Inquiry Before Accusation: How to Powerfully Deliver Feedback

When I was in 1st grade, I went on a field trip with my class to Dahlonega, GA (this was a big trip for a little girl from the suburbs of Atlanta). My mom sent me off that morning with a few dollars and one rule: Do not spend any money on candy.

I arrived back home that afternoon with a small brown bag in my hands. My mom became upset with me and immediately berated me for buying candy – the exact thing she’d told me not to do. Crying, I handed over the brown bag…

If I were to pinpoint one of the most common leadership development themes I see among my clients, it’s delivering feedback. People hate doing it. People hate receiving it. And like medicine, it can be helpful and make you feel better, or it can taste terrible and not improve the issue. In fact, I once had a manager tell me “Feedback is a gift”. I vehemently disagree. I’ve never been excited to unwrap that box since it’s so rarely been presented in a timely way with careful wrapping and tied with a bow. However, it can be transformative when delivered correctly.
All feedback should be specific, timely, performance-related and supported by examples.

Providing positive feedback can be easy.

Providing negative feedback can make sticking a pen in your eye more appealing.

However, as a leader, it’s not only part of your job, but it’s a necessity for maintaining and growing a thriving team and business.

I often see two extremes (though many leaders do deliver feedback well, and if that’s you, you can stop reading).

1)    The leader who avoids it entirely or glosses over the negative feedback for fear of upsetting someone (or they’re more concerned with being disliked for delivering hard-to-hear information). 


2)    The leader who’s so ego-focused that he’s unable to step outside of his own brain to consider what might be behind the issue.

If you’re like Leader #1, it’s time to put on your big-kid underwear and have a meaningful and impactful conversation to help someone go or grow. And don’t forget to 
acknowledge and validate

If you’re in bucket #2, 
inquire before accusing. Ask your team member regularly how they’re doing. Get specific. “How do you think that meeting yesterday afternoon went?” or “What did you feel you did well and where would you make any changes next time?”. ACKNOWLEDGE AND VALIDATE. Give them a chance to explain first, because 9 times out of 10, THEY ALREADY KNOW THE ISSUE and your job gets much easier because you don’t have to tell them. It creates an opportunity for a meaningful discussion or even better, a coaching conversation. OR, you create space for an explanation that makes total sense, and your feedback is no longer relevant. Do not make assumptions about why someone acted a certain way. Do not bring your own junk into how someone else chooses to behave. Do not assume your way is best.

Now, as for 1
st grade me and the brown bag I’d brought home… to my mom’s surprise, she opened it to find a small blue glass chicken I’d purchased just for her. I thought she’d like it for her jewelry. Boy did she feel bad for, like, ever! Needless to say, she’s not lived that story down (hi mom – aren’t you glad I shared this one with everyone?!).

Before you assume that your team member’s brown bag is full of candy, inquire before you accuse. Provide space for an explanation of what’s happening for them. You never know, there may just be a wonderful surprise inside.

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