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Transcript: Feedback Conversations with Leisa Molloy (EP80)


Intro (with music): Welcome to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. This is a podcast where we talk all things, culture, leadership and teamwork across business and sport.

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Brendan: This is my conversation with Leisa Molloy. Leisa's a Master's qualified Workplace Psychologist, facilitator, and leadership development consultant. She spent more than 17 years helping leaders navigate important workplace conversations.

During our conversation, we focus exclusively on feedback. We talk about the three different types of feedback, what a good and bad feedback conversation looks like, how to prepare for a feedback conversation, and the risks of providing vague or the technical term, wishy-washy feedback.

Lisa also shares a step-by-step process for giving feedback, which you won't want to miss. Have you heard of the contrasting skill from the book Crucial Conversations? It's an important skill to understand and use. What about conflict debt? Leisa explains both and how they fit into the overall feedback topic.

We even talked about the difficult scenario of secondhand feedback and how it could be handled. At the end of the interview, I'll share my three key takeaways. Share your takeaways with me via email or you can put them in the YouTube comments.

Feedback is the single greatest tool in the leadership toolbox. It's a tool a lot of leaders must get better at using. This is The Culture of Things podcast. I'm Brendan Rogers. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Leisa. Let's get into it.

What makes a bad feedback session? What does a bad feedback session look like?

Leisa: The first thing I probably say is a bad feedback conversation is one that actually doesn't happen because that is probably one of the most common issues when it comes to feedback. People are just avoiding giving it in the first place. But assuming someone has entered into that conversation, I suppose there's a whole range of things.

A bad feedback conversation is often very biased. The person sharing the feedback has got a whole range of assumptions and stories going on in their minds about why something's happened or what the person's intentions were. That will come through quite often.

You can probably connect to this. It's quite vague, so the feedback will be something along the lines of you need to be more strategic. I don't think you're a great team player, or one of those words, which you've probably heard as well in the work that you do. That doesn't really tell the person anything about what they need to do. I suppose when you say bad too, I don't like using the word bad. Let's just say a less effective feedback conversation.

Brendan: A room for improvement, Leisa.

Leisa: Yes, where there's room for improvement. It can be a bit kind of wishy-washy. Often, people are quite afraid to be clear around what it is that they need to tackle or bring up, almost too soft. It can be the other way around, which is almost too harsh like there's a lack of safety for the person receiving the feedback.

It's not framed as a dialogue. It's very one way, here's what you need to do differently and that's that. I could probably go on. There are plenty of features of a less effective feedback conversation. But I suppose you could sum it up with a bit vague, one-sided, not really a dialogue, not really trying to understand what's going on for the other human being that's sitting in front of you, or what's going on in your own mind either given that you're a human being too with lots of things happening internally as well.

Brendan: Do you find any patterns? You've mentioned a number of areas of improvement. Do you find any patterns in the work that you're doing with leaders where one or two of those come up consistently?

Leisa: Yeah. I think one of the big patterns I find is actually people not having the conversation or attacking it in a very wishy-washy vague kind of way, to be honest. That's one of the reasons that I do so much work around courageous conversations or what you might call difficult or challenging conversations. If you think about those scenarios, quite often, there's a lot of emotion involved. There's some difference in opinion potentially. It feels like a conflict scenario and people tend to avoid them.

One of the patterns I've seen since working with leaders, which has been my entire career, was this consistent kind of feedback that will come through leadership development programs, 360 processes, or so on about the person not tackling the tough stuff, essentially, avoiding it, not addressing things. That's definitely a thing.

It's very human, which is one of the reasons I love doing this work with my psychology background. It is often because people are worried about not being liked, rocking the boat, having the other person get upset, angry, or not being sure how others will react. That's definitely one thing.

Brendan: It's a good point. I'd certainly find that in my own work as well. With the feedback and I guess the preparation for that, what I want to understand, first of all, is what is feedback? Is it just constructive criticism only? Is feedback considered positive as well? How does that sit so we lay that land for everybody?

Leisa: There's a great little framework that I enjoy and talk a lot about with my clients in a book that's actually called Thanks for the Feedback. It's about receiving feedback. Not so much giving feedback, but it's a great little instruction manual for those giving it as well.

The authors in that book talk about essentially three types of feedback conversations. Appreciative feedback or recognition where you're basically saying, here's what you did really well. Thank you for that, and this is why it had a good impact on me, the team, or the organization.

There is constructive or coaching-oriented feedback, which is essentially saying, here's where you need to improve or an area where you could grow or get better. Then the third type, and this could be quite controversial because there's kind of an element in all feedback conversations, is what they call evaluative feedback where you're essentially saying, here's where you stand against the expectations of your role.

If you think about that, that's often the one that's happening in annual reviews, like enumeration conversations about what band you're sitting at or whether or not you're ready for a promotion, that kind of thing. It tends to resonate with me because I feel as though you can have just an appreciative feedback conversation.

Absolutely, to answer your question, feedback can be positive. That's often done in a wishy-washy way as well, I must say. It's often very vague like great job, well done, or these days a message in Slack or some kind of app that says, hey, great job, you did well, but that's really it. When it comes to the constructive piece, there's absolutely that element as well.

In my view, when you think about what feedback should be in those scenarios, it's really around telling somebody what they need to understand or giving them the guidance that they require to do better like to succeed and to be able to do the work that they're meant to do or to thrive in the environment that they're in. Essentially, do their best work or tell them what they need to know to do their best work.

Whereas that third conversation, the evaluative piece, one of the key takeaways I really enjoy about that is that there's an element of that evaluation in all feedback in a way. People are kind of listening out for that a lot of the time. If they don't know where they stand with you, if they don't have a sense of if they're doing well enough, if you're overall comfortable or happy with their performance, it can be hard to then move into a constructive coaching type scenario because they're just sitting there listening and trying to figure out, am I doing okay, am I not doing okay, where do I stand, how am I tracking?

Brendan: Let's use some of those terms. Appreciative feedback, first of all. When can appreciative feedback go wrong?

Leisa: I suppose when it's not balanced well enough with the other types of feedback is probably one answer I would have to that. I do run sessions and workshops around appreciative feedback and recognition.

One of the common fears that comes up actually that people talk about or a barrier is, what if I'm giving too much appreciative feedback? What if I'm giving them too much recognition? Does that mean that everybody's going to coast along thinking, oh, I didn't need to do anything differently. Everything's A-okay.

Really, if you are balancing that with one of the other messages you need to be sharing about what does need to shift, how people can improve even more, or how they might need to flex and adapt, which of course has been a massive requirement in almost every role for the last couple of years, then yes, maybe just giving appreciative feedback is not going to work as well.

I guess it all comes back to being clear about what people need to know to do their job effectively or to be able to operate at their best. That's where I think it could go wrong. I suppose the other thing that people often bring up is feelings of fairness.

If I give more appreciative feedback to one person than another, then is that going to look biased? Is it going to look unfair? That's a tricky one to navigate. That can depend on a lot of dynamics in the team and the organization.

My view on that is you can usually find something to recognize in everybody if you spend some time looking for that. I suppose one other answer to that question would be, when I think about recognition and appreciation, you can recognize different things. Technically, there's a difference in the literature between recognition and appreciation.

When it comes to recognition, you can be recognizing the work that someone's delivering, so almost their performance in the deliverables. Have they finished that report? Have they met their sales target? That kind of thing. You can also recognize the behavior that people are demonstrating. Regardless of the outcome, this behavior is great for our team, it's great for our culture, it's what we want in people.

The third type, which is where it borders more into appreciation if you want to get really technical, is acknowledging people's qualities like what they bring to a team or an organization just because of the person that they are. A difference, if you want to put it in really practical terms, might be that when it comes to appreciation, you might say, hey, Brendan, I've noticed that you're always really committed and loyal, and that's something I really value in you because X, Y, Z. It provides these benefits for the team.

The reason I like to talk about that distinction is because when it comes back to that fairness issue or that concern around recognizing the high performers versus the less visible backbones of the team quite often, you can usually find those attributes to appreciate in anyone. There's always something about why you hired that person or what value they bring, even if their contributions to the commercial outcomes or the bottom line aren't as visible as other people in the team or the organization. That's just a distinction that I think can be quite useful.

Brendan: Leisa, you mentioned technical. I'm guessing it's a technical psychology term, wishy-washy, a little bit before. Let's unpack that a bit and talk in the context of feedback, generally, across those three types of feedback you referred to. What's the risk of giving people wishy-washy feedback?

