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The Cost of Conflict

According to industry research:

* On average, employees spend 2.1 hours per week dealing with conflict. That’s 385 million working days in the U.S. alone.

* Workplace conflicts cost the employer 10% of the salary of the employees involved.

* Unresolved conflict can escalate to personal attack, absenteeism, inter-departmental conflict, resignation, termination, and project failure.

* Fortune 500 senior executives spend 20% of their time on litigation.

What’s on Our Minds

  • Scaling Up – How Our Hidden Immune System Makes It Hard to Change Old Habits “What got you here, won’t get you there.” Many a new leader or manager has heard this truism coined by Marshall Goldsmith and have understood it to mean that they will need to up their game and change their approach if they want to succeed as leaders. They are advised to “be more strategic and less ...
  • Feedback – 8 Tips to Get People to Tell You What You Need to Hear Many leaders report that when they ask for feedback, they get very little in response. It’s not because they’re perfect. More than likely, people are afraid that they won’t react well to the truth. What to do about that? You need to make it a safe and positive experience for the other person. Here’s how:Be ...

Dealing With Difficult Clients: 7 Approaches To Transform Challenging Client Relationships

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If you’re in a client service business (lawyer, consultant or in-house services), you’ve met them: difficult clients. These clients are demanding. They may be anxious and need a lot of hand-holding. Or they habitually lob in urgent requests at the last minute. Some nit-pick your work. Some are rude or behave badly. Others try to micromanage you or are very hard to please. You see them as “difficult” because they demand special attention or effort and they often make your life harder. In extreme cases, they may seem like the enemy.

However, sometimes difficult clients also push you to do your very best work. They question your ideas and assumptions. They require you to explain what you’re doing and not operate on autopilot. They push you to meet tough deadlines. They require that you apply your skills and expertise and also your emotional intelligence. They can make you better.

A colleague and I facilitated a retreat for a client who challenged us in both positive and negative ways. They asked a lot of us and pushed our thinking. At times, their demands and oversight verged on micro-management, and we felt defensive and annoyed. A big ah-hah came for us when we realized that behind their requests and demands lay the fact that this retreat was important to them and that our approach felt risky to them. Once we started to empathize with them, our own frustration eased (somewhat). We realized that we were on the same side and responded with greater equanimity and good humor to their requests. The result was a retreat that surpassed all our expectations and a deeper and stronger relationship with a client who is likely to generate repeat business.

One definition of “difficult” is “needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with or understand.” We also apply this word to describe conversations that are important but challenging or scary in some way. Difficult conversations (also sometimes called crucial conversations) arise frequently in the workplace: giving and receiving tough feedback, addressing conflict or negotiating a salary. They require effort and skill and they are important. There are numerous articles, books and trainings on how to build these skills.

Both difficult conversations and difficult clients can trigger emotions and require a high degree of self-awareness and skill to manage well. And like conversations, when managed well, difficult clients can become deeper, stronger relationships. When you are confronted by a “difficult” client relationship, re-frame it as a challenge that will require your skill, and use it as an opportunity to deepen the relationship and build trust. Here are some approaches to transforming difficult client relationships.

