Leadership Means Speaking Up

I know it sounds like a cliché but if you can’t say what you mean, you can’t mean what you say. To be a leader means to be clear with your expectations and feedback. You need to communicate in a way that doesn’t leave room for guessing. As I wrote in this article one of the most difficult things in management is to do no harm to the people we lead. We are hurting our teams without realizing it by withholding feedback, being too nice, and not being clear with our expectations.

You need to provide feedback

Feedback is critically important aspect of good leadership. You need to be able to listen to feedback on your own performance and decisions to build credibility and improve in the future. And you need to be able to give feedback to others to make sure they focus on the right things, produce at the top of their capabilities, and grow as human beings. You need to provide feedback in a way that won’t create an impression that you are questions their competence and that you are not confident in their ability to get things done. At the same time you need to be crystal clear in your message so it is received the way you intended.

You need to show that you care

For others to truly listen to your feedback they need to believe that you are on their side. They need to feel that you are providing the feedback because you care about them as human beings and you want to help. If they believe that you are just trying to demean them, put them down, or show off your ego, then your advice won’t be accepted regardless of the feedback approach you use.

You sometimes hear from managers “it’s business, nothing personal”, but that is a delusion. The moment you touch someone’s life of course it gets personal. As a manager you need to realize that and be able to connect at the emotional level.

You need to challenge

As a boss it is your responsibility to let others know what their business goal is and to challenge them if you feel they are not performing or not going in the right direction. Not addressing obvious performance issues is the most common mistake managers do. Even experienced managers often prefer not to say anything when they see a problem rather than addressing it directly. Why? There are various reasons but the most common ones are the fear of damaging relationships, spoiling the atmosphere in the team or becoming unpopular.

Radical Candor framework

Kim Scott came up with a nice framework she calls Radical Candor. The idea is anchored around the concept of Caring Personally and Challenging Directly. When people believe you care about them personally, they will accept a very direct candid feedback from you and will be more willing to act on it. They will be also more ready to provide similar candid feedback to you and even to each other. They will ultimately feel valued as human beings which will help their motivation and performance.

Kim Scott talks about what happens when one or both of these dimension are lacking. When you provide feedback directly to someone without caring about them, your guidance feels obnoxious and aggressive. It may work sometimes but ultimately this makes you a jerk and it won’t work long-term.

The worst example is when you don’t care about others and don’t challenge them directly at all. This usually happens when you just want to be liked and you don’t care whether the job gets done or the other person gets better. You can always blame them behind their backs, right? This approach is manipulative and insincere and shows that you care only about your own well being and nothing else. You are failing miserable as a manager.

The last example are situations where you actually do care about the person but are afraid or unwilling to provide direct feedback. You are so worried about short-term discomfort the feedback would bring that you rather keep quiet and exchange it for long-term suffering. You can see it on examples of parents who love their children so much that they are unwilling to discipline them when they do something wrong. As a natural consequence the kids don’t even know they are doing something they shouldn’t and thus never get better.

You need to be responsible

Leadership means being responsible. And being responsible means that you do the right thing even though it may make you unpopular and make people angry. In fact, if no one is ever angry with you, chances are you don’t challenge them enough. You might be a people pleaser and not a leader.

I will adapt an anecdote from Kim Scott’s work about training dogs. What do you do when you want your dog to obey? Do you endlessly explain that it is in their best interest to sit on our command and how to do it? No, you provide a simple command that is not prone to interpretation “sit!” As Kim says, the command “is not mean, it is clear”.

 

What are your thoughts on responsibilities of a leader when it comes to providing feedback and clarity? Would you take the risk to hurt someone’s feelings if the reward would be the person gets better? Or do you think there are better ways to do this?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.