Leisa: Yeah, why wishy-washy? What I mostly mean is vague, nonspecific, and using labels. I bring these up a lot. The word's strategic. I've done a lot of leadership development work, and everybody has a different view of what strategic thinking looks like. Saying to somebody, you need to think more strategically, and this I've had in the number of real life scenarios, where I've been coaching someone and they've received that feedback.

What does that mean? How do they know what they actually need to do differently? I suppose the flip side is being really clear about what behaviors you hope to see, what outcomes you're expecting to see, what good looks like, and what success looks like. For people who are less experienced in a role, for example, or have shifted into some kind of new environment, they don't know what that looks like, often, in that roller environment.

What has worked in their old organization or their old position isn't the same as what's going to work on this particular planet with all of the dynamics, the stakeholder interactions, and whatever else is going on. Without that specific information on what good looks like, what great looks like, what all of the other features look, and what not good looks like as well, how are you expecting people to shift?

Especially when so much of this comes down to behavioral change, which is where the psychologist geek in me completely comes out, you're asking somebody to do something differently to what they're doing now. They're aware of what it is that they're doing now, what they need to shift to, and how they could change those behaviors or make those tweaks. You can't expect them to suddenly change, so there's a risk there.

I suppose people often aren't feeling comfortable enough to ask the questions. They think, oh, I should know what that looks like, or no, I don't quite get it, but I'll just wing it and see what happens. The risk there is that you get to that outcome more slowly than you would otherwise like to.

That's not to say people should be telling everyone else exactly how they should do things, by the way. But just giving enough specifics so that people can understand this is what has worked in this environment or these are the sorts of behaviors that we're talking about. You might make that your own and do that your own way, but just to give you a sense.

Brendan: Where does the ownership sit around feedback? Who owns the responsibility of providing feedback?

Leisa: A great conversation. A great question to ask. It's an interesting one, too. You can argue that a leader or a manager essentially owns the responsibility, really. But you can also argue, and I've worked with organizations who have taken more of this tack, that there is a strong case for building more of a feedback culture, where everyone provides feedback to one another. Peer to peer, an individual to their manager or their leader, it goes in all directions rather than just sort of top-down.

Funnily enough, I'm actually writing up some scenarios for a client right now to do some feedback practice for the workshop I have coming up. I usually tailor them a little to the organization. Some of the scenarios that I'm writing around giving feedback to appear or giving feedback to your manager, rather than always being a top-down approach, even though quite often, it's the leaders or managers that you were talking to around providing feedback for their people.

I suppose you could argue that it's everyone's responsibility. Also, there's an extra question there around receiving feedback, how do you learn to be open to feedback, to actually pick through it and figure out what's beneath it, and ask the questions that help the feedback giver to be more clear and specific. Two sides to that coin as well, really.

I'm probably not answering that with a one-size-fits-all answer because it's quite nuanced and it's quite tricky. There's a whole extra layer in there around who should go first when it comes to feedback. If you've got an organization where feedback is not freely given, then in my view, it should start with leaders because they need to role model and make it safe for other people to then engage in that rather than expecting their lower-level leaders or all of the employees to be seeking feedback, but then not being open to doing it yourself. It's a tricky one.

Brendan: Yeah, absolutely. I was going to save this for later in the interview, but you mentioned how to receive feedback as well. Do you want to just expand on that a little bit to give listeners a bit of understanding of what's critical around your ability to receive feedback and how you receive feedback?

Leisa: I think this is probably relevant to giving and receiving feedback. One of the things that I love to dig into in workshops around this is—there are a couple of things, but coming back to almost like the human element that plays a role. The way we work as humans is that our brains try to create certainty in our environment. There are a couple of functions that our brains pretty much focus on above everything else. One of them is predicting what's going to happen next or creating some certainty.

Anytime there's a gap in information, our brains, essentially, will come up with a bit of a story to fill that gap. Oh, this is probably what's happening. People listening can probably relate to that. When you, for example, hear nothing back about some work that you've done, and your brain fills you with all of these ideas around, oh my goodness, I must have stuffed up. They must think it's awful. You come up with all these scenarios in your mind, just the same as when you're dating somebody and they don't text you back or whatever, with all of these stories in your mind.

Really, they're just the stories that your mind is coming up with to try and create a bit of certainty because our brains are trying to do that to keep us alive essentially. We're still wired in that same way. When it comes to receiving feedback, the same thing can kick in. Again, when we get that vague piece of feedback or that kind of broad wishy-washy, to use my term again—

Brendan: I love the term, by the way. I keep using it. People understand it.

Leisa: I often say fluffy as well.

Brendan: Fluffy is just as good.

Leisa: We will often think the worst. We'll come up with a story and we'll often think the worst because we're also wired to focus on the negative stuff, to look out for the threats and the dangers that might be there psychologically or physically. That's just how we're wired.

To answer your question, when it comes to receiving feedback, I think one of the big things that you can do is try your best to actually be curious and open and figure out, what is the message here? What is it that this person is trying to convey?

Even if they're not doing it quite so well or they haven't nailed the feedback conversation, first of all, they're possibly nervous or feeling a little bit uncomfortable themselves. But how can I ask questions to dig into that? That's one thing, looking beyond the surface level feedback or the label that might be getting used in asking questions around that.

Another thing I often think is useful is to help the person narrow it down. What are one or two things that I could focus on first? What would be the critical thing that you would like to see me do and asking questions around where the feedback has come from and where the feedback is going.

If you think about feedback, it comes from somewhere. It's got kind of a past. It's come from something they've observed or something that has occurred, and then it's got a future in the sense of what needs to change, so asking questions around that. For example, what have you observed? What am I missing? What have I been doing that I haven't noticed to build that self-awareness? What does this mean for me going forward? What does good look like? What do I need to do differently?

Reflecting and paraphrasing that back is another great tip I would give too. If somebody is sharing something, just playing it back in your own words. You're saying instead of doing X, I should do Y. Is that what you mean? Or when you talk about teamwork, what do you mean by that? What does that look like in your mind? What does good look like? Asking those questions to help the person be more crystal clear and specific.

Interestingly, what you'll often find is that people can't articulate all that well. They will be a little bit put on the spot. I think just being open to that as well, the fact that sometimes both parties need to go away and have a little bit more of a think about it and come back with more clarity. But at the end of the day, if both people are coming from that perspective, you will end up arriving at some kind of shared understanding as to what is going on, all the factors that need to come into play, and then what needs to change going forward.

I guess it's the same principles—being open, being curious, being self-aware, looking to see your own blind spots, what you might be missing, recognizing that you are coming to this situation looking through your own lens, and they are coming to the situation looking through their own lens. You might see things differently for that reason, but also because of the different exposure you have to other aspects of what's going on in the environment. Hopefully, that makes sense.

I think one thing I often like to point out too is our very senior leaders, for example, are exposed to information that people further down aren't exposed to. Sometimes they're seeing a much more strategic big picture or there's pressure coming from stakeholders, board, customers, or something like that that the person they're giving feedback to doesn't actually understand.

Remembering to give people that context and share what you can, and likewise, for the feedback receiver to ask those questions, to build a picture of like, oh, that's why this matters, can be really helpful. A lot of it comes back to questions, I must say. I'm a big nerd around questions and listening.

Brendan: You've shared some unbelievably powerful yet simple questions, but that's the beauty in the simplicity. Where does the word intent sit for you around this context of feedback?

Leisa: It's interesting that you asked that question. A lot of people in the leadership field talk about that gap between intent and impact, and so do I. It's a really great way to think about that. The feedback frameworks that I tend to share, actually, are kind of a mix of different ones. There are plenty of feedback models in the world. There are many good ones out there.

What I've done is tended to kind of mash together a bit of a mix of different frameworks, as well as frameworks around challenging conversations, and so on. My first step that I would suggest to anyone giving feedback and receiving, in fact, is that intent piece. I actually built that into my framework.

The first step being, getting really clear on your intent in giving feedback. What do you want for the person sitting in front of you? What do you want for the relationship that you have? What do you want to get across in terms of those key messages or what it is that needs to shift in terms of their behavior, their performance, or whatever it is that you're sharing?

By the way, that can be just as valid for giving appreciative feedback when you're just wanting to let somebody know that they're doing really well. The intent there is to let them really know that they're doing well, so they feel appreciated and valued.

For me, intent is the first step. Getting really clear on that in your own mind so that you can walk in with that usually positive intent in your mind and clear. That helps you to kind of bring the conversation back on track, if it does go a little bit off the rails, if somebody does have a big reaction, or it gets sidetracked into something else.

Brendan: What can happen in your experience, Leisa, where the leader providing the feedback has the positive intent to take your words, but the person receiving doesn't necessarily have the trust in that person's intent?

