Joe Hirsch

How To Deliver Difficult Feedback When You’re Working Apart

It starts with better planning, problem solving and partnership.

While it’s certainly preferable to share corrective feedback face to face, current conditions may not allow it. The sustained shift to remote work has crimped the communications of many leaders, especially when they’re called upon to share difficult news from a distance. The result: Low-grade, infrequent feedback that often resembles a “praise sandwich” and glosses over the delicate but necessary information employees sometimes need to hear. 

Withholding feedback comes at a cost. A study by CEB showed that companies with a culture of open communication had a 270% higher 10-year shareholder return (7.9% as compared to 2.1%) than those who operated in silence. And research from management firm Zenger Folkman noted that employee engagement rose when managers provided honest feedback, even when it was corrective in nature.

When you can’t have these difficult conversations in person, consider the following low-barrier feedback strategies to bridge the distance and ease the discomfort.

Plot the conversation.

Research shows that rehearsing the steps and sequence of an action can lead to concrete improvement. Engaging in “shadow practice” before heading into a highly charged conversation can be helpful, especially when you’re not actually in front of the other person. Start by imagining yourself in prime communication form: Calibrated voice. Measured tone. Open posture. These visioning exercises will prepare you for optimal performance when it counts. 

Once you’ve established your presence, draw up a list of positions or arguments you expect to hear from the other person. What objections will be raised? How is he or she likely to respond to your position? Can you counter with additional evidence or arguments? Laying out the conversation ahead of time will help you stay calm and focused in the moment, especially if you’re expecting a contentious exchange.

Shrink the problem. 

When we’re not talking to people face to face, issues can become enlarged and distorted, leading others to “resist and retreat” to the safety of ideas and actions they already trust. This so-called ‘endowment effect‘ is a powerful countermeasure that may produce unwanted defensiveness, distrust and escalation. When working remotely, the best way to solve big problems is to make them smaller. 

Instead of delivering a sweeping critic, try right-sizing your feedback so that it focuses on specific and recent events. Avoid an information dump that conflates and confuses details. Communicating in a slow drip rather than a sudden burst increases the likelihood that others can act on your feedback with greater clarity and comfort. 

One of my clients, an international software developer, made good use of this shrinking strategy. Instead of delivering months of narrative feedback at the end of a quarter, managers now share micro messages with members of their team every Friday in quick Zoom meetings. These small exchanges have paid big dividends, as the frequency and format of these conversations have kept the feedback loop tight. 

Widen the feedback circle. 

People rarely get better all by themselves, but it’s not easy taking criticism from colleagues — it may even cause others to seek validation from new peer groups. This dynamic can change with the creation of “challenge networks,” small-group cohorts where peer feedback is normalized and encouraged.   

Ask employees to suggest 2-3 colleagues for their challenge network based on compatibility and trust. Members of the group provide just-in-time guidance and support, widening the feedback circle and keeping communication lines open. Once managers help convene these forums, they maintain a respectful distance — leaving room for candid talk without fear of repercussion.

Not only do challenge networks alleviate the feedback burden placed on managers, but they also add new layers and depth to the picture of performance. Helping your team find additional sources of support (and even the occasional nudge) can go a long way towards easing the isolation many workers may experience while working from home. 

The unpredictability of this pandemic has reinforced the importance of exerting influence where we still can. Making sure that others receive well-formed, right-sized feedback that draws on multiple sources is one way to support them from a distance — all while building a stronger sense of team rapport, collaboration and connection.  

You Need A Strategy For Your Employees’ Mental Health

As Covid-19 continues to redefine the way leaders communicate within and beyond the office, many are reeling from a rise in workplace-related anxiety and stress. A recent study by Mind Share Partners, in partnership with Qualtrics and SAP, showed a decline in the mental health of nearly half of respondents since the onset of the pandemic. Nationwide, almost half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll

While treatment of serious mental health concerns should be left to trained professionals, there are steps that every leader can take to alleviate the pandemic’s toll on the overall  wellbeing of their employees. Despite the unpredictability of the moment, these practices can provide a much-needed lift to the many people now experiencing heightened fears about their emotional and even physical health. 

Care for employees with high-touch communication.

As teams continue to work from a distance, it’s crucial that managers remain visible by communicating with frequency and intention. By staying in regular contact with employees, leaders can spot signs of emotional wear-and-tear before they become more pronounced. More importantly, dedicating time and resources to these check-ins sends a clear message to people that their emotional health matters. 

