Many managers avoid giving critical feedback to subordinates or peers, and steer clear of criticizing their own managers. Despite the tremendous business relevance of candid criticism and the frequent requirement to provide it, any kind of fault-finding can feel personally uncomfortable and interpersonally risky.
The very idea of giving feedback can be awkward and upsetting. Managers fear that they’ll hurt someone’s feelings over something that’s really not that big a deal. They’re afraid of the ensuing disturbance if the feedback recipient rejects their view or their authority to give it. And they worry about what their response should be if the recipient takes an even stronger contrary stance or acts out in some other way. No wonder it seems easier not to engage!
Don’t Let Problems Linger
It’s crucial to identify and break a damaging chain of behavior early on, because any employee’s negative behavior, lack of acumen, or careless mistakes could be the beginning of significant damage. Most missteps are easily corrected, and can be handled as the very small things that they are.
But if a pattern appears, it creates a grave responsibility for action — always for a superior, often for a peer, and, on rare and uncomfortable occasions, for a courageous subordinate. Otherwise, here are the likely adverse impacts:
- When there’s no learning, no matter how well-intentioned the person is, the same mistakes will be repeated. Without the necessary feedback, employees will assume that their behavior or work process is appropriate because they haven’t heard that it isn’t.
- When bad or ineffective behavior continues for too long, good people can be ruined by being exposed to it, even if it’s not directed at them personally. They may become similarly sloppy or inappropriate themselves, or demoralized by the ineffectiveness or unpleasantness they live with. Eventually, good people may leave to save themselves, because no one else is saving them — and only the bad or the ruined employees will remain.
- When there’s no consistent improvement in performance despite various programs, promises, or initiatives, it’s common to see a slow erosion of all progress, except for non-material “enhancements” to theoretical quality of work life. Reformist or forward-looking employees may start being treated as rate-busters or threats to the harmonious inertia. In the end, your competitors will eat your lunch and the table you sit at.
- When no senior executive takes a clear stand against negative behavior or performance or tries to drive action in a better direction, the entire management cadre loses credibility with the rank-and-file.
- When management hesitates too long or dithers over the best steps to take, by the time they finally get it together to make a last-ditch effort, you can end up with a drastic intervention, drama, and heroics. But even when everyone cares tremendously, there may not be enough lead-time, money, or talent remaining onboard to right the ship.
What can you do from wherever you sit in the organization? In a mashup of the teachings of the famous management consultant Peter Drucker and a well-known Talmudic precept, “Where there are no effective executives, you must strive to be the effective executive.”
Be the Actor, Not the Acted Upon
If you’re someone who has not yet stepped up to give necessary feedback, it’s time to deal. If you are aware of a hazardous situation, you might try to find a sympathetic influencer to confer with. And if someone comes to you to complain about a co-worker, subordinate, or senior executive, instead of just letting them vent, help them think through a way to describe the problem directly to that person. And when the situation arises, you can also be the one to:
- Walk into the line of fire to protect your staff — in front of them or others if possible.
- Apologize for any gaffes or other errors — publicly as well as privately.
- Ask a question when clarification would help others.
- Volunteer a new idea when people are stuck.
- Build a coalition when you feel your voice isn’t being heard.
Sometimes it just takes one person to start a chain reaction of more effective, more developmental behavior. So don’t just stew over a problem, be a passive victim, or believe that you can keep yourself safe by not taking action. Recognize that whether you act as a formal or informal leader, your decision or action can actually change the game — and improve its outcome.
Onward and upward,