Recently, I dropped by a team member’s office for an impromptu conversation that went something like this:
“Hey, can I give you some feedback about something I noticed in staff meeting yesterday?” I asked without preamble.
“Sure,” she said, closing her laptop and giving me her full attention.
“It just seemed as if you were disconnected,” I began. “More than once the team was engaged in brainstorming or even sharing some quite personal information and it seemed as if you weren’t present. You didn’t participate in the conversation, and at one point you even sat back from the table and were doing something else on your phone for quite a long period of time. I felt frustrated, as it sent the message to me that it wasn’t important to you. I really need you as a leader to be present and participate in that time.”
“You are so right,” she immediately agreed. “My mind was completely elsewhere, and I allowed myself to be distracted. I hear what you are saying. Staff meeting is important to me. I won’t let that happen again.”
She went on to explain why she had been distracted that morning, and I responded with understanding and empathy. Then she asked, “While you are here, could I give you some feedback on something that has been making it more challenging for me to participate during staff meeting?”
“Please do,” I replied.
As she had done for me, I gave her my full attention while she identified an area of weakness in the meeting time that I had not previously seen. She then offered some constructive solutions and her help to improve it. I immediately saw that she was right and that her suggestions would both benefit my ability to lead and the team’s experience at staff meeting.
This whole conversation lasted no more than ten minutes, was completely relaxed, and ended with both of us thanking the other for the feedback and help in improving our staff meeting.
What Is Your Goal?
As I left my colleague’s office, I felt a wave of gratitude as I realized, That was so easy. This is how it’s supposed to be. I love being on a team where we want feedback!
While conversations like this have become the norm on our team, making it possible for me to take them for granted, I do not forget what it cost to get here. Every member of our team has had to pay a price to overcome our own fear of vulnerability, feedback, correction, and confrontation—fear born of years of participating in leadership cultures where telling the truth was not safe or wanted.
OneleaderI worked with years ago at another organizationhad a huge struggle with receiving feedback. Though he declared himself open to feedback and asked for input on occasion, whenever someone was brave enough to tell him the truth, he became defensive and retaliatory. His reaction to feedback was so punishing that he hurt relationship after relationship irrevocably, creating a trail of broken bridges in his wake. Anyone who stayed on his team ended up capitulating to a dysfunctional culture of walking on eggshells around him, flattery, gossiping, complaining, manipulation, and all manner of passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive behavior.
Sadly, insecure leaders like this are all too common. They have not overcome the culture of fear in their own hearts, and as a result, their goal is self-protection, not personal growth and connection. As long as self-protection is their goal, they are incapable of creating any kind of safety for the people around them to exchange the truth, build trust, and work as a team.
The challenge for all of us who have been hurt or scared by insecure leaders and unsafe team cultures is that we are in danger of falling into the same trap of making self-protection our goal in relationships. The only way to break out of a fear-driven, insecure, disconnected, dysfunctional style of leadership is to make the brave, powerful choice to pursue the goal of personal growth and connection at all costs—even when it’s scary, uncomfortable, and painful.
What is Your Team’s Goal?
Only when our goal is personal growth and connection can we create a healthy feedback culture in which people fearlessly pursue the exchange of truth. Conversely, the fearless exchange of truth is primary evidence that people have embraced the goal of personal growth and connection!
(NOTE: The Scriptural term for personal growth is wisdom. Whenever I read Proverbs, I am always struck by how often wisdom is tied to being teachable and willing to receive correction. At a quick count, I found 33 verses on that exact topic, including Proverbs 15:31-32: “Accepting constructive criticism opens your heart to the path of life, making you right at home among the wise. Refusing constructive criticism shows that you have no interest in improving your life, for revelation-insight only comes as you accept correction and the wisdom that it brings” (TPT). The primary way we manifest the desire to become wise is that we seek and receive corrective input from others. And the fact that we are designed to grow in wisdom through a relational exchange shows that the goal of growth is inherently tied to the goal of connection.)
The reason I could offer feedback to my colleague—with complete confidence that she would receive it well—is that we have both established a track record of demonstrating that our goal is to strengthen and protect the connections on our team. I trusted that she would care more about learning how her behavior impacted me and the team than about defending herself or shifting blame. Likewise, she trusted me by receiving my feedback, adjusting her behavior to protect our relationship and our common goals for the team—and by giving me feedback in return. She showed that she was more committed to my success as a leader than to fear that I might not receive feedback well.
The benefits of being able to exchange feedback like this aren’t hard to discern. In this scenario, it not only increased trust between me and my colleague and made our relationship stronger, it made both of us more successful in our leadership goals. Being able to tell one another the truth without fear enables us to grow personally in every dimension (none of us can achieve personal growth without feedback!), strengthens trust and connection in our relationships, and facilitates collaboration and problem-solving.
Whether you are a leader trying to build a healthy team or simply a person trying to build a healthy life, establishing a high value for feedback is essential to your success. But the deeper issue to understand is that we won’t be powerful in learning to exchange feedback until we consistently pursue growth and connection over self-protection. This is why it is critical to surround and align ourselves with people who share this goal!
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