Scarcity of time is no excuse. For especially busy clients, I’ve recommended a “15-2-1” approach: Spend 15 minutes once a week talking to two members of your team. Making these conversations ritualized and routine eases some of the discomfort and stigma that may arise when discussing mental health (“This doesn’t apply to me” or “I’m doing fine, why bother?”) and can yield positive, business-oriented results for managers and employees alike. 

For high-touch communication that goes beyond trite greetings, try these helpful prompts:

  • Do you feel like you have enough time to get your work done in a reasonable manner?
  • How do you feel at the start and end of your day?
  • Are you finding ways to stay connected to the team? 
  • How can I be a better ally for you right now?

Allow others to reframe and refocus.

Researchers have demonstrated the restorative effects of reframing and refocusing in alleviating emotional pain. According to one study, individuals who suffered setbacks but then envisioned a brighter future through “prospective writing” experienced a sense of post-traumatic growth. Other studies  have shown that individuals coped better with significant life changes when they actively focused on their core values and beliefs. 

These are not clever tricks to bypass real concerns. Rather, they are powerful frameworks for helping your employees gain control over fears both real and imagined by enlisting the support of those closest to them. Leaders can play a pivotal role in facilitating this process simply by “showing up” for their employees with offers of compassion, concern and commitment. Just knowing that someone is there to help can be reassuring.

Pay attention to physical indicators and nonverbal cues.

Individuals who are struggling with stress and anxiety often show signs of distress. Early indicators include changes in behavior and mood, as well as nonverbal cues like alienating body language and disposition. Attentive leaders should be aware of the following red-flag behaviors by employees:

  • Exhibiting excessive nervousness, restlessness, or irritability
  • Acting overly passive, worried or tense
  • Avoiding group gatherings, whether in-person or virtual
  • Showing visible signs of fatigue, aches or pains

For leaders, paying attention pays off: Researchers have found that people volunteer less information and speak less articulately when talking to inattentive bosses, whereas attentive bosses — as measured by their awareness of nonverbal cues — receive more relevant and detailed information even without having to ask for it. Before you can advocate for others, you need to notice how they communicate their unspoken needs. 

There’s no telling when the effects of the pandemic will substantially ease or whether we’ll ever return to the old rhythms of work. No matter the circumstances, leaders should prioritize the mental and emotional wellbeing of their employees as a matter of sound practice. Organizations achieve a higher order of purpose when they help individuals experience a deeper sense of wholeness. 

How To Prepare For a Difficult Conversation You Can’t Have in Person

Originally appeared at Inc.

There’s no easy way to handle a difficult conversation. Whether you’re facing a high-stakes negotiationdelivering delicate feedback, or seizing a new opportunity, the words we share can have unmistakable impact. And with so many daily interactions now forced online, the physical distance and emotional detachment can make these virtual exchanges even harder.

Delivering a well-placed message takes skill and savvy, but good communication starts with clear thinking, careful planning, and calibrated emotions. Here are four ways business owners and leaders can prepare for tough conversations with greater intention and reflection, especially when they can’t have them face to face.

Define your desired outcome.

It’s critical to define your audience and objectives up front. Spend time before the conversation reflecting on the larger context of this conversation. Are you pitching a prospective client? Asking your boss for more flexible hours? Defending an unpopular action with members of your team? Different situations demand nuanced shifts in communication, and gaining this clarity will help you convey your message with conviction.

 Be sure to engage in what psychologists call perspective-taking, or the act of broadening one’s view of people and events. Who else stands to be impacted by this conversation? Are there implications for other members of your team, customers, board members. or investors? Will the effects of this conversation ripple beyond the organization? Words take on new meaning when you’re clear about who and what is at stake. 

Anticipate what will be seen and said.

Research shows that rehearsing the steps and sequence of an action can lead to concrete improvement. Engaging in “shadow practice” before heading into a highly charged conversation can be helpful, especially when you’re not actually in front of the other person. Envision yourself in prime communication form: Calibrated voice. Measured tone. Open posture. Imagining yourself this way will help you recall and relay similar motions when it counts. 

Besides establishing presence, draw up a list of positions or arguments you expect to hear from the other person. What objections will be raised? How is he or she likely to respond to your position? Can you counter with additional evidence or arguments? Laying out the conversation ahead of time will help you stay calm and focused, even if the exchange turns tense. 

Script before you speak.

NFL coaches are known to draw up their team’s first 15 offensive plays before they take the field. If you are bracing for a particularly rough conversation, it may be helpful to play offense and script what you plan to say, especially if you’re worried about finding the right words under pressure. 

