Common Leadership Errors: Being nice and expecting influence

The concept of providing feedback is nothing new.  Performance feedback has been studied for well over 40 years and shown to be an effective and low-cost method for improving performance.  We’ve used feedback whether informally, or formally, to influence the behavior of others our entire lives.  So there is little surprise that when discussing feedback within the context of leadership development, some people make the assumption that they already know everything there is to know.  This lack of knowledge and practice often leads to this leadership error.  The good news is that this leadership error is prevented using the same skill as we discussed in my previous blog about being vague. The bad news for many leaders is that developing the pinpointing skills needed to set someone up for success does not generalize to letting people know how they did.  

The being nice and expecting influence error is made when leaders are ambiguous or overgeneralize when giving feedback.  Statements like: “You’ve really stepped it up over the past couple of weeks,” “I really appreciate all you do,” or even “I think you handled yourself nicely in that meeting” are all examples of leaders making this error.  While they are all nice statements to make, and the recipient might say “thank you,” they are also unlikely to  influence future performance.  This error assumes that people will know the one or two behaviors to repeat based on a generalized praise statement.  This is very unlikely and often leads to leaders being baffled when the behavior they wanted to see repeated is not.

Instead of being nice and expecting influence, leaders should develop a habit of pinpointing behaviors clearly when giving feedback.  If you read my previous leadership errors blog, you know I discussed developing pinpointing skills in the context of setting people up for success.  In this context, I am referring to selecting out behaviors that did occur to pinpoint and use as the basis of your feedback, which is often a skill that needs deliberate practice in its own right.  This is because we are moving from a planned “this is what I want to see” interaction, to watching or asking about performance and being able to accurately describe what they did and should repeat (or do differently in the case of constructive feedback).  To take one of the examples above, instead of saying “You handled yourself nicely in that meeting,” a pinpointed description of what the desired behavior might sound like: “I noticed you shared a planned agenda before starting the meeting. I liked how you referred back to the agenda by saying “that’s not on today’s agenda, let’s look at another time to cover your topic” when someone tried to hijack your meeting.  That really helped us get everything covered in a timely manner.”  One of those statements is a “nice” thing to say; the other will likely increase a desired behavior.    

Pinpointing during feedback is critical if a leader wants to have influence.  It makes repeating a desired behavior, or doing something different, much easier because the performer knows exactly what to do.  While being nice and saying something like “You handled yourself well in that meeting” is easier for a leader to say, it’s largely ineffective, leaving the performer guessing and therefore not strengthening a desired behavior.  It’s worth repeating: Behaviors produce business results.  Developing pinpointing skills when providing feedback will help leaders move away from being a nice but ineffective leader to having influence and driving company success.      

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.