegate too much or too little. It’s all spinach in our teeth that we are not aware of, though our colleagues plainly see it. As an example, a current client recently discovered that she was perceived by her colleagues as a “bull in a china shop.” People felt intimidated by her and in some cases, refused to work on projects she was part of. While surprised at first, she was grateful to learn this because now she could do something about it (i.e. remove the spinach).

Getting feedback can be uncomfortable, but only if we hear it as criticism. Timely feedback is actually a gift; it’s important information about how we are perceived and what is limiting our success. Accurate feedback is essential for growth. When initiating a feedback process with a new client, I invite them to embrace this perspective – to not take the feedback as a critical attack, but rather as a contribution to their leadership development. This new awareness gives us an opportunity to do something different and make better choices.

Effective leaders solicit feedback often. If this is something you struggle with, consider this approach to more easily get the information you need:

1) First, help the person feel safe about giving you authentic feedback. “I really want your honest feedback – holding back won’t help me in this area and I won’t be offended by what you say.

2) Share why you are asking for the feedback “I am really working to be a better communicator – can you help me in this area by providing me feedback? I would be grateful for your input.”

3) Start the conversation by asking for positive feedback. “What is something I do well as a leader?” This is a great way to get the conversation moving and can help reduce any resistance the person had to giving negative feedback because now there is some balance to the conversation.

4) As the conversation progresses, don’t react visually or verbally to what you hear. Don’t agree or dispute; simply listen. While it may be easy to get defensive and take it personally, try to separate yourself from the behavior they are describing. For example, if you hear that you appear distracted in meetings, it does not mean you are a bad person or even a bad leader. Rather, you have a behavior that is ineffective.

5) When they have finished, ask, “Is there anything else you would like to add that you have been afraid to say?” This is a calm, open way of communicating that you are listening and that you value their input, and might be the opening they needed to share something important that they were withholding.

6) At the end of the conversation, no matter what, say “Thank you!” Emphasize how much you value their feedback and how it has contributed to your awareness and growth. This can help diminish any potential guilt they may be experiencing or fear of retribution for providing any negative (but constructive!) feedback.

One more thought: It may be helpful to share the “spinach in my teeth” metaphor as a way to start the conversation. Let them know you want to be the best that you can be and that they can help you get there.

How will feedback support your development as a leader and who will you ask for it today?

If you’re ready to take action, here are some questions to help you move forward:
• How could constructive feedback support your development as a leader?
• Who will you ask, and by when?

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On February 24, 2016

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