Leisa: Often, you will see more of an emotional reaction in that scenario, a shutting down, or defensiveness. Again, it's such a nuance. Each scenario is so nuanced in terms of the complexities that sit within it.

When it comes to the preparation piece, which goes back to your point around preparing for these conversations, it is worth to me the feedback you are thinking about that piece of what is my relationship with them. What is the history that we have? Do we have good levels of trust? Do we have an existing relationship that has shifted because I've now become their leader when I used to be their PR? That's often a tricky one.

What might they read is my intent and how might I be really clear about that so it doesn't come across wrong. There is no misperception there. If you're happy for me to talk through it, I'll actually share a little skill that I teach around this, which comes from a book called Crucial Conversations.

Brendan: Please.

Leisa: It's one of my favorites, I've got to say, is called the contrasting skills. There is some content on my website around this actually because it's so valuable. It's essentially being really clear about what your intent is and isn't through the way that you frame the conversation or the words that you share.

In practice, the way they talk about it is sharing something called a don't-do statement, where you talk about what you don't intend, what you are not wanting the other person to think, or what it's not about. Then you flip around and talk about the do statement, which is what you do want or what you are intending.

To give you an example, you can use this skill to put things into perspective. By saying something like, this is not about your overall performance, not at all, what it is about, is this one specific issue that happened last week. Or you can use it to talk about I don't want this to impact how you interact with the team. For example, what I do want it to be about is this one specific little thing. It's kind of just really honing down to this is what this conversation is about and what my intent is, and this is not what I'm intending to do. Does that make sense?

It's one of those things that takes a little bit of practice. But once you've nailed it and tried a few different examples, it's really valuable. The whole point of that skill is called contrasting. It's essentially contrasting the intention that you don't have, versus the intention that you do have, is to avoid that misperception and to try and create that safety as much as possible. That can be a great skill for people to use when they are either concerned about the relationship or the trust not being there or the person misreading.

You can see from my body language, for those who are watching, that it's that kind of weariness that you see people sort of putting up that wall, or when you see safety become jeopardized in the actual conversation. You see a bit of a shift where somebody starts becoming a bit skeptical or defensive. You have to restore that psychological safety. It can be really useful there as well.

It's a great skill. It's funny, I've said this in a lot of my workshops and sessions because I've taught that skill to so many people. They've used it in so many contexts. Almost everybody that I've worked with, especially in one-on-one coaching scenarios, says to me, that's just the game changer. That's the thing that makes the biggest difference.

Quite often, I'll drop it in just as an aside when I'm talking about something else. Then at the end of a workshop, people will be like, oh, that was the biggest takeaway for me. That one skill is so powerful because when I learned it myself, I was using it in my personal life just to practice. I found it immensely useful.

You can use it with your partners, with your in-laws, and with your children. Just being really clear, it's not about this, it is about that. I'm not meaning you to think this, I am wanting you to consider that, just being really clear.

Brendan: We know that you're very good at what you do. It sounds like you've had lots of opportunities in that family unit to use this tool. Is that right?

Leisa: Yes. The other thing I think that kind of flavors my approach is when it comes to the role that I play, just to step back a little bit, I've been working in this space for 17, 18 years now. As a consultant and in a lot of leadership development, talent-type scenarios, and a lot of the work that I've done, I've been that person who has collected lots of feedback on people.

They've gone through some kind of simulations, some kind of day in the life of experience, they've been in those group settings and had to sit there and do role plays with people, that kind of thing, or they've had to do presentations like a whole lot of evidence on the behaviors that we've observed.

My role has often been to, first of all, observe those behaviors and take it from a very objective this is what they did, this is what they didn't do perspective because that's often why people like me were brought in. There's no bias. There's no previous experience with the person. You're just assessing their capability on what you can see.

I've then also often had to use that information, plus things like 360 feedback and psychometric assessment data, and walk into a room and sit down with somebody who I've never really met before, and deliver a whole bunch of feedback. I've been in that role where I've got no credibility, no trust. They don't know me. I'm just an external expert and a psychologist, which scares a lot of people who have been brought in to deliver this feedback that has come.

I've realized at one point that that has flavored my approach as well because I've had to come in with curiosity. I've had to come in with a, I'm not the expert, I don't know you, I don't work in your organization, and just explore it with people. Setting up that conversation and making that as safe as possible for people to get the most from the conversation is something that has always been a massive part of that approach.

You don't just jump right in. You spend a bit of time talking about, this is what we will explore and this is what we won't. My intention is to share this with you and then explore it with you, not tell you all the answers and think I know everything. It's just been a part of, I guess, the role of an external consultant for a long time now.

Brendan: With all of this stuff that you do, again, the feedback, the challenging conversations, the conversations around coaching and development, in your eyes, where does this sit in the level of importance in the leadership toolkit?

Leisa: I have to say right at the top. Maybe I'm a little biased because I work in that space. The reason I work in that space is because I just kept seeing the same themes coming up over and over again. When you dig into why people don't have these conversations or why they go wrong, it's so often those very human reasons, as I mentioned earlier, that people are feeling worried about how they will be taken by the other person, there's a lot of emotions involved.

Again, we have that typical human reaction to constantly be evaluating. Am I safe in this scenario? Does this person like me? Do they not like me? Am I accepted? Am I not accepted? I think once I started to work a bit more in that space and give people the tools, first of all, I guess I help them overcome those barriers and give them frameworks and ways of tackling it that brings that positive intent into it so they can approach it more confidently and able to say to the other person, hey, I'm in this with you, I'm here to support you, rather than just deliver some feedback and not care.

Also, the tools, so things like questions. I give people conversation guides. Here's how you can say this. Here are 17 ways you can say this, find your own. I started to see the difference that could make in people's confidence and unwillingness to approach those scenarios. That's one of the reasons I guess why I do this work and why I do think it's very important.

The other thing I'd say is my rate is pretty high because to me, these ongoing leadership conversations and not just leadership, but peer-to-peer, is how work gets done a lot of the time. If they're not happening, they're not effective, or they're eroding trust or safety, then there are all sorts of flow-on effects. You build up this kind of conflict if you like around what's happening in the team or with those two individuals. It just has a flow-on-effect all the way through.

To me, it's very important. To me, they're also quite fundamental skills that I don't think are taught to a lot of leaders. That's the other soapbox that I get on occasionally. People aren't taught how to do these things. It's just assumed that they know it.

Suddenly, it becomes that they've had all these feedback conversations or career conversations and they've never been taught fundamental skills around listening, reflecting, or asking great questions. And yet, they're expected to be really good at it. There's a bit of a rub there for me, as well. To me, they're very fundamental skills that sit on the board of the other work that then needs to happen.

Brendan: I'm glad you mentioned the word conflict debt. Can you explain that to us and the impact of conflict debt?

Leisa: Yeah, and it's not my term. I am quite a nerd in terms of reading lots of great books and things. I think it's probably been used on a few occasions, but I actually found it particularly in a book called The Good Fight, which is great. It's around constructive conflict and how you can raise things in a constructive way, but really still talk about what needs to be talked about.

To me, the way that you can think about this is almost like any other debt. It starts small and it gets bigger. It compounds over time. A real life example might be, and I've had these examples so these are coming a little bit from experience, where there's a leader who hasn't addressed an ineffective behavior in a team.

There's one person in a team and that person is being a bit disrespectful in some way or if you want to get really specific about it, they're constantly interrupting people. They're raising their voice in team meetings. They're using language that's not acceptable in a work environment, something like that. Just something that might appear small at the start.

That will happen one or two times. The leader doesn't address it and then it will happen again. Then the leader starts thinking, ah, I should have really brought this up a few months ago, but I didn't, so if it feels a bit wrong to bring it up now. I can't really bring it up now, can I? It just keeps going.

That debt will build up because it will impact the relationship between that leader and the individual because there's this tension and this unspoken thing that's going on between them. It'll impact the team because the team starts thinking, why is this not getting addressed? Why is this person allowed to get away with this? It's impacting how they feel, so then you have that kind of flow-on-effect there.

Usually, it ends up impacting outcomes as well because people are so caught up with the emotions and all the extra baggage that comes along with that scenario, that they're not able to just do their jobs to do the work that they're meant to do. I suppose the way I would describe it is it's a small thing that does build up like debt. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger until you address it, which is why it's so good to nip these things in the bud pretty early rather than allowing them to build up.

Brendan: Yeah, it's interesting. It's funny how fate works sometimes. But just this week, this person is a friend, not a client. She was talking to me about a situation she had in starting a new role. She had one or two questions or concerns. She felt really uncomfortable raising those.

