Are You Being Brutally Honest?

Recently, I was taking an Executive Team through the Knightsbridge Team Inoculation Process. This is a four module process that helps teams fix underlying issues and then sustain high performance. In advance of the third module, my colleague and I had conducted interviews with the members of the team to understand what issues they wanted to tackle during the session.

I was standing in their boardroom, looking at their comments projected on the screen when one comment really struck me. One of the team members had said that they hoped that through the session the team could to learn to be “brutally honest” with one another. There it was…right in front of me. In their minds, conflict was “brutal.” Now you have to understand that this is a team of some of the nicest human beings I have ever worked with. These are people who are committed to their very important work of caring for some of the most fragile people in our society (they work in healthcare).  I understood immediately the key to why the team was struggling to master conflict: They were thinking of feedback, candor, and authenticity as brutal.

Healthy, productive teams believe that feedback is precious…and that it is helpful. In stark contrast to people who believe it’s “not nice” to say something negative about a person, good teammates believe that it’s not nice to see someone go off the rails and NOT to say something. The most important thing is your intent in giving feedback and how you deliver the feedback to optimize the impact.

Intent: When you see a teammate do something that you believe is harmful (to themself or to the team), your mindset needs to be one of assistance. “I don’t know if she realizes how that came across, I should help her understand how it sounded.” “I would want someone to tell me if I was in the same situation.” It’s also important not to catastrophize. Your mindset should be positive and supportive.

Impact: It is not enough to have a positive intent.  You have to think about how to deliver your feedback so that it lands positively. Frame your feedback by talking about the situation. Use specific, behavioral observations not judgments, and then share the impact you think the behavior had. Finally, open up the conversation so the person can respond.

Examples: “Jean, when we were discussing Marie’s new project and you gave reasons why it wouldn’t work before she finished describing the approach, the team stopped listening to Marie before she could show that she had addressed the issues. How do you think this might have affected Marie?” “When you were presenting your update to the team and you used 27 slides, I saw several people pull out their Blackberries. I felt badly that the real progress wasn’t appreciated. How could you emphasize your key points differently next time?”

I don’t know too many people who enjoy getting constructive feedback in the moment. Most of us like to continue under the illusion that we did a good job. I also know that most people come to trust and rely on the people that care enough about them and have the courage to deliver tough feedback.  They would never describe what their teammates offer as “brutal honesty.”  Instead, they aim for genuine, supportive honesty. And that kind of honesty is a gift.