  • Talk about the relationship. Set aside time to ask your client what they need for the relationship to succeed and let them know how you work best. Set expectations for communication cadence. Discuss and align about shared objectives. Periodically check in with them to get feedback.
  • Get curious. Seek to understand what is behind your client’s demands. If you understand your client’s drivers you will be better able to meet their needs. When they are questioning or critical, be aware of your own reaction and if you start feeling defensive, ask questions instead. Focus on making sure they feel heard to build relationship trust. Understanding their “affect heuristic”—the emotional driver for a decision—can help unlock a resistant client. If you sense a client is holding back because of fear, ask “What would help make you more comfortable with this approach?”  
  • Make a personal connection. Get to know your more about your client’s world outside of work and share about yourself and your interests. Developing a personal relationship helps build trust and understanding.
  • Up your communications game. Most clients like to know what’s going on, so it is better to be proactive and over-communicate than wait for them to bug you and be reactive. Even though you may want to avoid them, keep them updated on progress. Practice active listening and play back to them what they say to reassure them that their concerns are being heard.
  • Set boundaries. Modern client service business can become 24/7 if you let them. While responsiveness is essential to building strong client relationships, you need to calibrate. Set a target response time that is appropriate for the business and the type of request. Distinguish between emergencies and non-emergencies. Even if you choose to work late, don’t send emails at all hours of the night, which signals that you are available during those hours. Instead, if you do go online after hours, queue your emails to send the next morning at 6 a.m. or 7:00 a.m.
  • Practice compassion (for the client and yourself). Often people’s worst behaviors are an indication that they are suffering. It doesn’t help them if you get caught up in their suffering. Compassion calls us to recognize suffering, connect to our shared humanity and wish the other person well, but not take responsibility for their emotions. Deep breathing helps.
  • Give yourself credit. If your client never shows appreciation, it is important that you acknowledge and celebrate your own successes and milestones. This is especially important for a highly critical client. Team morale will suffer if the only feedback is criticism by the client. Recognize your team’s wins and appreciate their hard work. 

How To Manage Workflow For Pressure-Prompted Procrastinators

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Confession: I don’t always practice what I preach.

As a coach, I work with my clients to build habits that will support them in achieving their goals. Our approach typically involves creating structures that promote steady effort and accountability. Clients practice mindfulness to learn how to self-manage their emotions; leaders schedule a weekly “meeting with myself” for planning and prioritization; some create spreadsheets for tracking networking targets and follow-up; others write in gratitude journals. All of these are effective in cultivating the new behaviors and awareness that will help them grow and develop.

My own track record, however, is a bit spotty. In my ideal life, there is a certain order and predictability to things, but the reality is that if you look at any moment in time, you would see wild fluctuations in the amount of time I spend on work. Part of this is due to the constantly changing work week that comes from having multiple clients that I meet with each week. But I contribute as well: it turns out that although theoretically I like things to be steady and would prefer to be organized and prepared, I am also very “pressure prompted,” as the Myers-Briggs folks refer to people who tend to need a looming deadline to motivate them. (My college roommates who remember my all-nighters every time I had a big paper due will not be surprised at this revelation.) For those of you who are students of MBTI, I am in the “midzone” between early starting and pressure prompted. In practice, what that looks like is not moderation, but a kind of pendulum swing. My judging self (the one who likes to plan and starts early) is inclined to judge and disapprove the me who stays up late to finish something that I could (should?) have completed days ago if I had just applied myself.

Since, as my colleague Michael Melcher says, “I am my own first and forever client,” this self-recognition is giving me new insight and appreciation for an approach that is less steady-state and more pendulum-like. So I offer some tips to those of you out there who are like me to embrace the pendulum and get it to work for you rather than fighting it.

  • Anticipate and clear the way. Big presentation on Friday? Don’t make lots of other plans for Thursday.
  • Communicate to set expectations. If you are collaborating, tell your colleagues what to expect so that you don’t create unnecessary stress for them.
  • Know yourself. Instead of being shocked each time crunch time comes around, expect it. Surprise triggers stress, but if you have anticipated that the lead-up to a deadline will require intense focus, you will be emotionally prepared.
  • Set incremental deadlines. You can create mini-pressure-prompts by establishing milestones with external accountability, such as a sending first draft of a report to a colleague or scheduling a dry-run of a presentation.
  • Try a “work attack.” If steady effort bores or demotivates you, try working in a 45-60 minute sprint, setting a goal to get through something that needs doing in a set timeframe. It’s like what I used to do to motivate my kids to get ready for bed by challenging them to see if they could be all ready in five minutes. (This works for making incremental progress on a big task or clearing out a bunch of little tasks).
  • Make your procrastination productive. When you are having a hard time making yourself get down to work, you’ll feel better if you use your energy to reorganize your desk or fold a lot of laundry rather than going down the rabbit hole of Facebook or Instagram.
  • Practice acceptance. Don’t waste your energy on scolding yourself for not living up to an ideal that simply doesn’t work for you. Appreciate your own laser focus and productivity when you are cranking through something.
  • Allow the pendulum to swing the other way. When you have gotten through your big crunch time, take a wholesome break. Have a date night, go for a walk, connect with a friend. You need time to rest and renew.