I didn't actually know that term at the time, I hadn't gone into that part of your research for this interview. I wish I had used it with it, but I talked her through that like this stuff builds up. If you just got little things, you better just have that conversation, they'll ask the question, get some clarification, and then you can work through that. If you don't, then that term, the straw that broke the camel's back, it's never that straw. It's all these add-ons that happen pre that.

That was happening in her head before she even started in the role, which was a bit scary to me. But she addressed it to a credit. She sent me a note and said, thank you so much. It works, and I feel so much better about starting. Fantastic. She took on the ownership and responsibility.

Leisa: That's great. I think I've had that experience so many times. This is why, again, I love just sharing frameworks, tools, and things with people. When you break it down to here's a step-by-step approach that you can take to tackle that conversation, it's less about following that framework in the conversation because it often doesn't go where you think it's going to go. That's always good to remember too that whatever you go in with, sort of hold it lightly because things will shift. You want to be open to responding to how the other person responds as well.

Just taking the time to think it through and consider, what is the real issue here, why is that impacting me, how am I going to bring that up, and how do I bring that up in a way that does make it safe or is clear around my intention? Even in your friend's example, that contrasting piece could come into play there. What did they really want in bringing up that issue or asking those questions?

What are they worried about? What is it not about so that they can say, oh, this is not me saying that I'm unclear on my whole position description? There are just these two things that I'm not sure about. It's as simple as that just to really put that into context. The preparation piece whilst holding it lightly is really where the value comes in.

When you give people a step-by-step approach to work that through and then they go and have that conversation and kind of get it out of the way, you almost see the emotional baggage drop off their shoulders like, ah, the relief and just having tackled it because it's not taking up mental space anymore.

Brendan: That's 100% of the time, isn't it? You see them 100% of the time. They're so glad that they've had the conversation.

Leisa: Yes, that's it. There are so many stories I could share around this where people have. It's had a good outcome in the long run, whether that be short term or long term.

It's funny, I was actually being interviewed recently and I was talking through some of this stuff in the podcast. The host actually said, do you know what, I've just realized that somebody had a conversation like this with me at one point, and I now realize they've probably been trained in some of this stuff. Before that, we had a really tense relationship and there was a lot of trust.

After that conversation, it just opened things up. We felt that we could talk because when you are prepared to lean into these with a bit of vulnerability that it takes, often the other person sees that. That's another thing I would say. There's a little piece in there about actually leaning into the vulnerability like if you have played a role, for example, as a leader giving feedback.

If you've played a role, admit to that. Bring that up. Make that really clear that look, I know, I've contributed to the somehow because it does reduce the barriers for the other person because they're like, oh, okay, you're human, and you've got weaknesses and you're admitting to that. Okay, I'm going to lean into that as well.

It creates that connection and that sense of, again, psychological safety. It starts to make it easier to bring these things up. If you can start that process, and then continue with that, it often, as you can imagine, just grows the trust over time and becomes a lot easier on an ongoing basis, really.

It's interesting you talked about starting a new role because starting with a new team, in a new environment, or with a new hire, I think that's actually the time to just start this stuff straightaway. Just set the precedent and let them know this is how I operate. I'm open to hearing from you and then you're on a good foot going forward.

Brendan: Yeah, I couldn't agree more.

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Brendan: Let's get deliberate around the constructive feedback, the constructive conversations. Put that context around it, you have spoken some level of the type of preparation that may be needed for feedback generally. Let's just nail that down for our listeners and viewers around constructive feedback and the leader hat. If I'm the leader, what stuff should I do before I even get into the room or at a table with someone? Let's talk through that process a bit if you could.

Leisa: Yeah. Again, I would suggest the first piece is really be around intent, just getting really clear on why you're going into the conversation. Again, like I said, at multiple levels, what you want from the conversation as well because in some situations, that might be just to raise awareness around something or start having a dialogue about something that's going to perhaps take a bit longer to fully address. Getting really clear around that.

I guess the second piece is going back to your earlier question around the mistakes that people often make. Taking some time to really reflect on the facts, the evidence, and what you can bring to illustrate your point. This sounds very simple in theory, but it's actually very hard in practice.

I love getting people to try this. Then they sort of, oh, actually, I just realized I was using a label. I was saying, oh, you spoke in a condescending manner, for example. What exactly did they do? How do you judge what's condescending versus what they judge as condescending?

Getting really specific around what you have actually observed. What have you heard the person say? Just how can you be as objective and neutral as possible in describing some examples or sharing some information about what it is that needs to shift or what's not working. That's what I would say is often the second step.

Again, that can be tricky too. A scenario I hear of a lot is when a leader has been given feedback from others about an individual and they have to go into that scenario, that can be really tricky too. The idea there is to teach those people to share feedback in a more rigorous, timely kind of way. But also, sometimes that's not the case.

Again, thinking about how you're going to present that and not make it hearsay, how you can again bring it back to the specific information that you have. Recognizing which parts are your assumptions and which aren't. Are you coming in with any stories, assumptions, or biases around certain things?

I think spending a little bit of time reflecting on what might be happening for the other person. You don't want to make any assumptions there either, but just take a moment to think, what is going on for them? Are they under a lot of pressure? Are they new to the role? What might have shifted for them? Even just taking a moment to think of some of the questions you might ask in that space can be really useful because it'll just put you in that curiosity mindset.

The other thing I would say, coming back to some of those really big micro-skills is, and this is a bigger piece really, but having some good questions up your sleeve to ask, some good open-ended questions. For example, after you've described what it is you've observed, talked about that intent piece, and shared all of that, what will you say next?

The way I teach people is often to have a good open question next. Can you tell me about this from your perspective or what's happening for you? And what else? That's my favorite question, which is so open, and what else? And what else? What else don't I know? Is there anything else that I'm missing?

One little tip as well that I often share with people is using what questions and how questions rather than why questions. It's such a small nuance, but it can make a big difference because it is more open. It tends to provoke a less defensive sort of response than why questions. Even if your intentions are good, they can come across as interrogating the reasons behind someone's actions. I think that's probably it.

Again, getting clear also, if there is a shift required on how you would describe what good looks like in terms of expectations going forward. You may not need to go there because that's the thing I would say too. Often, people will realize like, oh, actually, I didn't realize I was doing that. I can see where I've gone wrong now and they'll shift their approach.

If you do have to be specific and actually say, hey, this is what I need you to do differently, again, getting really specific around what that looks like rather than the wishy-washy terms again. I need you to be more of a team player. I need you to be more collaborative. What does that actually mean?

For example, at next week's meeting, I would expect that you will ask your colleagues what—be specific about what examples you've seen of people that are doing that well or what you want them to do going forward. Hopefully, that's enough. But again, you can see it's a lot of preparation having some questions up your sleeves. If you're not a good listener, find a way to remind yourself to listen as well and just create some space for the other person. Those kinds of things.

Brendan: Yeah. Like anything, there's a lot in the preparation. Maybe there's some psychology behind this that the power in the preparation and firstly, knowing, getting someone like yourself to help them understand this level of preparation. How much does that have an impact on their mindset going into a feedback conversation?

Leisa: It's funny, it can depend a little bit on the individual. Most often, I think it helps the person to go in feeling more confident about the compensation. When I say confident, they've kind of clarified their own intent and what it's really about. They've thought a little bit about where it might go or what they might be missing as well. Going in thinking, if we don't get to the end of this conversation, what might happen next?

Again, it comes back to the intent. Is it just to raise awareness around something? Is it because you want the person to commit to something different? The confidence, I suppose. I think the confidence piece as well is really around the clarity that comes from preparing, just getting really clear in your own mind. Again, that sounds like a wishy-washy answer, but I think that's it.

The flip side of that though is that I think people can almost overprepare to the point of becoming more anxious if they're not careful because they're overthinking. Again, it comes back to self-awareness and knowing yourself well. If you're someone who tends to get quite anxious before something like this, maybe it's not over-preparing in that case. Getting your facts and everything lined up and getting as clear as you can, but then stepping back and thinking, now I'm just going to stop, listen, see what the other person says and how they respond, and go from there.

The other big tip I would say too, especially when it comes to what you might call more challenging or difficult conversations, which can go that way with its feedback that hasn't been delivered before or has been long overdue as well or something that you're feeling particularly tense about, is giving yourself permission to actually step back if need be.

Really thinking, if we get to a point in this conversation where I'm feeling really anxious as well or I need some time to think, having a few things up your sleeve to say in that scenario, hey, I can see that we're both a bit shaken right now or we both might need a bit of time to think. How about we step out and we come back to this tomorrow? Does that make sense?

I think the preparation in the sense of preparing for that outcome if you know yourself pretty well and you think that you could get a bit derailed, and knowing just how you will actually postpone the rest of the conversation. What you would actually say in that scenario can be really useful as well.

