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The Simple Question Great Leaders Ask People Every Day

To get the best out of people, you need to stop assuming you know what makes them tick.

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I recently called a relatively new employee to give him some performance feedback. I did so directly following a remote video meeting where he showed up in a dismissive way, was visibly not engaged and others on the call questioned me about his unusual behavior.

Instead of calling him out, I stared the feedback conversation by simply asking, "How you doing?" I gave him the benefit of the doubt about how he showed up, before assuming I knew his motivation for the behavior.He was taken aback, "What? I'm fine, why?" was his response. I explained I am worried and described his behavior, the perception of his actions and the overall perception of his peers.

He was floored, then, he cried.

As it happens, he has a personal challenge he had not disclosed for months. That extra personal effort coupled with job related stress and lots of deliverables due at the same time overwhelmed him and he admitted, he was in victim mode; he knew he was dismissive on the call. He was channeling his entire life storyline, self-speak and emotions into one video call and couldn't hold back his emotions — or his facial expressions — as the call was about adding more work to his plate.

Unpacking the story divulges a lesson about performance feedback and yet another lesson about managing/communicating up.

Giving Performance Feedback Constantly and Consistently

Your employees are your lifeblood. They represent your company and even you. Your job as a business owner or leader is to create an environment where your humans can find success. To do that really well, giving performance feedback consistently and constantly is critical; especially important to give feedback directly following a situation like the one described. If an employee does not meet the expectations of your organization, it's your job to call attention and learn why; immediately. However, possibly even more important than the when of giving feedback, is the how.

When giving performance feedback, give your person the benefit of the doubt first; especially when the feedback needs to be constructive. Never start with an accusation, a threat, or the belief you know the entire story. You don't. Start with why; set the expectations as to why you're calling; that it's your intention to help the employee shift, grow or change. Ask, don't tell. It's not just your job, it's your obligation to acknowledge the performance behavior that you've witnessed is potentially getting in their way of success, then discuss how to adjust and take action to improve. Again – it's your obligation. Too many leaders do not provide feedback simply because they're scared; afraid of hurting the employee's feelings, how the employee might react, or the leader just can't handle conflict. Regardless, not receiving feedback is a primary reason people leave a company, and certainly why they don't shift and grow for the better.

Managing and Communicating Up

At the end of the performance feedback call from my example, I asked, "Why did you not share what was going on with you? Why did you wait until I called you?" His answer coincidentally was the same as the reason why so many leaders don't give feedback, fear. He was afraid his stress wasn't actually real or deserved, or that he wouldn't be taken seriously, and, because of a previous employment experience, he thought by bringing up his concerns, a conflict conversation might ensue as that is what had happened to him in the past.

A leader's job is to create a healthy environment; yes. However, no leader is a mind reader. Yes, you can create a safe space to your employees to come to you but it's challenging to really know what all of your people's life experiences and limiting beliefs are, or what their inner critic is telling them. Does an employee's inner voice say, 'you can never trust management' because experience has taught him that? Possibly, and as a result, some employees have the belief that "it's not safe" to share or tell the truth so they simply never speak up.

To those employees who are in this category – health and success will not come easily if you hold the truth back from your leader and think they'll be able to figure out your needs on their own. Even the best leaders need direct feedback and clear requests. When you have a legitimate request, concern, or need help, it's your obligation to voice it. If you don't, then you must either find a way to accept your situation or make another choice like to leave, or even remain a victim to the situation. Voicing your need is a way to affect change.

To those leaders who have been in the situation where an employee (potentially a great employee) is blocking him/herself from success – continue to check-in; do so randomly and often without the catalyst of an eye roll. Don't wait.

Not everyone on your team has the confidence and life experience to lean in and feel vulnerable; again, no matter how safe of a space you make. Call, ask and invite them to share by giving them the platform to speak — and always ask, "How you doing?"

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