These strategies will help you work with your own tendencies rather than against them.

Don’t Be So Sure: The Perils of Certainty

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I was certain that my flight to Chicago was at 10:30, so I aimed to leave for the airport by 9:00. But at 8:30 when I checked to verify the exact takeoff time, my chest seized up. My flight was leaving in less than an hour! I yelled for my husband to take me to the airport now. By the time I made it through security, the boarding gate had closed. I watched my flight take off without me.

Maybe something like this has happened to you. You felt so utterly sure of something that you did not consider the possibility that you were wrong, not bothering to check, but instead plowing ahead feeling right until the moment you realized you were wrong.

This experience is at the heart of Kathryn Schultz’s exploration of being wrong. As she points out, until you realize that you are wrong about something, it feels just like it does when you are right. You feel certain, confident, convinced of your rightness. We tend to think of certainty as the product of rational thought. But according to Robert A. Burton, certainty itself is actually a feeling—an involuntary mental sensation of the accuracy of one’s belief. It isn’t a thought but a feeling about a thought. You feel that you are right. And it turns out that we all tend to feel that we are right a lot, walking around in a bubble of certainty. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, we are prone to “excessive confidence in what we believe we know” and an “apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.”

For leaders, the feeling of certainty or “rightness” is highly problematic for a number of reasons. First, as in my example, sometimes we are actually wrong and we do dumb stuff like not double check and then we miss the flight or take a wrong turn. But more importantly, when leaders are sure that they are right (or if they are afraid of being proved wrong), they lose their open-mindedness and curiosity. And in a world of ever-increasing complexity, it is essential that we not close our minds in this way. Leaders today are facing a world in which their experience and their mental models are often not equal to address the challenges they face or predict the results of their actions. It is therefore essential that they not jump to a feeling of certainty but remain open to a diversity of thought and ideas, as well as continuing to look for more data. Certainty stifles curiosity, and curiosity is key to innovation, creativity and success.

When leaders stop taking in new data or ideas, they lose their capacity to innovate. Instead, they get stuck in what Jennifer Garvey Berger calls a “mindtrap.” In her new book, Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, Berger identified five such mindtraps that stifle our thinking, each of which causes us to miss opportunities to learn, deepen relationships and embrace complexity. When you are “trapped by rightness,” you close yourself off and fail to question your own beliefs and assumptions. You stop really listening to others and instead “listen to win” or “listen to fix,” both of which keep you trapped in the sense that you know better than the other person. 

The way out of this trap is simple—but not easy. Instead of regarding certainty as a rational assessment that you have conducted a thorough and reasoned review of the evidence and come to an unbiased conclusion, you need to begin to regard your own certainty with skepticism. If you find yourself feeling sure that you are right (a sign of this is when others look wrong to you), ask yourself: “What do I believe?” This question helps shift you out of the language and mindset of knowing and creates space for other beliefs. Then ask, “How could I be wrong?” This second question explicitly welcomes uncertainty and requires that you surface the collection of assumptions upon which your certainty is based. Finally, you need to “listen to learn”—suspend your judgment and allow your thinking to be shaped by the thinking of others. In this way, you can climb out of the trap of your own making and improve your thinking.

Far from fearing being wrong, Schultz urges us to embrace our capacity for error because—if we recognize it and incorporate it into our process by not getting too attached to rightness—it is essential to our capacity to learn, grow and improve.

When Should You Take No For an Answer?

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The consequences of overwork are evident in my coaching practice. In startups, established companies and nonprofits I see teams in a constant state of fire-fighting and leaders who are unable to prioritize, where the quality of work is suffering, individuals are experiencing stress and anxiety, and valuable people are burning out. In a previous post, I wrote about building the “no” muscle—learning to say “no” to certain activities in service of being able to say “yes” to the right things.