Brendan: It makes perfect sense because [...] little remarkable here, I'd written heat in conversation, which my thinking was, what's your suggestion around helping leaders when they get to that situation? Take the heat out of the conversation. I think you're either reading my mind or you just nailed it.

Leisa: That happens a lot, I think. One of the biggest fears that people have is, what if the person gets angry, what if they cry, or what if they push back? Stepping back again, I keep coming back to this. It's so important to me and I think it's just something that's often missed. Some of those basic skills around learning to listen, show empathy, just acknowledge, and reflect back what others are saying or feeling are all you often need to do in those scenarios.

My background is when I was doing my undergrad psychology studies, I did lifeline counseling. It's amazing. The longer I went through my career, the more I realized how absolutely fundamental that was in everything that I've ever done because those were the skills that we were taught like listening to people, reflecting and paraphrasing back, acknowledging how they're feeling, that kind of thing. Just that, and that could be what a whole lifeline call would involve. Somebody calls up and talks about these things and you just be there for them and create that space.

Leaders can do the same thing. When the heat comes into the situation, whether that's anger or it's upset, just sitting with the person and just saying, I can see that you appear to be really upset now, I'll just sit with you for a moment if that's okay or something like that. Not having to fix it like recognizing that someone's having a response, that's perfectly human, it's very normal. Normalizing it, we call it in psychology language. If I were you, I'd probably be feeling a bit surprised as well right now, something like that. But just sitting there and giving them the space is what leaders can do in that scenario.

The other thing I'll add there is that it's very human, again, for those leaders in that scenario to want to escape that situation because it is so uncomfortable with all the emotion. There's a little piece in there too. Again, it comes back to the relationship you have, the context, and knowing yourself well.

Sometimes it's actually better for the other person that you don't walk away, that you offer them the space. Would you like to sit with me for a minute? Do you want to take five minutes to refresh and then we'll pick back up or do you want to postpone this till tomorrow? Giving a person choice is actually more respectful than essentially what would look like to some just going, oh my gosh, you've had such a big reaction, I'm getting out of here, I'm backing away. Does that make sense?

It's almost like the signal that you're sending is, oh, you've had this huge reaction and I can't handle it, I'm out of here, as compared to, you've had a very normal reaction because you're a human being and this is how human beings operate. This has been surprising for you, upsetting for you, or there's something else going on. I'm just going to give you some space to collect yourself if that's what you want and we'll pick back up. Giving the choice can be really valuable in that heat situation, letting the person choose what they need rather than assuming that they can't handle going on with the conversation and they need to leave as well.

Brendan: Yeah, once again, great points. Keeping tight around this constructive feedback conversation, we're in the room. Again, you've really talked through a bit of that. Before I ask you to go on to what happens after the conversation, is there anything else you want to add to that we're in the room conversation to help leaders?

Leisa: What probably leads to your question about what happens after is, again, depending on the scenario and how simple or complex the change is that's required or the whatever comes next. It can be really valuable. What I would normally suggest is to have something in place in terms of follow-ups or actions.

Again, there's a distinction here between a coaching conversation and a feedback conversation too because feedback, essentially, if you want to get really nuanced in sharing the information that they need to have around how they're performing or what's working or not working. Whereas coaching is often about helping them to find the next piece. 

So depending on the scenario, you might lean into that coaching space and start talking about where to from here and what do you think you'll do next? That's almost like the final stage of an ideal conversation is that action planning or that thinking into, what's next from here? How will you go forward?

Also in that conversation, I think from the leader's perspective, asking things like, what have been your takeaways? What support do you need? What else is missing? What questions or concerns do you still have? That's one of my favorite questions? Not do you have any questions? What questions or concerns do you still have?

When they give you that answer, and anything else? Is there anything else? Again, asking that and what else type question so that you get a little bit of a layer down and listening and being silent, in between to give them time to think. I guess wrapping it up into that.

If that's feasible in the conversation given that sometimes these things take time and the person might need to go off and reflect, gather a bit more insight, or they might not quite know what good looks like yet because it's a pretty tricky skill that they need to continue growing, does that answer the question around in the conversation?

Brendan: Absolutely, and leading to the after, as well.

Leisa: Yeah. I think the after, I would say, is having some follow-ups in place, because there is also a big tendency for people to deliver this feedback or have these conversations and then go, I'm all done now, excellent, glad that's ticked off the list and never go back.

Brendan: That's even better when they say, I've already told them. When did you tell them? Twelve months ago.

Leisa: I know, yeah. It's a bit like change conversations too. I find that interesting. There's also a tendency around change, which essentially this is change. You're asking someone to change something, where they think once and done. I've said this once, and that's it.

Setting something up that is a follow-up conversation or to pull that thread through in the next one-on-one to say, hey, how are you going with that. I suppose the other thing I'd say is making sure that you capture some just to really refresh your own memory, especially if you are a busy leader as so many are with lots of people to manage capturing some notes or some key takeaways, or asking them to share their key takeaways or what they've committed to. It's just having something to be able to go back to and revisit easily.

I suppose the other big part of what comes after is depending on what it is you're tackling or what the person is tackling, making sure that they've got the support in place. That could involve connecting them with other people, for them to go out and find a mentor, to do some kind of training, or get some exposure to something. It depends on what it is that you're trying to develop, shift, or change.

If it's a behavior that they can do themselves, independently execute. Even then, do they need some support? Do they need more feedback loops? How they're tracking? How will they know how they're tracking? Is it an experience that they need to get? Is it knowledge that they need to acquire?

It depends again on what it is that needs to shift and how easily that can be changed. From a behavioral change perspective, those things can be quite hard, especially if they're very well ingrained in ways of thinking or operating. That's another conversation as well. If it's about an attitude to something, then that's a little bit different too. How do you tell someone to change their attitude? That's often where things like coaching or mentoring can come into play.

Brendan: That is a very interesting one. Let's just maybe unpack that a little bit. Can you give an example around what would be attitude and how that can be worked through?

Leisa: It's made me think a little bit about when people are recruiting, hiring for positions, thinking about almost like the motivations and the mindsets that people bring, and how that's the thing that people often talk about, cultural fit or role fit. It's not about a skill or behavior, it's more about whether somebody wants to do something and is prepared to do something.

What popped to mind is safety, for example, attitudes around safety and compliance, that kind of thing. That's one that can be a bit tricky. Attitudes towards other people in the team, where there's an interpersonal issue. There's no one-size-fits-all way to address a lot of that, but it is often around two things. Self-awareness on how that's actually showing up in somebody's behavior, responses, or interactions with others because often, there's a bit of a blind spot there.

Also raising awareness around how that is translating into their behavior, actions, or the way they're operating, but then, what does that actually mean in terms of outcomes? I'll say it's an attitude that deadlines don't matter. Timeframes don't matter because the person likes to be flexible while being really clear, which again, comes back to providing the feedback around what it is that they're doing.

Probably the bit I didn't talk as much about before too is being really clear about the impact that that's causing. When you let timeframes slip, here's what happens as a flow-on-effect, and here's how it affects all those other people. Outlining that and getting people to build awareness around that. I hope that's answering your question.

It really depends on the scenario too, doesn't it? Quite often, these are the ones that turn into bigger fish to fry. People often then have coaching, mentoring, or a more dedicated way of supporting them. Or in fact, in some cases, they might start to have conversations about moving into a different role or environment, where they're a bit of a feat if that's their very firm way of operating and it's not going to work in this environment.

Brendan: Yeah. To be clear, none of these things that you do that you have a really high level of expertise in. But yes, you can deliver them in a box to a workshop, a group of people, or some coaching. But almost so many times, they're intertwined, aren't they?

You've already alluded to it, the feedback conversation, actually, in my experience, more often leads to ongoing recurring conversations around a behavioral change or a skill, which requires some ongoing developments to that follow up. That's, again, through your coaching side. I guess I want to make that clear. I'm interested in your take on that. That, to me, is a really important point to make that they're intertwined.

Leisa: Yeah, absolutely. I would say, it's all very nuanced and very particular to individuals, relationships between individuals, the culture, within teams, within areas, within whole organizations. The environment that you're operating in as well because what good looks like in one organization? Let's say it's an IT organization. It could be very different to what it needs to look like in a different IT organization because of who their competitors are and the landscape in which they operate.

There's just no one-size-fits-all. Yeah, you're right. You're absolutely right. I guess if you try to bring it back to the most simple way to think about the what next, in my experience, it can be good to break it back to, what is it that you're trying to help them shift, change, or develop? Is it experience?

When you think about mapping out, what do they need to do to get there? Experience means getting experience. Somebody needs to be put in a position where they can get that experience. Is it knowledge? If it's a knowledge gap, then that actually tends to be pretty easy to address because there are lots of courses they can take or learning that they can do.