For greater impact, prepare with a WRAP approach — a four-part feedback sequence in which you state what you’re hoping to accomplish, explain your reason for raising the issue, and demonstrate how it affectsrelationships and results. End with a promptby asking the other person for his or her reactions or suggestions for next steps. Many of my clients have successfully used the WRAP approach to defuse highly charged conversations with this playbook for clear and constructive communication. 

Make sure to vent first. 

Most of all, don’t let pent up emotions get in the way of positive dialogue. Over time, these feelings slowly build until they burst, leaving us prone to error. Psychologists call this emotional leakage, and it’s the reason why so many conversations quickly fly off the rails with pain and blame.   

Find a productive outlet to vent before you talk — either with a trusted confidant or through reflective exercises like journaling. This release will help you feel more grounded and settled during the conversation and just might prevent you from saying or doing something you’ll later regret.  

While it’s certainly preferable to have tough conversations face to face, current conditions may not allow it. When you can’t meet in person, taking proactive and preventative steps can make all the difference in how your exchange plays out. And while there’s no telling how others may respond, you can be sure that success follows preparation, no matter the forum. 

How to Communicate In Times of Change and Uncertainty

Change is a constant in every business, but managing through change can be highly volatile. Whether it’s the arrival of new management, disruptive technologies, or customer tastes, leaders must act decisively to pivot with the market while allaying fears and pushback from team members who cling to legacy thinking and behaviors.

How effectively leaders respond to these challenges can be the difference between widespread chaos or calm.

As a communications speaker and consultant, I’ve noticed that the most skillful and sensitive leaders take a coach approach to managing change cycles. They demonstrate empathy but provide the right amount of challenge and support. They commit to new priorities but listen to the concerns of team members. Most important of all, these leader-coaches navigate their teams towards safer, stronger ground — capitalizing on change as an opportunity for contribution and growth.

Here’s how you can lead your employees though your company’s most difficult periods of change:

Restore a sense of safety.

The most immediate casualty of change is security. For many workers, the prospect of change conjures fears of what will be lost, such as status, responsibilities, business applications and even colleagues. The ensuing stress can deal a blow to productivity, creativity and even personal health. 

Leaders can curb this self-limiting tendency by restoring a sense of safety. Researchers at UCLA have shown that the simple act of verbalizing emotions can give people greater control over their fears.

Help your team discern real and imaginary fears by asking them to describe their worst-case scenarios: “What could go wrong here — and can you live with it?”Listening to your employees’ fears will yield a greater understanding of the root causes.  

Reinforce the facts.

News of impending changes — a proposed merger, staff shakeup or major rewrite of company rules — can quickly spiral into a frenzy of speculation, misinformation and doubt. To keep things on track, leaders should relay clear and consistent messaging that separates truth from fiction. 

Instead of sharing new developments in a company-wide email or all-hands meetings, consider a targeted approach for key announcements. Holding small meetings with select personnel allows leaders to speak frankly and fairly with employees. Together, they can debunk misconceptions, reinforce facts and clarify goals. 

Ask them: “What additional information would help you feel better about these changes?” Knowledge is comfort. 

Refocus attention to the present. 

Early in the change cycle, employees may experience temporary performance drags as they adjust to new work realities. They may report feeling sluggish, frustrated or too overwhelmed by new demands to get anything done. Leaders can help by refocusing attention to the present: “What are you working on now, and how can I help you meet those goals?”

Stepping back into the present provides much-need relief. In a series of studies spanning more than a decade, researchers showed how people facing a range of changing circumstances — from new schools to new relationships to new jobs — can regain focus with a simple exercise: spending ten minutes writing about the positive effects of the values they hold.

Doing something similar with your employees can alleviate the stress that naturally follows upheaval. Try the following reflection: “What about this work brings you the most satisfaction, and how can you carry that forward as things evolve?”

Renew commitments to grow.

As fear gives way to acceptance, leaders should channel efforts towards growth: concrete ways that employees can leverage change for long-term benefits. Once employees indicate more comfort with change, it’s an ideal time for leaders to create internal procedures to ensure that momentum is solidified and sustained.

Start by creating a growth blueprint: What does growth look like, and what are the impediments standing in its way? Engage your team in the planning process and seek their input at every pass. Developing this blueprint requires that all team members know what’s expected of them and how their role fits into the team’s larger purpose and priorities.

People don’t fear change — they fear being changed. By acknowledging and addressing the emotions likely to surface during a change cycle, you’ll not only help others go through change, but grow from it, too. 