But what if you say “no” and your colleagues won’t accept it? “I can say no ‘til the cows come home,” said Gayle, a member of the leadership team of a growing nonprofit organization, “but it’s not heard. I get push back. We have a culture of yes, and it’s killing our team.”

We typically think of a “Culture of Yes” as a good thing, particularly when it comes to customer service. “Yes” is positive. It signals a can-do spirit and a willingness to overcome obstacles. We admire a leader who is so determined to achieve his vision that “he won’t take no for an answer.” (Though in light of “me too,” we should question this admiration.) And leadership coaches from the world of improv help teams practice their “Yes and” as a way of growing positivity and building on the contributions of team members rather than shutting down or critiquing. “No” is associated with negativity and criticism. “Yes” is generous and creative.

Yet in some organizations, like Gayle’s, yes has run amok. Mission-driven and highly collaborative, they have developed a culture where all the work is urgent. (We’re helping children! We’re saving the planet!) They pay lip service to work-life balance, but because they are passionate about the mission and value being team players, they don’t want to let their teammates down, resulting in everyone working long hours as a matter of course. Even those who feel overworked, themselves, may not always support colleagues who try to set boundaries. And when someone tries to refuse a new project, they are often cajoled or guilted into changing their answer.

The refusal to hear and accept no—and the underlying lack of trust and respect signified by that deafness—is counterproductive and damaging. Studies show that there are significant negative personal consequences (to health and relationships) from working more than 40 hours a week. And even if you don’t care about people, it turns out that not much good work happens after 50 hours, and productivity declines by 25% after 60 hours. Of course, there will be times when a team needs to pull long hours to meet a deadline or accomplish a goal, but extreme hours should be the exception, not the rule. As one CEO I know put it, you can’t drive a car with the engine red-lining all the time. Leaders and organizations need to get serious about “working smarter, not harder” by setting clear priorities and adequately resourcing them and making trade-offs or adding resources when new needs or projects arise.

Unfortunately, many companies are unwilling to create policies or a culture that allows employees to set meaningful boundaries. A recent story on Wired illustrated the consequences of Facebook’s refusal to permit employees to work part-time. As a result, a data scientist mom of three wound up saying the biggest “no” of all—quitting. Effectively, Sheryl Sandberg had forced a choice: either “Lean In” or drop out, with no middle ground. This is a shame, and it shouldn’t have to be so.

Creating a workplace where boundaries are respected requires more than just a policy. Research has demonstrated the importance of “cultural work-life support” in companies and organizations that institute initiatives meant to accommodate work-life balance, such as flex-time and part-time options. “Cultural support operates at two interactive levels: the work group level, where one receives relational support from managers or co-workers; and the organizational level where resources and overarching cultural values and norms are engendered.” This cultural support challenges the “ideal worker myth”—the image of a worker who has no commitments outside of work—and makes it possible for employees to set boundaries and still be considered valuable. Depending on your role in an organization, you can help provide this culture of support.


  • Set clear direction and priorities with appropriate resourcing that doesn’t depend on redlining the engine on a regular basis. Practice discipline when adding new initiatives. Make hard choices.
  • Model setting boundaries. Even if you are writing emails at 2:00 a.m., queue it up to send at 6:00.
  • Listen for signs of strain among your team. Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel, or is this the new normal? Demonstrate appreciation and self-manage if you have a tendency to drive others hard.


  • Monitor your team’s workload and communicate cross-functionally and up to leadership when they are getting stretched thin. Advocate for your team.
  • Prioritize and exercise discipline in taking on new projects and initiatives.
  • Manage your own workload through delegation where possible.
  • Support your team in making trade-offs among priorities. You can’t have more than one #1 priority.

Individual Contributors

  • Advise your manager about the state of your workload before you get to the breaking point.
  • When you need to say no, acknowledge the request and suggest solutions or trade-offs.
  • Try to stay out of victim mode

Each person in an organization—from the CEO to the Head of HR to the individual colleagues on a team—has a role to play in creating a culture where individuals are empowered to say “no” and where their co-workers graciously accept that answer.