Is it capability, which I would define as almost like a cluster of behaviors that together involve communicating with influence, collaborating with others, or whatever? Which again, can look very different according to the organization, the environment, and the outcomes you're trying to achieve.

If that's the case, bring it back to behaviors. What are the behaviors that somebody needs to get better at versus the ones that they're actually doing? Okay, either they get chances to practice those behaviors and improve those behaviors. How do you give them opportunities for that?

Again, back to your question around who has accountability for this. That's a tricky one too because whilst you can argue that individuals have to shift their behaviors, if they're not given the support, the time, the space, or the avenues, if they're so caught up in business as usual that there's no time to work on these things that take time and aren't going to shift overnight, then how can you expect them to be successful?

Again, this comes back to being really thoughtful about the way you go into this conversation, what could come from it, and how you're going to offer support in that sense once you really pinpoint what that looks like. There's no one-size-fits-all. It's very nuanced.

A lot of the work I've done too has been around describing what success looks like in different roles, in different functions, in different leadership levels, and in different organizations. You have the same overarching set of skills that fit across most places, but how they look on a day-to-day basis is very different from one place to the next. What's most critical is very different from one place to the next.

Brendan: Leisa, you're singing from my song sheet because if I had $1 for every time I've said what success looks like in this role or whatever, I'd be sending my wife to New York every month. She happened to go next week so lucky her.

Leisa: It's interesting too because the other little anecdote I'll probably share too is that I do a lot of one-on-one leadership coaching. This all comes back into this conversation because there have been so many times where the time that I'm spending with quite senior leaders, quite often in these coaching context, ends up being spent with them not having clarity from them leader or the people above them around what they're supposed to be doing and what good looks like, which then makes it hard for them to trickle that down to their team to give that direction and clarity to their team.

I've also had the scenario come up many times again, where their leader, who often is quite senior, is afraid to give them that feedback. They'll say things like, oh my job is just to support them, and make them feel loved and cared about, but they won't have the tough conversation. I've actually had people say, oh my relationship with them has to be strong. We need to have a good relationship and trust. I'm not going to give them feedback because I want us to have a strong relationship.

Guess what happens in those scenarios. Those people spend the whole time second-guessing, where do I stand, how am I doing, are they happy with my performance? Then the trust erodes eventually. They stop opening up. They stop feeling that psychological safety. They are constantly questioning.

Those organizations are paying for me to coach this person to improve performance in their team and we end up spending all our time on this particular issue. I'll coach them to go and have a difficult conversation with their leader or to bring this up and they'll still get nothing back. It's really super interesting how often that plays out.

My point is going to be I often get feedback from people that my coaches work with to get more info around, what do they need to do differently? What could they shift? What's most critical? I'll interview people and get feedback.

Quite often, I can't get that out of people either. Even with the training that I do have where I'll dig into or what does that look like, and in some places, that's this and this, and I'll break it down to the, here's the examples of what success could look like, and no one has thought it through. How can you expect that person to improve? As a coach supporting that person, it almost sets me up to fail because I can't help that person shift the behaviors because nobody can articulate what that needs to look like.

Again, back to that strategic example, I've had a number of situations in the last few months really where I've had people say it be told, you need to be more strategic. I've gone, here's my library of all the different ways that being strategic thinking looks like in different organizations. Let's look at all the different behaviors and we'll try to figure out which ones you're doing well and which ones you need to do differently.

They often see that as such a relief. They're like, oh, that makes sense. Yeah, I'm not doing this or I could be doing that. But again, that's my definition, not the organization's definition. What does success look like? Such a key question.

Brendan: Absolutely. I want to bring back ownership, actually, because what you've just explained about getting feedback from the people may be that the leader is leading and supporting. How much of that actually, in your mind, comes back to the leader about the environment, the crowd? Because if they're not doing that, maybe they're not asking the question, hey, please give me some feedback. They're not showing a level of vulnerability. Have you got a view on that and what do you see?

Leisa: Yes, is your question around the role of the leader in creating a feedback culture, essentially?

Brendan: Yes.

Leisa: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of it—as terrible as it sounds, to pin it on the senior leaders—it does sit with them in a lot of ways. I think you would have experienced this too. The more senior you are, the less likely people are to speak up openly and give that feedback unless you're creating an environment where it's very clear that that's okay. There's not going to be a repercussion if you do so.

That's why I said earlier that if you want to create an actual feedback culture in the sense that everybody is freely feeling comfortable offering feedback to one another, I think the senior leaders really need to go first. To model that and to be open to it, to ask for feedback themselves, to react, in one of those good ways that we talked about earlier before you can really expect it to trickle down. There's a power dynamic in play there.

Again, as you can probably pick up too, a lot of this comes back to this concept of psychological safety. How do you create an environment where you've framed up the work and people understand that to do our best work? We actually need to have open conversations. We need to be able to raise tricky problems and challenges.

We need to be able to say, hey, I think this thing's gonna go wrong. We need to be able to say, hey, I stuffed up, I made this mistake. Because if you don't have that environment, people are holding back, and you've got the dangerous silence as it's often called, then those things just won't happen.

You might have that culture of, I've got to look good and I've got to always know everything, again, as compared to the culture where you're not saying it's okay to constantly stuff up your work. We're not saying, let's just all make mistakes all day long. What we're saying is, let's create an environment where we can identify these things and do something to address them to prevent the things that could go wrong, going wrong where we can.

Also to put our hands up and say, I need help when something has gone wrong, and you couldn't control it, it was unexpected, or even if you did stuff up. That's what makes a more effective high performing team really when it comes down to it. It does start with a leader. They set the tone.

Brendan: Yeah. I'm going to come back to that soon. An area that I haven't asked about, and again, we're just staying in that box around constructive feedback—timing. How does timing sit in providing feedback?

Leisa: As soon as you can after whatever it is you observed. It seems obvious, but providing feedback in a timely way is so important. Connecting it as closely as you can to whenever it was or whatever happened, it helps the person to, again, make sense of it, to be able to recall that, understand the flow on, and sort of contextualize it, as compared to waiting several weeks or whatever it is down the track and saying, hey, a month ago, when you did this thing, this happened and this was not what I wanted or whatever.

So much has happened since then, so how are they supposed to really engage with that scenario to be able to recall the details? I suppose a bit like the being wishy-washy thing. You then open yourself more to almost just a bit of an argument around, no, that's not what happened, or that is what happened, or no. That's another reason why not being wishy-washy. I'm again using that term since you liked it so much. It's so important.

Again, it reduces the risk of the feedback getting pushed back. Quite often, in those scenarios too, the person is reflecting on what just happened, what worked, and what didn't. I'd say the more timely, the better. Having said that, there's still that element of creating a safe environment.

If you're in a team situation, somebody does something, and you want to raise it, you're not necessarily going to do it right then and there in front of the rest of the team because that might make the person feel uneasy. Obviously, the environment context. Making sure there are no interruptions, that you've got a private space, that they've got time to think that you've allowed enough time for the conversation.

All of those almost like the fundamentals are really important as well, and how you're going to deliver it. You're now hybrid/still largely remote work delivering a bit of feedback on Slack might not be the most effective if there's something that's going to require a bit of a conversation. Thinking about all that is timely, but being thoughtful about the timing as well.

Brendan: Once again, a great point about the medium of communication chosen by the leader. Is there a time when a social platform or something is an acceptable time for constructive feedback or never?

Leisa: I wouldn't say never. Again, this comes back to the it-depends piece, I think. It depends a little bit on the culture of the organization. I'd say very much about your relationship with the person and how much of this dialogue you've previously had. I suppose it's almost coming back to, how should I be delivering this given what I think might occur for the other person?

If you imagine sending it on a platform like that, they could be commuting somewhere or they could be making dinner for their kids when they read it. What's going to be timing? Also, the question around, are you looking for a two-way conversation versus not?

Brendan: Or to avoid the conversation.

Leisa: Yes, exactly. That's usually why people do that. Two reasons, because they're trying to avoid the discomfort of the actual real-life experience with the other person. But also, often, honestly, it's just because the culture of communication is very much through asynchronous communication or online platforms. I work with a lot of tech companies and that's just how they communicate.

It might feel normal in that scenario if you're a tech-type person or that's just how you often have your one-on-ones. I was going to say I do work with a couple of leaders who have created a really great feedback culture, have very good open dialogue, and have built that trust and that connection through multiple ongoing conversations and all the things that we've talked about.

