The Toblerone Challenge – Providing Feedback

Imagine you have a present for someone in your team; it’s appropriate and needed – it also has the potential to improve someone’s life and make their work more fulfilling.  It is not a 1 metre block of Toblerone ™, but possibly as good! It’s providing someone with something that could be as satisfying as a couple of “peaks” of delicious Swiss chocolate.

Then you suddenly decide to withhold the gift, overcome with concerns about, “Will they like it?” “Are they allergic to chocolate?” “Will they worry that I am wrecking their diet?”!  Ultimately what we are really thinking is, “Will they like me less?” We overthink and deny the person the gift, we lose an opportunity.

The gift is feedback, data which provides the opportunity to grow. Although the data may challenge them and provide the raw material to become better able to contribute to the team’s work, we vacillate or avoid. Why, when our gift is necessary, do we not provide effective feedback?

Frankly, a lot of our reticence to have the difficult conversation is influenced by concerns about causing offence.  Understandable as in some current corporate cultures sensibilities often trump the need to be an adaptive leader and use “the loving boot” to develop individuals, teams and individuals as high performers.

How does this situation help the “leader as coach”? Thought leaders like Ian Day and John Blakey, executive coaches and authors of a guide book on applying challenge in coaching staff, propose a challenging approach. [1] These two experts state: Traditional coaching has a tendency towards support but in an organizational context you need more than just a strong relationship – you also need challenge to create sustained change in the individual and the organization.

How do we, as leaders, become comfortable with presenting a “challenge” and moving the conversation to a place where we learn? It has become a bit of a cliché that we learn through discomfort, realistically that’s where we grow.

A lot has to do with our own comfort with giving feedback. There are many techniques and approaches and this is what I have learned; indulge me as I share with you.

  1. The prospect of potentially hurting someone’s feelings and the consequent impact on how you are perceived will make a superhero baulk! It will evoke an emotional response… What do you do?
  2. Recognise the emotion and understand what is creating it. Good old EQ, RUUM[2]
  3. Listen to the thoughts that bounce around in your head, many of which will be about avoiding and choose(or create) a thought that pushes you forward
  4. This may require reframing, which is the whole concept of the gift. You can look at the possibilities for the future that the conversation will create. It is not bad, just difficult!
  5. Understand and even accept there is likely to be tension; people will “personalise” the feedback. Think of the feedback systemically, starting with the situation in which you are working, the contribution being made by the negativity. Perhaps avoid the worst performance question EVER, “So, how do you think you/things/work is/are going?” Be focussed with the feedback:

    “I have noticed that since I spoke to you a fortnight ago about how disruptive to the team gossip was, you have ceased greeting team members. I am concerned that this is divisive attitude at a time when the team needs to be tight and united. We all need to trust one another.

    We need to work through this and I know we are both able to have a productive conversation to find the way ahead.”

  6. Prepare for the conversation … Having the data that illustrates the observation you have made will keep the focus on the situation
  7. Recognise that the conversation is about performance and congruence with team values.
    [If you are on Linked-In I recommend a couple of posts by Dr Cameron Sepah [3]]
  8. Work through the issues as a way of improving the “situation” – avoid trying to “fix” someone!
  9. Make a binding agreement; ladies and gentlemen it’s about the relationship!

Some tips for feedback by Day and Blakely:

  • Be honest, be factual, demonstrate trust in the ability of the other – it will help the other person take the feedback in the right way
  • Treat the person as a High Performer who is capable and robust enough to engage in the conversation… this about being adult, an adult-adult conversation not adult-child or worse child-child!
  • Feedback is about data, not a personal attack! Invite the person to whom you are speaking to view it this way. As if you were working improving the business as a focussed team – as high performers would!
  • Build a mutual approach to the improvement goal by asking:
    • How committed am I to the goal?
    • Am I making progress towards the goal?
  • Trust is important, progress and positive change reinforces trust

Be careful out there, and lead!

The Support/Challenge Matrix

As applied to a possibly difficult situation:

[1] Ian Day, Changing The World One Conversation At A Time Through Executive Coaching;

John Blakey – Helping CEOs step up to a bigger, braver role in the world to transform the triple bottom line
Ian Day & John Blakey – Challenging Coaching – Going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS

[2] EQ: Recognise the emotion; Understand what is creating it; Use it constructively (use cognitive skills to make a relevant decision), BUanage the emotion to have the greatest positive impact


1 Comment

  1. Anonymous on November 2, 2017 at 6:12 pm

    David, as always, your insights are perceptive and constructive. The ogre that is ‘ the difficult conversation’ seems to be the perennial elephant we wish we could avoid! Thank you for your timely scaffolding.