5 Tips for Giving Tough Feedback to Executives

Beware the vacuum of truth. Candid feedback is rare, but essential for executives to succeed.

There’s a phenomenon that occurs as executives work their way to the top: No one tells them the truth anymore.

two-businessmen-talking-happilyAs leaders gain more authority, people around them become increasingly reluctant to disagree or share negative feedback, for fear of running afoul with the boss, or worse, harming their own or others’ careers. Furthermore, as executives face high-stakes decisions, they often develop aversions to hearing negative feedback as it could represent new, unfamiliar risks and challenges. Staying true to a steady course forward often feels preferable to pivoting to a different one, particularly when the new path is unclear. The result, sadly, is what characterizes most organizations: People avoid giving candid feedback, and executives avoid seeking it out.

A vicious cycle ensues that robs the organization of candor and objectivity. We call it the vacuum of truth. All too frequently, executives operate without full knowledge of their own negative behavior patterns, or the impact they are having on people and initiatives. At times the consequences are fairly minor, leaving individual and team performance sub-optimized. In others, disaster strikes and the executive fully derails, key players jump ship to find better bosses, and critical organizational efforts fail.

This vacuum of truth is not the product of any malintent. Most are simply seeking the path of least resistance. But the absence of candor creates tremendous waste as executives change course too late, initiatives falter, and key players turn over.  To avoid the waste, executives need coaching, and lots of it. Executive coaches (both professional and informal) play a powerful role in offering real-time feedback that fuels success, rather than causing friction. Here are five strategies for coaches to provide the kind of feedback that executives need and want:

Don’t Just Deliver a Message – Generate Insight

Let’s start with a more traditional, formal coaching scenario and illustrate what not to do. Most coaches start a feedback session by summarizing information about the executive – career history, performance trends, personality data, input from peers, assessment results, etc. – to find ways to explain why the leader may be experiencing their current challenges. The typical outcome? Most of the time, the leader will agree, or at least acquiesce. But agreement isn’t the goal. New insight is.

If you’re the coach, acceptance of your well-reasoned conclusions might feel like success in the moment, but acceptance falls far short of catalyzing action. A key point: An insight is not an insight until it happens in the mind of the person being coached. What’s needed is a different way to discuss the coach’s input and a more intentional method of involving the executive in shaping conclusions. This means bringing a business-relevant perspective and being prepared to amend it with another’s insights. A coach’s conclusions are far more likely to create insight—and energy for change—if they are prepared and positioned as hypotheses that the feedback coach and leader will test, debate, and refine together. 

Get Out of the Past and into the Future

Feedback often fails to have impact because it overemphasizes the past. “You were too informal and unstructured in that board presentation. You lost credibility, causing the chairman to question whether we’ve made the right investments. I’d like you to work on your presentation style.” This is obviously important feedback, but could easily deflate confidence, particularly if there is already insecurity about the issue. Furthermore, it offers little guidance about how to change for the future.

While it may be necessary to reference past events and actions, it’s far more optimistic and effective to shift focus to new behaviors and their likely impact in future situations. Feedback will have more positive developmental impact if balanced with a description of what, specifically, good performance looks like and a discussion of the positive impact of change. An alternative approach: “Influencing our board is crucial, and I’m going to need your help to be stronger in your presentations. Next time, I’d like to see you adjust your informal style to be more confident and fact-based. I can see you being highly influential in this setting, but it will mean adopting a more poised and formal approach.”

Business First, Then Back to the Personal

Feedback coaches gain trust more readily when they demonstrate that they are first seeking to understand the business and the participant’s role in it. An early exchange about current role focus, pressing business challenges, future aspirations, and self-perception of strengths and weaknesses allows individuals to feel heard and recognized as unique. This tailors the feedback to the leader and also equips the coach to anticipate reactions. It also helps the coach gauge how to best package messages for maximum insight and influence, and in turn clearly tie results to future implications for success or failure.

Be Very Specific

It’s one thing to understand a leadership skill like leading change or strategic influence, but quite another to know precisely what actions to take to become better at them. In my experience, most coaches believe they provide very specific guidance. Few actually do.

For example, it’s easy to recommend that an executive needs to generally get better at leading change. But specifically, what behaviors does the executive need to change? Were they too quick to dismiss ideas for change in meetings? Did they fail to communicate support to the team during a critical change? When it comes to feedback, generalities are the enemy because they obscure the path forward. Energy and forward momentum build when the leader is able to pinpoint the specific behaviors that will improve effectiveness, envision what it will look like when these behaviors are applied, and observe progress as they work through new challenges.

Don’t Run from Tension

The truth is, accurate feedback delivered effectively strengthens relationships and performance. Feedback can create anxiety for both you and the executive receiving it. So, it can feel like a break-though, and even cathartic to both parties to surface and discuss all perspectives and opinions (including those that are controversial and unpopular), and arrive at the real truth about the individual. But be careful. While dispatching the tensions associated with finding the truth about the executive, it is important to remain focused on a healthy and optimistic tension between the leader and the future. Once a feedback conversation has arrived at the peaceful moment of clarity about the leader’s capabilities, it is essential to turn immediately to building a case for why change is valuable, for the business and personally. Building tension should be coupled with building confidence. Even executives need someone to believe in them.

Moving Ahead                                                                                                                                               

By the end of a great feedback session (or conversation), the coach and executive will have, together, reframed what great leadership will look like in future situations. Rather than feeling like the executive merely survived taking criticism, feedback handled the right way should generate a sense of excitement, optimism, and measured concern about what it will take to continue down the path of success.

And the executive will want more of it.

Matt Paese

Matt Paese

Matt Paese, Ph.D., is senior vice president of executive services at global leadership consulting firm DDI where he works with companies across a range of industries to assess, develop, and coach their executives.

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