How you make your people feel can make or break your results.
As a tech company co-founder, Tom needed his team to be more than good; he needed his direct reports, all VPs, to be his eyes on the ground, see the issues and opportunities he can’t, and take the business further than he and his partner ever could alone.
His Head of Engineering, Sarah, was a particular concern for him.
Tom knew she could do better. Her team met their goals, but there was no stretch.
To hit their 5-year targets, Tom needed Sarah to show up as the powerhouse he knew she was. That’s why he’d hired her for the role in the first place!
Tom met with Sarah regularly, determined to see her improve.
“You’re doing great,” he’d say, “but…”
That’s how all their conversations started: [Insert positive comment here], BUT…
The moment she heard “but”, Sarah would immediately tune him out, start checking her Slack, or even just stare at the wall.
Tom couldn’t figure out what was going wrong. He was offering the kind of 360 feedback that had gotten him to where he wanted to be. But he was getting the opposite result with Sarah: the more he squared up for “difficult conversations,” the more defensive Sarah got.
(Hint: What works for you may not work for your people. Part of communicating effectively with your team, colleagues, and other stakeholders is knowing how they prefer to communicate. I’ll come back to this in a future article.)
By the time he brought their meetings to my attention, Tom described Sarah as defensive, unable to take any feedback and hyper-critical of his approach, to boot. She undermined him in cross-functional meetings, and shot down his suggestions.
Tom didn’t see it at the time, but something about Sarah triggered him, and she reacted right back. Her defensiveness and lack of application of the feedback could have ended in a confrontation, even termination.
Instead—with the support of his powerful executive coach (me)—Tom could pause and reflect.
“How do you feel when someone gives you a compliment and adds “but” to the end of the sentence?” I mirrored back to him how he was showing up with Sarah.
Light dawned as he repeated the word that was torpedoing his efforts to connect with Sarah: “But….”
We talked about how that single word basically invalidates anything that precedes it. So Tom’s attempt to frame his constructive feedback with positive reinforcement was getting lost in translation. Worse than that, it was making Sarah even more defensive and prickly in their interactions.
I asked Tom what he wanted out of the talks with Sarah.
“I want her to get it, to see where I’m coming from.”
I nodded. “That makes sense… What do you want, ultimately—beyond that. For Sarah… For your company…?” It was important for us to take a step back here and see the bigger picture, beyond his goal to his aspiration. (More on that here.)
It emerged that what Tom truly wanted was for Sarah to feel confident and empowered as a leader in her own right. He wantedd to foster a culture where his reports would deliver more than consistent results; he wanted his leaders to come to him with innovations and opportunities, without his having to guide or prompt them every step of the way.
By focusing on what he aspired to for his company, Tom could change his whole approach to the conversations with Sarah—and how he made her feel.
Next time he met with Sarah, instead of starting with criticism, Tom said, “You knocked that one out of the park.” He explained in further detail what he really valued about Sarah’s recent performance on a high profile project.
Then he bit his tongue and waited. You could have heard a pin drop in the shocked silence that followed, as Sarah’s eyebrows flew up and she waited for a “but” that never arrived.
“Let’s talk about how we can get you to the next level,” Tom finished.
The moment he let go of trying to get Sarah to see his point of view, and instead turned his attention to improving the relationship… Everything changed.
Sarah no longer felt attacked. She began to see Tom as a mentor more than her “boss”—so they started having the frank, productive conversations Tom had wanted from the start.
Tom’s default communication style had previously been to look back and focus on what wasn’t working. Now, he was looking forward—focusing on nurturing the relationship. That opened up possibilities not only with Sarah, but across the company.
Within weeks, he’d realized his true aspiration with Sarah, putting her on a high-potential development path that would magnify her positive impact. In the months followingher team hit their stretch goals every quarter—and Sarah was bringing him ideas and possibilities he never would have considered on his own.
Here’s how to put this into practice in YOUR work:
What if, in every meeting you attend over the next few days, you focus on how you want to make others feel, rather than the desired outcome.
Experiment. And see what happens.
This practice sets the tone for powerful, productive relationships. Which have more potential to change performance than anything else.
That takes you from “these actions are how we’ll achieve this goal” to “these people are how we’ll achieve this goal.”
Putting relationships FIRST enhances the deliverables. (Not the other way around).
As a leader with this mindset, you unleash your team’s creativity, and with it, their optimal effectiveness and success.
That’s how they can show you the path to achieve MORE than your goal.
At full potential, your team will always get you there, just not always in the way you expect. If that’s not happening, let’s get to the bottom of why. Schedule your complimentary discovery call with one of our coaches.