How to Prepare for Critical Feedback

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“I’m totally terrified,” said a colleague. Was she skydiving or going for a big job interview? Nope. She was preparing to receive feedback—in this case from an interdisciplinary group of experts who were reviewing a draft of her book—and she was afraid of being pummeled by their critique, even though she was also excited for the opportunity. It felt a little like facing a firing squad.

The fear of receiving criticism is not unique to her. Many of my clients enter their 360 feedback sessions with trepidation about what they will hear and how they will handle it. Like my friend, they may be bracing themselves for an attack on their performance or they may be concerned about how they will handle the criticism. Fear of your own reaction is especially acute when you are facing your reviewers in person, as my friend was. Preparation is key. Here are some suggestions to help you face your critics with equanimity and curiosity:

1. Cultivate a “bring it on” attitude. Instead of seeing critique as an attack, think of it as needed ammunition to make you better. Invite others to poke holes in your argument so that you can improve it. Ask what you could do better. Find the coaching in criticism.

2. Pre-review yourself. Take time to evaluate yourself before receiving feedback. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your performance? It can take some of the sting out of criticism if you anticipate what may be coming. Recognize that you have blind spots and envision that you may hear something unexpected. Remember that the things you don’t already know are often the most valuable part of the experience.

3. You don’t have to do anything. You can’t and shouldn’t try to fix anything right away. Focus on listening and learning. Feedback is data, and your job is to mine it for all its gems of insight. If something is unclear, ask for clarification. If something is vague, ask for specifics.

4. Resist the urge to defend or explain. Just receive and inquire. If some of the feedback hurts or makes you angry, observe your own emotions and notice what triggers them. This is also good information for you. Breathe. As much as you can, cultivate a detached curiosity so that you can respond rather than react.

5. Expect that there may be contradictions. If you are receiving feedback from multiple sources, it may be conflicting. One person will advise you to zig while another tells you to zag. Some folks may value the very thing that irritates others. It can be hard to parse, so remember that feedback often says as much about the giver—their priorities, preferences, and experiences—as the receiver, and draw your own conclusions.

6. Let it sink in before taking any action. Especially if you are receiving feedback from half a dozen or more people, it can be overwhelming to hear all those voices and all of their advice and needs. Sit with it before making any decisions. Sift through and reflect: What resonates? What matters most to you?

7. You are in the driver’s seat. It is for you to decide what action, if any, to take. As Harvard Business Review’s Tasha Eurich advises in a recent article about receiving feedback, “change is just one option.” You may choose to make changes in response to some criticisms and not others. Ultimately, it is up to you.

These tips are particularly important for in-person feedback, but regardless whether you are facing a group of critics, reading a 360 report or having a 1:1 review with your boss, all of the above advice will help put you in a receptive frame of mind so you can handle yourself with equanimity and curiosity to get the most out of a critique.

Want to Make a Difference? Focus on Contribution, Not Impact

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I nominate “impact” as one of the most annoying and potentially harmful buzzwords in business today.

Countless clients tell me they want to make an impact. Whether they are leaders in growing startups or tech giants, Millennials seeking meaning or mid-career professionals pursuing their next big job, they define success as having this thing they call “impact.” But what is it really about?

Impact is defined as the striking of one object into another, a collision. This kind of impact is violent, even shattering, like a hammer through plate glass. (Echoes of Facebook’s “move fast and break things” mantra?) When used in the term “Impact Investing,” it refers to the pursuit of a social benefit as well as profit. And because measuring social benefit is trickier than measuring profits, there is an ongoing debate about how and if to measure impact. It turns out it can be pretty hard to assess.

