I have gone backwards and forwards on whether to share this, and even as I’m typing it I’m pretty sure I’m going to go back and delete it. So, if you’re reading this? I’m really leaning into one of TDP’s values and being [for want of more professional language] accountable AF. I am going to tell you about one of the biggest leadership fails of my working life, and how it’s been at the centre of my commitment to fostering feedback culture at TDP.
In my very early days at TDP, when we were just a handful of colourfully-clad staff, rattling around in the [then] too-big TDP offices, we had an employee who wasn’t performing as we’d hoped. This person was a great cultural fit, highly capable and smart, but it was clear – to us, at least – that this was not the right role for them.
While we would flag mistakes, ask for increased pace and chase overdue work, it was always so peppered with apology, with qualifying language and encased in compliments, that in retrospect, that person probably thought that bar a few teething issues, they were nailing it.
You see, we were a tiny business with only a few staff, and we thought of ourselves as being defined by our kindness. It is only now, with the benefit of years under our belts, many more staff to manage and a lot of personal and professional development that I realise how wrong we were getting it.
While we may have been committed to “niceness”, we were also aware that continuing with a bad fit is not just cruel to that person, but to the whole team. With this in mind, we made the very tough but necessary decision to not continue beyond probation. When we rolled into the boardroom that day, feeling sick with guilt but resolved to do what we knew we must, we genuinely believed that this would not come as a shock to our employee. We were wrong. Somehow, we’d managed to get almost three months in without ever giving enough direct feedback to indicate that we might have a problem. Even recalling this now makes me feel so much guilt and discomfort that I feel like deleting this blog and starting over. But I won’t. Because learning from these epic fails, and sitting with this kind of discomfort is what makes us better people and [hopefully] much better leaders.
I’ve screwed up, so you don’t have to. Here are my biggest learnings about feedback culture, and the importance of it at TDP.
“Clear is Kind”
Almost two years after we let that employee go, I attended the incredible Of Kin, Dare to Lead workshop by Brene Brown. I am not going to even try to cover how much I learned over those days, but I will say that the incredibly simple mantra of “clear is kind” has stuck with me in such a significant way. I love the way it’s slap-in-the-face-obvious while also being a complete revelation. Because of course clear is kind, but I think the thing that got me was the flipside of this: not only is clear kind, but unclear is actively unkind. So many of us approach our relationships [personal and professional] with the misconception that offering negative feedback is mean-spirited. I would say that in most cases, it’s the exact opposite. Imagine how safe we would all feel if we knew that every interaction we had was constructive and honest – that nobody was ever harbouring unsaid resentments towards us? Offering that up seems generous, to me.
I’d like to think that I’d already grown a lot as a leader by the time I sat down for that two day workshop at the beginning of 2020. My role had grown and changed, and so had I [quite literally – I was still on maternity leave at the time, having just been through the very humbling experience of birthing my first baby] and I had reflected on that particular management failure a lot in the intervening years. These days, I have “clear is kind” scrawled on a post-it note on my computer, and it’s become a sort of talisman for when I’m heading into challenging conversations or for when I’m at a loss as to how to approach something. If in doubt? Clear is kind.
There’s no accountability without feedback culture
We bang on about values a lot around here, but as we’ve said, there’s absolutely no point in even having values if you don’t practice what you preach. For us to foster a culture of true accountability, well… there had to be something to be accountable for. If we weren’t feeding back when something wasn’t done correctly, how could we possibly expect anybody to be accountable for fixing mistakes or improving at all? By withholding feedback, we’re not just denying the opportunity for accountability, but for growth, too, because…
Where there’s no feedback, there’s no growth
It sounds obvious, of course, but I think we sometimes forget this when we’re withholding feedback to spare feelings. Or maybe we know, deep-down, but prefer to tell ourselves that preserving the sensibilities of others is our real motivation, rather than our own discomfort. Either way, being frugal with feedback in a professional setting is tantamount to denying your employees any other types of professional development. Because regardless of qualifications or courses, nothing promotes growth more than the mentorship and guidance of our managers and peers. Which brings me to my next point.
Not all feedback is created equal
I once worked in a very toxic workplace, a very long time ago, where the manager used to bitch about members of her team [topics ranged from performance to outfit choices to personal hygiene]. The abuse was mostly behind their backs but sometimes to their faces. The worst example of this was during a big event we were running when the manager turned to a junior member of staff and said [in front of a lot of people] “just a bit of feedback…” [uh oh] “but maybe you need to put some more deodorant on”. I watched this poor woman crumble in total shame. In case it isn’t obvious, this is not feedback [there’s a word for what this is, but I’m trying to keep this a little bit profesh].
I have seen many poor behaviours dressed up as “feedback” over the years, and honestly I think that’s where the concept of feedback gets such a bad wrap. Constructive feedback is an opportunity to give an honest opinion and should not [ever] be personal, rude or delivered in an inappropriate setting.
I think the other thing people forget about feedback is that positive feedback is just as important as negative, and in fact, one doesn’t really work without the other. Praise is great and all, but it means less and less if it’s given out exclusively and insincerely. Equally, negative feedback quickly builds resentment if it’s delivered endlessly and with no constructive solutions offered.
Don’t shy away from the “F” word
At TDP, we don’t just offer feedback, but also talk about it freely. Feedback isn’t a dirty word around here. We recognise it for what it is – an act of courage and generosity, given and received in the spirit it is intended – a chance for growth and shared trust.
For me? My commitment to feedback culture means that I haven’t made that early mistake again. I can head into difficult conversations with the knowledge that real kindness comes from honesty. What does feedback mean to you? Please let me know in the comments!