I was recently helping a client prep for a difficult conversation with some team members who (most likely unknowingly) are creating a culture of exclusion in their small office.
My client is one of the most senior in the office, but not their boss, and was concerned about approaching them about some behaviors that frustrate others. She hates confrontation and doesn’t want to be the cause of additional conflict. And she likes her status of being admired (read: liked) in her company.
These team members have become friends outside the office, and that’s great! We all have lifelong friends who were at one time coworkers. But there are myriad examples of how their behaviors and body language are off-putting to others in the office. Even new hires sense this energy and feel unwelcome.
These young professionals don’t realize it, but they’re already leaders. Whether they’re aware or not, they are setting the culture in this small but growing work environment. But, like a lot of new leaders, they’re likely only thinking of themselves and are unaware of the impact they’re making.
As a seasoned leader, if you don’t share this critical feedback, you’re essentially robbing them of the opportunity to be more self aware and emotionally intelligent. And this omission could have lasting negative effects on their careers as well as those of countless others.
As painful as receiving feedback may be, most of the time we can quickly reflect and appreciate that someone took the time to share it. Wouldn’t you rather know than go through your career making the same mistakes over and over?
So what do you do in a situation like this? How do you make giving critical feedback less painful for everyone involved? Here’s what I worked through with my client…
Remember It’s Not About You
It can be easy to worry that you'll be perceived in a certain way if you give critical feedback. This is completely natural, because many people have a strong desire to be liked.
And while giving direct feedback may be uncomfortable for everyone, it ultimately has nothing to do with you. The reaction you could experience is completely a reflection of the other person’s energy, and a natural response for that person.
If you can remember that it's not about you, that you’re not the “bad guy” for delivering the feedback, and that you have an obligation to this person to share it, it can make the whole experience easier for everyone involved.
Ask, Don’t Tell
Launching a conversation with “I have some feedback,” then jumping right to it, can provoke a defensive response on the receiving end. But often when you have critical feedback, the receiver already has an inkling of it. If you fail to step in, they could develop a sense that this behavior is okay.
So, start out with some questions. You want the person receiving feedback to feel safe, engage with you, and ideally disclose the behavior before you have to. Using this example, here are some potential dialogue starters:
I’m wondering if you’re aware that you’re viewed as a leader in this office.
As you think about the best leaders you’ve known, what are some of the characteristics you admire most in them? (In this case, the hope is for responses related to inclusion.)
How well do you think you model these characteristics?
How do you think you’re showing up as a leader?
What kind of leader would you like to be?
What you’re looking for is for the person to conclude that they’re missing the mark before you tell them. This diffuses the situation and keeps you from feeling like the bad guy. And even if they don’t reach this conclusion, it creates an opening for you to share your own observations in a way that will be more easily received.
It also creates space for them to process or ask questions about how they can improve. Instead of just giving them pride-wounding feedback with no discussion about how to get to the ideal, you’re co-creating a roadmap to the ideal. Then you can offer your support.
Engage Them in Solving the Problem
Now that you’ve sparked an open and productive dialogue about the behavior you want to change, enroll them in creating solutions to change it. Again, using the example here, you’ve revealed to them that they are emerging leaders in the organization. As leaders, they’re on the hook for creating a more inclusive environment. How can you make this aspect of leadership official by tasking them with fostering inclusion?
For example, they could form a social committee and invite others to join. They could create activities for helping people get to know each other, or processes to help newcomers feel welcome. The idea is to plant a seed and then empower them with turning around the office culture. By letting them decide rather than prescribing, you're creating a space where they take ownership. It won’t be long before shifts occur, and they are viewed as inclusive leaders and not an exclusive clique.
What methods have worked for you when sharing critical feedback? I’d love to hear from you. And if you sense that your discomfort around giving feedback stems from symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, download my eBook "Get Over Yourself: 7 Ways to Overcome Confidence Setbacks."