When individuals talk about wanting to make an impact, they typically look at two things: results and role. The first is results: They want to make a difference. They want their work to matter. Many genuinely want to make people’s lives better. The second is about their role: They want influence or “a seat at the table.” They want to be seen and valued. They long to be important. This drive for impact shows up in a variety of ways. An executive coaching client strives to build his influence so that he can increase his impact and make the next promotion and climb the career ladder so he keeps up with his peers. A job-seeker says she the most important criteria for her is impact, so she wants a role where she can have “ownership” (another buzzword that refers to autonomy and responsibility) of part of the business. When others talk about impact, they may include making a difference by helping others. Many managers have a sense of accomplishment from building and leading a great team. Some leaders find it rewarding to coach or mentor a more junior person. Whether pursuing power and promotion or helping others, all of these examples of impact have the individual at the center (like the striking of a pebble in a pool that sends out ripples). As the cliché goes, there is no “I” in “team,” but “impact” starts with I, and there is an element of ego-centrism in all these pursuits. 

In his recent New York Times Op Ed, David Brooks observes that seeking happiness through individual achievement can lead to a moment of reckoning, failure, loss or disappointment. Brooks holds up those who take this moment as an opportunity to shift away from the egoistic pursuit of happiness through achievement and start seeking joy through commitment and contribution. They stop putting themselves at the center and instead offer themselves in service to others.

If you shift your focus from impact to contribution, a world of possibility opens up. You commit to something other than yourself—an institution, person, cause. Your aspiration becomes less about the importance of your individual role or action and more about helping create a shared purpose or benefit. Your title and place on the career ladder are in service of your contribution rather than a measure of your worth. Being a contributor means that you are focused on giving, and this generosity suggests that you will also be open to others’ input, ideas and feedback. You can also be less defensive: if you are not at the center, you can invite others in without fear that they will take something away from you. You are less concerned with who gets credit. You pursue excellence not to get a gold star but because you want to do your best to make good on your commitment. If you are in a leadership role, you are likely to be a servant-leader. You value responsibility and responsiveness less than ownership or getting credit. Whatever part you play, you can find value and meaning in contribution.

In any case, I can’t help but think that the whole impact question is one that exists only for a privileged few. Most people are too busy trying to keep ahead of their bills to worry about whether they are having a unique impact. But contribution is available to all, and there are many ways of making a contribution every day. A middle manager may have no voice in setting company direction but can still create a positive work environment. An administrative assistant helps leaders stay organized. A CEO provides vision, direction and resources for his or her company. A hospital janitor cleans the room of a patient. And anybody who works for pay to support a family makes a contribution. All these actions have meaning and significance when we shift from chasing individual impact to making a contribution.

Overworked? A People Pleaser’s Guide to Saying No

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“I have more work than I can possibly do, my team is stretched to the breaking point, and the requests keep coming,” said an executive coaching client in a large tech company, her eyes welling with tears. She was not the only one to whom I gave a tissue this week.

Overwork is widespread in the U.S., and research indicates that it is bad for people’s health and productivity.  An excessive workload can be caused by many different factors—a demanding organizational culture, poor planning, failure to delegate or a lack of adequate staffing. But often times, it is exacerbated by an inability or unwillingness to say, “no.” People pleasers (you know who you are) hate to let down their colleagues and will sacrifice their own well-being to avoid causing disappointment. If they don’t develop their “no” muscle, they are likely to burn out or make themselves sick. Here are some strategies for people pleasers:  

What Can Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes Teach Us About Feminism?

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As Women’s History Month comes to a close, critics and feminists are reflecting on the story of the now infamous CEO of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes. The focus of the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood In Silicon Valley, Holmes captivated the imaginations and tapped into the greed and hubris of the (mostly male) investor class. She raised over $600 million and took her investors for a ride that ended in disgrace. Her failed product—a fast, cheap, comprehensive blood test using only a finger prick rather than a blood draw—would have been miraculous if it had worked. But it didn’t, and she knew it. She hid its flaws and is now facing federal fraud charges. Her very public rise and fall have some calling her a feminist anti-hero.

How To Take Charge And Navigate An Unexpected Change

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Sometimes you need a push. You may not know you need it—you may even resent it—but a push helps (sometimes forces) you to change and can ultimately take you in a good direction. We coaches love to talk about inspiration and lofty goals, but the truth is that many people don’t take action until the status quo gets uncomfortable.

