This Coaching Letter is for anyone who has said or even thought that others just don’t have the same sense of urgency as you do, that others need to get on the bus, or that others need to change their mindset—because they have said something about the past, present or future that does not match what you think or what you want to hear.
I have made reference in other coaching letters to soliciting feedback that will help strengthen a plan and/or help you see your blind spots, but now I want to put a stake in the ground and say, you need to make it safe for people to tell you the bad news, and you need to listen. This is a critical skill for leaders and coaches, but is harder for leaders because the complications of rank make it all the more risky for someone below you in the hierarchy to speak up.
We are all dependent on others in more ways than we can count, and one of those ways is for them to tell us the flaws in our thinking, planning, and actions. Most of them won’t do that unless you:
- Make it easy to respond, for example by providing anonymity; asking for the wisdom of a group rather than putting the onus on individuals to speak; creating an online survey.
- Make it routine, so that people expect to be asked and know that there is no risk.
- Express appreciation: thank people for bringing these points to your attention, give examples of how you have used feedback to make improvements.
- Minimize the explaining that you do. People below you in rank tend to interpret explanation as defensiveness, rationalizing, or just failure to listen. Whenever possible, just say thank you.
- Do not, through your remarks or your body language, implicitly or explicitly, allow anyone to get even a whiff of an impression that you interpret questions, comments or criticism as resistance or negativity. Do not complain that others don’t have your sense of urgency. Do not tell people to get on the bus. All they hear is that you don’t trust them, don’t respect them, and don’t care what they have to say. And—if they believe that you don’t actually have answers for their questions—they may conclude that you are, in fact, incompetent.
This is not about “style”. This is not about “interpersonal skills”. This is an example of when a “soft skill” is actually a make-or-break skill. I cannot count the times that plans have died a miserable death because a leader decided that feedback could be dismissed as reluctance, resistance, or “slow-rolling”. Please remember that every plan that fails makes it more likely that the next plan will fail, because people cease to have faith in plans in general. And all plans require at least a modicum of faith.
Some of the most popular resources I’ve provided so far are relevant here. Know that you have probably clicked on these in previous Coaching Letters:
- The Red Teaming Handbook
- Daniel Kahneman on the pre-mortem as a technique for generating useful criticism. (This one has clearly been forwarded a few times.)
- Amy Edmondson on building a psychologically safe workplace. (This is the most popular link to date.)
I have said this before: you should frame feedback as a GIFT—be grateful for it and use it well. To do otherwise is a massive missed opportunity.
Here are a few additional related resources, all from HBR:
- Learning in the Thick of It, about the Army’s use of the After Action Review.
- A short article by Gary Klein on the use of the Pre-Mortem.
- And, lest we forget that the point of these exercises is to continuously improve, and they only way to continuously improve is to be strategic about organizational learning, here is a classic article on what it means to be a learning organization. It was published in 1993, so I like to go back to it to think about why it is so challenging to implement its suggestions.
OK, thanks, I feel so much better. Hoping to see many of you at the CABE/CAPSS conference—I’m co-presenting on Portrait of the Graduate and on Superintendent Coaching. I”ll try to remember to tweet—@IsobelTX. Yours, Isobel