When my twin brother and I were about 13 years old, we both tried playing the cornet. After 6 months of practice and many painful renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on this trumpet-like instrument, our music teacher finally pulled us aside.
“Look,” he told us firmly yet kindly. “You guys are both very talented basketball players; you have a bright future there. I’d recommend you focus on that.”
Honestly, we were relieved by our teacher’s good advice, and we took it. We also learned an important lesson in the process: feedback is a gift. And even though they never said it, our parents — who had listened to us screech through our lessons for half a year — were probably even more relieved.
At CCL, the art of feedback is at the core of our work. As we remind all the clients we are privileged to serve, feedback is a 2-way street. We must know how to receive it and how to give it. They’re both equally important to reaching our full potential as leaders.
We all love positive feedback — critical feedback is tougher, and there are 2 key principles for receiving it. First, listen and say thank you. This is easy to do when someone’s telling us something we want to hear — like drop your instrument and run to the gym. It’s a lot tougher when your boss says that new business strategy that took 6 weeks to develop is flawed, when an employee says you’re a poor listener, or when your spouse says you don’t spend enough time with the family.
That’s when we need Part 2 — reflecting on the feedback and getting second opinions. My brother and I didn’t need anyone to confirm that we stunk as cornet players. But most situations aren’t usually so clear. When receiving critical feedback, our initial instinct is often to dismiss it instantly. That’s the wrong move, especially when it’s from a credible source.
Instead, take a few minutes, or perhaps considerably longer, to ponder it. Then go to a trusted family member, colleague, or mentor and say, “Hey, the head of one of our biggest business lines told me I act like a jerk when I get impatient, and it’s hurting morale. Is there anything to that?”
There probably is. Sometimes, people have their own agendas and offer feedback that isn’t constructive. But most times, if somebody makes an effort to point out a shortcoming, there’s a reason for it. Don’t run from it.
Giving feedback isn’t any easier. That was something I learned while helping train pilots in the U.S. Navy. Landing a plane is risky, particularly on an aircraft carrier, and when you’re learning how to do it, you work hard on getting the correct glide slope — the right speed and lineup that allows you to land correctly and in the center of the runway.
When you’re teaching a younger pilot how to do this, you’re constantly giving feedback. How it’s delivered makes a world of difference. If you tell them exactly how to land the plane (and sometimes, fearing for your life, you want to), that’s micro-managing. Nobody really learns that way. But if you don’t offer enough feedback in the moment, accidents happen. That’s not helpful either.
Pilots can drift off center as they’re descending, sometimes so much that you need to wave off their landing completely and try again, other times enough that they can straighten out in time. As leaders in any role, that’s a key part of our job — alerting our people when they are dangerously off course or when they are starting to drift but can still get back in alignment. If we do it well, pilots — and people in general — will learn to make adjustments on their own. And that is the definition of feedback done well.
Our guidebook Giving Feedback to Subordinates offers a checklist for how to give good, corrective feedback, and it’s worth referencing several of the tips here:
- Give feedback frequently and in the moment if possible.
- Keep it simple.
- Deliver it privately.
- Describe the behavior that needs correcting.
- Communicate the impact of the behavior.
- Offer suggestions for changing it.
- Invoke individuals’ strengths as part of these suggestions.
- Catch people “doing things right.”
Feedback, unlike the cornet in my case, is something everyone can improve on. As our guidebook notes, “practice makes permanent.” And the beauty of feedback is that we have opportunities every single day to give and receive it at work and at home. The payoff can be life-changing for those around us and our organizations — and even more so for ourselves.
This column is one of several that CCL President and CEO John Ryan has written on leadership as a LinkedIn Influencer.