There are two forces that bring about action and change: pull and push.

  • Pull is what draws you forward and positively motivates you. It is a vision, a shiny object, a yearning, goal or aspiration. You reach for it because you want it. Pull is a bright future that excites us, sparks us and calls us to action.
  • Push is what drives you and necessitates action. It can be an external event or an internal discomfort, dissatisfaction or frustration. Push is a force that makes the here and now untenable and requires action.

Feedback Is Not A Waste Of Time: What “The Feedback Fallacy” Got Wrong

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Is giving feedback a waste of time? You might think so if you read Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall’s Harvard Business Review article “The Feedback Fallacy,” which purports to debunk much of our thinking about feedback. Buckingham (of the Strengths Finder fame) and Goodall argue that giving negative or “improvement” feedback is misguided, egotistical and counterproductive. But don’t despair: A careful reading of their article reveals that sensible, targeted feedback conversations are still essential to helping people improve and learn to work together better.

The authors argue that feedback doesn’t work. Period. They claim, “Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.” This claim rests on three premises: Other people don’t have any claim to objective truth, talking about shortcomings hinders learning and there is no universal standard of excellence. I’ll address each in turn:

1. Truth: Buckingham and Goodall assert that the guidance of others is worse than useless because it is not objective. They are right that feedback is subject to bias, but it doesn’t follow that we have nothing to offer our co-workers in sharing our observations and guidance. In fact, it is often very useful to have subjective feedback about how we are being perceived, so long as it doesn’t claim to be universal or objective. A skillful feedback intervention is a two-way conversation that focuses on specific behavior and its results or impact. For example, instead of saying, “Your presentation needs to be more high level,” say, “I got lost in the details and had a hard time understanding your objectives or the context.” For my clients, it is often hearing about the impact of their behavior on their co-workers that really helps them understand their blind spots and motivates them to change.

2. Learning: The authors hop on the neuroscience-lite bandwagon and claim that criticism shuts down the brain’s ability to learn, while positive reinforcement makes the brain receptive to learning. Based on very narrow research, they recommend that we should limit our feedback to only positive reinforcement of good behavior (which lines up nicely with Buckingham’s career-long commitment to a strengths-based approach to leadership). Here, I just plain disagree. Immediate correction of negative behavior is often a great way to learn. Moreover, even if pointing out a shortcoming may trigger a fight-or-flight response that temporarily makes it hard to absorb input, later reflection often results in learning or awareness. Personal experience has taught me that the initial sting of improvement feedback dissipates and we learn over time. Again, a well-managed feedback conversation involves balancing appreciation with guidance and is sensitive to when the recipient becomes emotionally flooded or triggered. In addition, as one of my colleagues cleverly pointed out, isn’t positive feedback just as subject to bias and distortion as negative? It seems like if we buy the author’s premise about objectivity, we should refrain from all comment, positive and negative.

3. Excellence: Finally, stating the obvious, the authors note that there is no universal, gold standard of excellence. This is, of course, true. Excellence looks different on different people and in different contexts. Skillful feedback is careful to speak in specifics rather than generalizations and is sensitive to context. Especially with feedback about “soft skills,” it is always important to empower the receiver to take in and adapt feedback to their style and personality.

While I am not addressing every detail of Buckingham and Goodall’s article, I encourage you to check it out and to read the Washington Post’s interview with Buckingham. The authors make some salient points about flaws in the current trend toward a no-holds-barred approach to feedback, but they way over-reach with their conclusions. They rightly call attention to the fact that many companies are embracing radical candor uncritically and unskillfully, and that brutal honesty run amok may cause harm. However, there is good evidence that a high feedback culture promotes high performance. The real correction for biased, destructive feedback is a humility, curiosity and a good model for skillful feedback that focuses on specific behavior and its results. So go ahead and give the gift of feedback. Here’s a reminder of the key elements:

  • Start with a growth mindset and think of feedback as a two-way conversation, n