In those situations, some of those leaders, I think, could deliver something like that remotely or online because they've created enough safety and enough understanding that they know if I send this bit of feedback and the person thinks, oh my goodness, I'm having a reaction, I need to talk to them, they'll pick up the phone, they'll hop on a Zoom call, a Google Hangout, or whatever it is. That's where the caveat is.

There are times that it's okay. I've got a couple of support people who I mostly communicate with asynchronously because we're in different time zones. In that case, you might decide whether it's going to be a WhatsApp voice message versus a live conversation as well. It all comes back to, what kind of environment am I trying to create? How do I want the other person to feel in this scenario? How much space might we need for the conversation?

Are they likely to be completely shocked, taken aback, and you dropping a truth bomb on them? They're going to be like, what? I never knew this. Is it going to shake them fundamentally in some way or is it something that's kind of a thing that you've talked about many times before? It's a small thing. Again, no one-size-fits-all.

Brendan: I want to get back to that point, a technical term, up the tree. As consultants, that's what you and I are. Fundamentally, we're consultants working with clients, companies, or whatever.

As consultants, in your opinion, how do we help encourage people at the coalface to feel more safe, courageous in having those challenging conversations up the tree? Because there's so much power in that. What's your view on consultants? How can we help that happen in a more quick way?

Leisa: Other than working with the people at the top of the tree? Because that's kind of where my head goes. A lot of the work I do is in that space. It's giving people the tools and giving them the space to practice and learn how to lean into that in a more confident way.

A lot of the work around courageous conversations I would do is not with leaders. It's actually with the teams or groups of people and around how they have those with one another. There's less of that leader-to-employee hierarchy in there.

Again, often, it's coming back to giving them the tools and the confidence through practice, through helping them find the words, or things like that contrasting skill that I mentioned where they can learn how to frame it more effectively. That's probably the best answer I have in that sense. It comes back to giving people skills and tools.

Honestly, I mean, that sounds really simple, but again, these things aren't taught. They're just not taught in so many organizations. I feel like I'm very privileged and lucky to have had that training not only in my psychologist training, but also the lifeline training that I did, where it was just drilled into me.

We did seven months of training of just learning how to reflect, paraphrase, and building up our emotional vocabulary so we could share back, hey, you must be feeling quite disenfranchised right now or whatever words seem to be a bit more specific for that person's scenario. Those sorts of things.

When you think about it, a lot of the courageous conversation stuff is where you do lean a little bit more into the impact from an emotional perspective, so not the impact whereas before, when I talk about giving feedback, keeping it to specific observable things. When you're talking about the impact, and if it's an impact on you, you can lean more into not how they made you feel, but how you felt in that scenario.

When you raised your voice at me, I felt anxious to speak up and say anymore. You're not saying you caused me to feel like this, but you're saying this is the emotional reaction I had at the time. When you teach your people down the rungs at the coalface to be able to express that a little bit more, it has a big impact. It often really lands with that person because that person, probably, in most cases, is horrified to think that they made somebody feel that way or that's the impact that they're having.

When you're raising that awareness and you're doing it in that open, curious, tentative, I'm saying this because I want us to have a good relationship, and I want to be able to talk about these things in a way, it might surprise them that it lands well. You don't get that pushback. Not always, of course. There are some who will struggle with that feedback when they hear it and have a reaction.

That's the other thing I would say. Quite often people have a reaction at the moment. That's normal, but then later on, they'll reflect, come back, and have another conversation about it or start to take that in.

Brendan: I also want to go back to a dynamic that you mentioned earlier in our conversation today. Let me use you, me, and Mark, our producer as examples. Let's say Mark's my boss, a producer. You go to Mark and say, hey, Brendan is doing this. We're really liking that as opposed to coming to me. 

How do you encourage that dynamic where, again, a utopia or ideal scenario is that you would have a conversation with me and say, hey, Brendan, I'm going to be tight around this? When you did this, this made me feel like this. I'd really love that behavior to change whatever. How do you change that dynamic to enable that to happen more often?

Leisa: Let me just check with your question. Can you ask me the question again, just so it's when somebody comes to you and essentially, it's secondhand feedback?

Brendan: It's what I would say a third-party feedback to the leader. The leader may not have experienced that themselves because there's a lot of stuff happening that, again, people can sometimes be clever around when they're doing certain behaviors and not the leaders run about. How do you navigate that from a consultancy perspective with the organizations you're working with? Because it happens often. We know that.

Leisa: Yeah. You mean if I was talking to the leader in that scenario or broadly, the organization?

Brendan: Yeah. Most often, I'm guessing you'd be talking to the leader.

Leisa: Yeah, it's tricky because again, if they were to deliver the feedback to that person, then they are essentially operating off the second-hand feedback like the hearsay. Actually, it comes up an awful lot, so I'm expecting this to come up in the workshop I'm running soon. Again, I was preparing some scenarios just around that exact scenario because it happens so often.

The best advice I usually give, and other people might have different advice too, is how can you stick to the facts that you have in your experience? If you think about the things that you can describe as things that actually happened is that you have received feedback from others on multiple occasions about this and saying something like, I can only share what I've heard. I might be completely getting all of this wrong, so please talk to me about this and how you see it from your perspective, but here is the evidence I have.

I don't know if that makes sense, but it's not necessarily repeating back what others have said because the other factor that comes in is often those people will say, I don't want them to know that I said it. If you think about the best you can do to describe the facts as you have them is your experience of the scenario.

My experience as a leader is that multiple people have raised a concern with me. I'd still pick my language very carefully around how you're behaving in team scenarios. We'll get as specific as you can without repeating exactly what others said, if that makes sense. Again, I would encourage that leader to try and coach or support their people in having those conversations.

One thing I have seen people do is to raise that very much with the open curious, I could have it all wrong. I can only go by what I'm saying, and almost like apologetically, I'm sorry that I can't say any more than this, I'm sharing what I can. And then encouraging that person to either go and have a conversation with people or to reflect on that to pick up the conversations elsewhere. I don't know if that's helping. The trickiest scenario, I think, that comes up is the hearsay piece.

If I think about it from a consulting perspective, if I'm speaking with the [...] or people in culture people, I would share with them that I'm hearing numerous instances of feedback being passed around from one to another without going directly to the person themselves. 

I would highlight that I'm seeing a lot of that and hearing a lot of that so that they're aware of it. I'll talk to them about what sort of feedback culture they have and how they might be able to create more opportunities for that kind of conversation to occur, what skills might be missing, and all those contextual factors that might be playing a role as well.

You might have a team or some individuals who are quite strong in providing feedback and have that culture, but then further up the chain, as you say, it's not there, so how is that playing a role and how is that influencing the scenario? I'd almost lift up and get them to think about the culture rather than just that one dynamic.

Brendan: Yeah, I understand. Let's just frame this around teams. I want to talk in the context of feedback, generally, again. What's the risk, in your view, of the performance of the team if feedback is not something that is provided comfortably in a team?

Leisa: A huge risk. Again, it can vary. When you think about the work that different teams are doing, the impact of that could be very different depending on what they're doing. Essentially, if you think about teams and high performing teams, there is always a level of interdependence on one another, where one person's work feeds into another person's work, information needs to be shared across, or everybody's playing their part in that.

If you aren't having those open conversations or courageous conversations to flag where there's a potential risk that could occur, something's not looking right, something's been missed, or this person's behavior is not likely to result in the outcome you're looking for, then the whole team kind of tends to suffer in the long run.

To me, when you think about it from a high-performing team's perspective, some of the factors of high-performing teams are psychological safety, having dependability like knowing you can count on somebody to follow through and to do what they said they would do, having that interdependence, leveraging the diverse strengths of the team, and those sorts of things. All those things fall down really when people aren't pulling their weight or sharing what needs to be said.

There's heaps of research around all these from pieces, like Amy Edmondson's work around psychological safety, high-performing teams, the Google studies, and all of those things. It all comes back, interestingly, to psych safety being a huge part. If you think about it, psych safety is the foundation for being able to raise things, put your hand up, and all of that.

It can have a massive impact. If it's a true team versus a group of independent, individual contributors who are all doing their part and there's no connection between what they do, then that's probably a different story.

Brendan: Yeah, you've just piqued my interest. Again, that's a great insight. Again, keep this as succinct as you can, but what's your definition of team versus potential working group or individual contributors? Because that is a great point.

Leisa: Yeah. I think the best I would say around that is the interdependence piece. There's a connectedness between individual work, roles, relationships, and how that impacts one another. It's almost like the whole is more than the sum of the parts. It's the interconnectedness of the work that they do across and the way they collaborate that comes to the better outcome as compared to each person just putting their little piece in, as compared to a working group, which gets quite different.