How to Nail Your Next Virtual Presentation

Delivering a memorable, high-caliber presentation is no easy feat, especially when the stakes are high. As the Covid-19 pandemic pushes more work into the digital world, business owners and leaders are experiencing the added challenge of creating presentations that engage and inform their teams and customers from a distance. But without a thoughtful plan for design and delivery, many of these presentations will, unfortunately, fall short of expectations.

Based on my past and current experiences delivering online presentations — from workshops and courses to webinars and even keynotes — I’ve learned that the most powerful and polished presentations do the following things before, during, and after the event.

Before the presentation: Match the message to the medium.

Many leaders worry that a virtual presentation will feel impersonal and long-winded, since they rely on the energy and body language of a “live” audience to guide their delivery. That’s why the design process is so critical — and you need to think about how you’ll match your message to the medium. Consider making these your guiding design principles:

  • “Chunk” your content. Break down your ideas into bite -size portions that can be easily grasped and digested. Chunking lessens the cognitive load of learning online and makes your presentation more understandable. 
  • Use visuals wisely.  Images should compel, not compete. Unlike in-person presentations, where images blend into the backdrop, visuals tend to have an outsize effect in virtual presentations (especially in Zoom or Skype, where they dwarf your video thumbnail). Your facial expressions, tone and cadence will convey just as much meaning as that slide you’re dying to show. Words can make impressions, too.
  • Make interaction a priority. With a small amount of effort,  you can turn virtual presentations into interactive experiences. In a recent online client workshop, I used  Zoom’s “breakout rooms” feature to let participants solve a remote-work challenge in real-time. Zoom allows hosts to pre-assign participants to breakout rooms, which can be especially useful to owners and team leaders who want to use collaboration for strategic purposes. Integrating real-time polling with web-based tools like Slido or Poll Everywhere can bring the right amount of spontaneity when you need it. And assigning partners to discuss an issue through Zoom’s private chat can provide a focused environment for collaboration.

During the presentation: Be your own A/V pro.

Just because your presentation is virtual doesn’t mean you should sacrifice quality. Paying attention to the sound, lighting, and optics of your “stage” will make a difference in how your presentation is perceived by others. As your presentation is about to get underway, check your audio and video settings to make sure they’re at optimal levels. Your background should be tasteful and professional, free of clutter and visual distractions. 

If you’re presenting through Zoom, share hosting privileges with someone on your team (or, if you’re presenting to an outside group, with an event organizer or lead) to manage production duties like sharing screens, advancing slides, or cueing external online content. These tasks, though minor, can break your flow and cause unnecessary delivery drags.  And for additional support, consider turning your phone into a confidence monitor by logging into Zoom as a participant (you can adjust the settings to go incognito) to see what your audience sees. 

After the presentation: Share resources and reflections.

Your presentation may be over, but if you want your message to matter, the work’s not quite done. To help your attendees review, retain, and revise their next steps, share post-presentation resources and reflections with attendees that not only summarize the main points but offer guidance on how to follow up. 

After wrapping up an online training for a client or industry group, I create a post-presentation playbook that features a full recording of the session, a transcript of the chat discussion (which I use strategically to collect insights and ideas from attendees), a run-down of key learnings and round-up of related readings and research for further study. This may seem like overkill, but I can’t tell you how many people find the playbook instrumental in helping them transfer and apply new knowledge.

Even when conditions allow for groups to gather in person, the impact of a well-designed, thoughtfully executed virtual presentation should become part of your communication platform. Not only can you widen your reach, but you might even stretch your horizons.

Are You A Mind-Changer?

Originally appeared at Inc.

It’s not easy to win people over. Whether you’re pitching to a skeptical investor, negotiating with a tough client, or sharing feedback with your team, the act of persuading others can drain time, emotion and resources — and doesn’t always produce a favorable result. People often resist information that doesn’t conform to their tastes or views, making it difficult for competing messages and ideas to break through.

But according to Wharton professor Jonah Berger, we’re going about persuasion the wrong way. In his new book, The Catalyst, Berger argues that our default ‘push’ approach to persuasion, or doubling down on efforts to get our point across, can actually backfire. To change people’s minds, Berger identifies several barriers to acceptance and provides straightforward suggestions on how to bring skeptics over to your side. 

Mix options with opportunities. 

Most people crave control and find change directives disempowering. A client company in the financial services industry learned this the hard way when it tried to roll out a new HR system with a flashy all-hands presentation. Employees gave the announcement a tepid response, noting the process felt shallow and sales-like. Only when senior leadership organized targeted feedback forums to learn more about employee concerns did momentum for the project build. 

