Meaningful Feedback Conversations

As part of our leadership talent development program at Pure Storage, Laura from Bi-Jingo, LTD gave us a few Performance Based Training sessions on Meaningful Check-ins and Feedback Conversations (I can highly recommend these). To open the class, Laura asked the managers in the room to raise their hands if they cringe at the thought of having a feedback conversation with an employee that holds upward aspirations but is actually challenged in some areas. As all the hands went up, I reluctantly raised mine as well. I was actually lying by doing so. I may seem a bit of a sick puppy in that I actually enjoy those conversations tremendously.

Key take-away if we hope to be high-impact managers:

In the four scenarios we worked through in separate groups, there was an employee that showed promise, had high aspirations and expectations but was also faced with challenges that prevented them from operating at the level they saw themselves.
I later pondered, if, as managers, we cringe at the thought of telling an employee they have some challenges that are preventing them from actually performing at the level where they see themselves, then perhaps it is us that are not performing as the high-impact managers we’d like to believe we are. Should we not relish these opportunities?

Bi-Jingo

I feel these tough conversations are one of many opportunities for us, as managers, to take on a challenge and have an impact and leave an employee empowered and excited to overcome and obstacle that’s preventing them from performing at the next level. When we approach these conversations from the perspective of having discovered an opportunity to help our employee, we can enter the conversation with an optimistic mindset that may help the recipient be less defensive and more receptive to feedback delivered more graciously.

When we interview engineers, we strive to get them out of their comfort zone by presenting them with problems they haven’t seen before by going on variations until we find something that they’re entirely unfamiliar with. Why, because we solve hard problems and we want to hire engineers who love the challenge of solving really hard problems in innovative ways. If they are exhausted at the end of a day of really tough questions, then this is probably not the right place for them. If, on the other hand, they are fired up and excited at the opportunity to stretch the limits of their problem solving skills to come up with the best possible solutions for our customers, then they’ve come to the right place.

Similarly for managers; we want managers that love challenges. I’m not saying we have incredibly difficult engineers that pose challenges unlike any manager has seen before 😉 No, I’m saying we want to hire and promote managers that are up to the challenge of taking talent that’s already top-notch and finding ways to inspire and challenge them to be even better at innovating, collaborating, solving tough problems and growing past limits that were only imagined.

As we continue to grow, this includes hiring trainers and bringing in teams like Laura’s to expand our manager tool-set for meeting such challenges. Managers are learning not only be able to use radical candor (an often necessary approach to getting the message across) but discovering a love and passion for working through challenges as we see the positive impact that can have when leveraged appropriately. Kim Scott, executive coach and author of Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity believes it’s about caring personally about the person you’re delivering feedback to. In a recent coaching/mentoring conversation, I was asked if saying things positively just comes naturally. I believe it comes from a place of genuinely having good intent to help the person we’re delivering feedback to. Just as I described in Where to Begin the Journey, I believe that if you don’t have that intention, people will know it. It will help to genuinely state your intention to be helpful; this is a premise that both Scott and Grant underscore. Scott also advises us to be humble as we may be wrong in what we perceived as an issue. Ray Dalio also underscores the cornerstone values of “radical truth” and “radical transparency” in Principles – Life and Work.

One other things to keep in mind if any employees performance has changed is that there may be other influences at work that can both affect their performance and any feedback conversations. As such it may also be of value to ask open-ended questions that could help you root cause what other vector may be at play – see Vectors of Influence.

As managers, we should strive to find opportunities to dish out constructive criticism in such a way that our employees not only internalize it as inspiration to do more but actually seek out and crave that kind of criticism. Much as employees have learned to love criticism at Bridgewater according to Adam Grant. Or love to foster creativity as it’s done on the Daily Show by not fearing criticism; we should strive for the same.