I had this conversation with a client once a few years ago, actually, where they were trying to get a certain team to become more of a team. The way that they gave them real problems to solve, the team or the group of individuals just formed working groups and committees. They almost sparked into smaller little teams to work on things rather than the one big team that they were trying to create. It was really interesting, that same conversation.

Brendan: It's progress.

Leisa: Yes.

Brendan: Leisa, I'd love to ask you, in starting to wrap this up, when's a time when you've actually butchered a feedback conversation?

Leisa: One of my most memorable feedback conversations, it's interesting because it actually fell into that evaluative category a little bit when we talked about the three types of conversations. Without sharing too much, obviously, and giving away who was involved, it was a conversation around someone's performance in relation to promotion and taking the next step.

I think the way I see it when I look back, I was very, very green, very early in my experience, and funnily enough, had done lots of observing people in feedback, coaching role plays, and things like that. I almost had the checklist in my mind of the behaviors that were helpful and good. I tried to tackle it from very much at coaching and empowering. I'll ask questions and they'll see the light kind of perspective, and they didn't see the light.

When I look back at that conversation and when I think about where that whole scenario was sitting at the time, what I now realize is back to our piece before. The person didn't really know what good looks like. They hadn't had enough experience and exposure to understand what exactly they needed to do differently.

This is funny because this is my ingrained tendency as well to be too nice to come from that, oh, I don't want to upset them. I don't want to rock the boat because I am one of those people who has grown up rather conflict-avoidant in the sense that I stepped away and shied away from those things growing up. I've had to learn to be able to be more confident in those scenarios. I needed to be clearer and I needed to outline my expectations more clearly rather than assuming that the other person would get it if I asked the right questions.

The way the conversation played out is it just kind of went around in circles. There was a lot of pushing back, defensiveness, and but, but, but. Everyone I also know is getting paid this much and doing this sort of thing. I must say the saving grace in that scenario was that the person did want to speak to someone else in the team who was more senior, then had that conversation, and it went exactly the same way.

I felt quite relieved that it wasn't just me, especially because I had other team members who were very open to feedback, took it on, and absorbed it really well. But when I look back, it was a case of the step that I talked about around clarifying expectations and being really clear around what could look like, I wasn't doing that very well at the time.

I was assuming they would get it. Again, so I walked in with my own assumptions and ideas around almost like their knowledge base at the time. I definitely learned from that experience.

Brendan: Thank you very much for sharing. We do appreciate that. I guess it goes back to a point you made earlier in the interview that we don't get taught this stuff. Companies, organizations especially, they seem to put people through leadership development classes or whatever, but they're often like, manager looks like this, leader looks like that, go and do that.

Leisa: Yeah, and they jump up a few rungs all the time. When you think about a lot of leadership development, it's often pitched at more senior levels because that's where the investment goes and they miss. It's almost like, we assume that you're good at asking questions and listening and we assume that you're good at these basic things. They just have that expectation to take it to the next level without thinking about those fundamentals. So, absolutely.

I think my other big takeaway from that too was that it's not as easy as having a list of behaviors and checklists. As we've brought up a few times, it depends on a whole range of different factors. Whilst I had almost like the checklist of what good looks like because I used to sit there and watch people do that and observe all these different interactions and behaviors, when I went into that real-life scenario, there was more complexity in there, there were nuances around the relationship and the dynamic in there. There were all of those things as well.

Again, it comes back to this: no one-size-fits-all. That's what I would say. One of the reasons I love the work I do too is getting people to actually practice it out loud, even if it's a fictional scenario that they're practicing with a role player who's making it a bit tough on them.

If you can do that with a peer or a colleague who will just help you practice and experience the discomfort in that scenario, it just means that you're so much more well-placed to experience the discomfort in the real scenario, which you will because you're a human with normal emotional reactions.

Find your way through that or at least, it will feel a bit more familiar. You can check in with yourself and think, where am I at? Do I need to pause? Do I need to take a breath? That kind of thing. I was going into that conversation never having had a difficult conversation in that way before really.

Brendan: Yeah, I think that's also a great point, Leisa. I believe those role plays are really powerful for the right things. I think in regards to feedback, role playing is very powerful. Absolutely, it's a great, great point you make.

What I want to finish with, Leisa, which is how I finish all these interviews with our guests, and I love understanding the influences that people have had, who or what has had the greatest impact on your own leadership journey?

Leisa: Probably a very early supervisor I had actually while I was undertaking my master's. There are two answers to this actually, Brendan, because my very early experiences of leaders were not so good. I did undergrad, uni, took some time off, worked for a number of years, and then went back and did my organizational psychology master's.

In that little interim period, I worked for a number of leaders who were not so effective. I mean, erratic, unpredictable, yelled at people. You never knew what was coming next, berated people in public, like a whole range. I've worked in an organization that had a bit of a different cultural background. There were no clear answers. No one ever said no. It was always yes, but it meant no. A whole range of experiences like that.

When I did my master's and had to do some supervision, I worked for another psychologist, who was my placement supervisor. That experience was life-changing because that person was amazingly good at listening, asking questions, coaching, guiding, giving feedback, just all the things that we're talking about.

I don't think I realized it at the time. But again, when I look back, there was a way that I would go with an issue or a challenge. There was a way that I would walk away from that conversation thinking they didn't tell me any of the answers or give me any actual advice. They just essentially coached me.

As I realized that now, they coached me, they asked questions, they dug into what was going on for me. They helped me crystallize my own thinking, come up with a solution, and walk away feeling really empowered, supported, and motivated through listening and asking questions.

I suppose that was the flip side from working for quite a few not-so-great leaders, and then having the experience of someone who really kind of nailed it, who was quite experienced and again, had that psychologist training, which is why it was so interesting to me at the time in how much that played a role. Very shaping in terms of me then walking out of that thinking, I want to be like that when I grow up and I become a full-fledged psychologist.

Brendan: I think the flip side of both of those things, in our experiences, it really reinforces the learning when you've had the experience of when it's not how you'd like it to be, and then you've had the experience where it's like, wow, that's how it should be where you've had those contrasts. I think, really, that reinforces the learning for us. It makes it even more powerful.

Leisa: Yeah. If you think about it, it's an emotional experience that you had. That's what sticks, which again, comes back to that brain piece. That stuff sticks with us. If we were made to feel a certain way because of someone's ongoing behavior and that wasn't a good feeling, we learn a lot from that, as compared to when we feel empowered, supported, and so on, which is what all of this is really about, isn't it?

Brendan: It certainly is. Leisa, this has been absolutely fascinating. We had actually planned to talk about a few other topics in this area of expertise that you have. It's been a great opportunity to go through and really dig deep into feedback, which is so important. As you said, it's really one of those key skills and the ability to have a conversation.

My opportunity to give you some feedback is you've been a fantastic guest. What does that look like is your ability to articulate what you've been talking about, explain and give real life scenarios around your experiences is fantastic. Backing that up with some of the data and research that you really value and support a lot of your work, that's made it fantastic for me. Thank you so much for being a fantastic guest on The Culture of Things podcast today.

Leisa: Thank you. Thank you for making it so easy to have a conversation about what I love.

Brendan: Absolute pleasure.

The single biggest leadership skill that separates great leaders from average leaders is the ability to give and receive feedback. There's a famous quote that says, "Feedback is the breakfast of champions." From a leadership perspective, we can say feedback is the breakfast of leaders. To be a great leader, you have to get good at delivering feedback to others. How often are you giving and receiving feedback?

These are my three key takeaways from my conversation with Leisa. My first key takeaway: Leaders create a feedback culture. Creating a feedback culture has to start with the leader. The first step, they have to ask their team for feedback regularly and then implement it where appropriate. If a leader keeps asking for feedback and taking action from it, others will follow. This is how a leader creates a feedback culture.

My second key takeaway: Leaders prepare for feedback conversations. Whether it's appreciative, constructive, or evaluative feedback, they always prepare. They know that good preparation will help them feel confident about the conversation. It will likely lead to a meaningful conversation with clear action and follow up. This is why the best leaders always prepare for feedback conversations.

My third key takeaway: Leaders are clear on what success looks like. This is a key element of feedback preparation. Having this level of clarity enables you to work back and identify the gaps in order to achieve success. Supporting the person to close the gaps enables success to happen. The best leaders know it and therefore, get clear on what success looks like.

In summary, my three key takeaways were: Leaders create a feedback culture, Leaders prepare for feedback conversations, and Leaders are clear on what success looks like.

If you want to talk culture, leadership or teamwork, or have any questions or feedback about the episode, contact me at thecultureofthings.com or via our socials.

Thanks for joining me. 

And remember, the best outcome is on the other side of a genuine conversation!

Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit thecultureofleadership.com to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.