At social parties, people often ask me what I do for a living? I typically respond, “I teach people to be nice. I teach people to use their uncommon common sense. I teach people to treat others the way they would like to be treated.” I have fielded some rather strange reactions over the years. My mentor, Ross Reishus, told me many years ago, “John, your job description as a leadership adviser is quite simple. You get paid to step on other people’s toes. You get paid to tell others what they do not want to hear.”
After presenting at leadership conferences, I often ask the audience for questions. Easily the most often asked question is, “Why don’t employees accept criticism?” Employees often resist depending upon how the criticism is delivered and the timing of when the criticism is delivered. If there is ever a surprise during a performance review, whose fault is that? The leaders, of course! Providing feedback is an ongoing process and not an act to be done occasionally. An HR professional told me many years ago, “A performance review is a review of all ongoing feedback. If there is ever a surprise, the leader is not doing their job.” Suppose you, as an employee, ever heard feedback during a performance review of a developmental opportunity. In that case, you’d likely ask yourself or the boss, “Why am I hearing about this now as opposed to when it happened last month?”
The importance of delivering feedback and the timing rests in the old spinach story. How many of you have ever had the unfortunate experience of having spinach wedged in between your teeth? If that happened, wouldn’t you want someone to tell you? If no one said anything, then later in the day, you see yourself in the restroom mirror; what do you instantly begin to think? “Why didn’t someone tell me!” People want to know how they are doing. Don’t forget; some employees like to hear how they are doing more often than others. Not everyone was raised in your house.
Last week, an operations manager requested an opportunity to follow up with me on the progress of one of his leaders I had been asked to coach. During our conversation, he noted that the leader needed to make himself more available to the team and treat them with dignity and respect. Let’s just say he provided me with a whole buffet of learning opportunities. I then asked the Operations Manager, “Have you specifically brought these to the attention of your leader in the same manner you have presented them to me today?” There was an awkward silence for what seemed like 10 seconds. He then muttered, “I have been really busy.” I then asked if he had an open mind and he responded, “Yes.” By not letting your leader know how they are doing, you are now a part of the problem. Your silence on your leader’s developmental opportunities has communicated agreement. I advised him to apologize to his leader for not fulfilling his responsibilities as a leader. As I hung up the phone, I was reminded of an old story I tell leaders during my training classes and keynotes.
Have you ever heard the story about the two guys running from a bear? One of them started putting on his running shoes. The other one shouted, “No use putting on those shoes. There is no way you are going to outrun that bear.” The other shouted back, “I don’t have to outrun the bear; all I have to do is outrun you!” I firmly believe that effective leaders need to share the credit with their employees when things go well, but they also must step up to the plate and accept the blame when employees do not perform as expected. Yes, leaders need to take a bullet like a secret service agent would for the President!