Naturally, not every approach works with everyone in every situation. We strive to build relationships of trust and understanding so that we have the context to customize the interactions to the best outcome. Likewise, we need to navigate each situation according what we discover works in that specific conversation for we may not be conscious of the impact of something that may have transpired at home before work that day for us or our employee that completely changes the frame of mind we each bring into the conversation. As Steven Covey described with the man on the subway in his 7 Habits book, we shouldn’t assume we are aware of all the factors influencing someone else’s behavior.

We strive to hire 10x engineers who love challenges and foster an environment to grow great engineers into phenomenal engineers to become and remain 10x engineers by being 10x managers that also love the challenges of working on various fronts to keep us being a 10x business. So, if I’m a sick puppy because I love by engaging in challenging conversations, then I have found a good home where transparency and challenges are sought out.

Intent vs Impact

In an ally training at work, we were asked some hypothetical questions. One of them was” “If someone were you approach you and say to your face: ‘You are a racist and a bigot!’ how would you feel?” The visceral reaction is of course one of defensiveness. The idea was for us to empathize with someone we might call out. I came up with a reframing of “I’d like to help you understand what you just said could be heard as racist.” This can help initiate a shift from defensiveness to curiosity, It is a shift from head on confronting them by implying we know another person’s intent when they do or say things to standing next to them and considering the possible impact on others. Regardless of whatever the actual intent may be, this is more likely to allow for a constructive conversation.

The other kind of “Impact” that can be helpful here is helping the other person appreciate the positive impact a change can have on their effectiveness and career.

This can apply in many situations including the workplace. When addressing an issue at work, it can be very different to stand shoulder to shoulder with an employee when looking at a bad outcome from the perspective of together let’s figure out what went wrong to help avoid it in the future – seeing it as an opportunity. This is more likely to initiate a productive conversation that a face-to-face, finger pointing confrontation a la “you messed up!”

Nose to Nose or Shoulder to Shoulder 2
Face-to-Face vs Shoulder-to-Shoulder

As stated above, our intent of being helpful is crucial in allowing others to receive. As humans, our egos have us shut down to feedback and go into defensive or denial mode when we feel attacked. There’s a great TED talk on delivering a receiving criticism as a good thing that challenges us to be better: Adam Grant – WorkLife: How to love criticism.

The Power of “Yet”

Imagine receiving feedback of “you’re not good at giving presentations”, “you’re no expert at running meetings”, “you’re not manager material”, … That phrasing is most likely deflating, taken as criticism, and taken personally. If, however, a slightly altered message it delivered: “you’re not good at giving presentations yet”, “you’re no expert at running meetings yet”, “you’re not manager material yet”, … It can evoke a curiosity as to what’s missing and the impact is lessened and the intent can now be easily framed as helpful. Again, solving a problem or making an improvement is better done in shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration than in face-to-face confrontation.

We’ve since invited Bi-Jingo back a few times to have more classes with actors acting out being the employee receiving feedback and not quite hearing it as exercises for our managers, and everyone has found it to be a very effective way to work through improving on such conversations.

See Also:


Coz Journey Message IMG-1885 cropped

“As we all go through our journey at Pure, remember that we are evolving and changing.
We will never reach perfection, but we should always be striving to do better.
This concept of evolution and change is something that we have incorporated into our company values in
everything you should be asking yourself:
Is there a better way? Can we improve this?
Great ideas for improvement come from all of us. Never be satisfied with the way everyone else has done it. Be satisfied with the right way, the best way and please drive that spirit into everything we do.”

– Coz – Founder and CTO, Pure Storage, Inc.

P.S. Laura from Bi-Jingo in opening, also mentioned a study that showed managers could have a 39% impact on employee productivity through meaningful conversations. I found the study Managing for High Performance and Retention An HR Toolkit for Supporting the Line Manager which pulled from Datasets with more than 90,000 employees from 135 organizations supported the analyses presented with that report. While I do believe there can be very substantial impact on employee performance through good management, I am skeptical the causality could be isolated and measured that precisely. It’s an interesting read nonetheless.
Managers Drive Employee Performance and Retention

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