To more effectively persuade your staff, tap into their desire for agency and choice. For change initiatives, provide different options that offer employees a say in how they fulfill new requirements. After listening to employee feedback about its HR platform, my client allowed individuals to choose which features they would adopt in the phase-in period, raising adoption rates and building goodwill that might have otherwise been much harder to achieve.

Shrink the process of change. 

To be more persuasive, you must overcome the unwillingness of others to part ways with ideas and actions they trust, something social scientists call the ‘endowment effect.’ To the change-averse, this is a powerful countermeasure — if things are working, why reconsider? Getting others to let go of the status quo often requires a shift in tactics. You have to make the prospect of change seem a lot smaller than it first appears.

A healthcare client trying to boost employee participation in a wellness program made good use of this shrinking strategy. Rather than set ambitious goals for diet and exercise, employees were asked to describe their current behaviors, then scale them back by a small degree. People accustomed to drinking three cans of sodas a day cut back to two; sedentary employees started taking ten-minute walks around the campus. Over time, these micro changes grew into larger habits. By offering your employees an easy way to get started, you will lower their cost of trying. 

Alleviate uncertainty with clear information.  

Few people will reconsider their beliefs or behaviors without clear supporting information. Before asking your team to make a switch, come prepared with clear information that addresses their most basic concerns: Will a new product be better than the old one? Will a new initiative really save money? Will voting for this proposal improve my life or the lives of those I care about?

Frame issues in terms that people will find understandable and relatable. A good strategy here is to know your subject so well that you could explain it to a child. If you can explain yourself effectively to someone who has no background on the subject, you can certainly make a persuasive case with someone who does. 

To change someone’s beliefs or behaviors, don’t just push harder — clear away the hard issues. It’s much easier to get others to shift their positions when they feel in charge of making their own moves.

Are You Listening To Your Team?

Originally appeared at Inc.

While leaders may do their fair share of talking — delivering feedbackcommunicating goals, and managing crises — a critical attribute of good leadership is listening. Listening well can help you understand other people’s attitudes and motivations, which is essential in building cooperative and productive relationships, as well as discerning which relationships you’d be better off avoiding.

Some leaders are naturally good listeners. When others speak, they eliminate surrounding noise and distractions and engage fully with the person talking. For everyone else, there’s hope: Like most skills, listening is a learned behavior that can be practiced and improved. 

To become more attuned to your team, start with these attention-boosting techniques that help you truly know what others need — and what you can do to help.

Don’t ask questions with hidden agendas.  

Rule number one: Stop listening to the sound of your own voice. Some questions are posed under false pretenses.They conceal a hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing, or correcting others. When your questions begin with “Wouldn’t you agree…?” or “Don’t you think …?” and end with some variation of “Am I right?” you’re probably trying to get others to see your point of view rather than understand theirs. 

Well-crafted questions give others room to elaborate but keep them on point. Instead of asking if someone is happy at work — a linear question likely to elicit a truncated response — choose a conversation-starting question like “How are things going for you at work?” As information rolls in, check your understanding. Asking a clarifying question — “It sounds like you’re saying X–did I get that right?” — conveys genuine interest and keeps the conversation going.  

Be a reflective listener, not a reflexive listener. 

When we receive information we don’t want to hear, there’s a tendency to react with quick, reflexive solutions. But this fire-fighting approach often overlooks the underlying causes of the problems leaders are trying to solve. 

Ask yourself the following questions to reflect more deeply on what’s being said:

  • What hope, fear or concern is this person trying to communicate?
  • What assumptions is this person making?
  • What reasoning is this person offering?

Before responding, allow yourself some wait time — a few moments of reflection to truly consider what others are saying. By shifting from a reflexive to reflective approach, you’ll not only provide others with more space to share, but will likely reach a more complete understanding about how you can address their unspoken needs. 

Pay attention to body language and nonverbal cues.

What we show matters more than what we say. Body language and other nonverbal cues reveal our true feelings. Attentive listeners can collect additional insights simply by watching for the body’s tell-tale signs:

  • Crackling or hushed voice
  • Slumped or shifty posture
  • Lack of eye contact, narrowing of eyebrows
  • Tightening of cheeks and lips

For leaders, paying attention pays off: Researchers have found that people volunteer less information and speak less articulately when talking to inattentive listeners, whereas attentive listeners — as measured by their awareness of nonverbal cues — receive more relevant and detailed information even without having to ask for it. If you aren’t observing, you aren’t learning. 

Leading is listening. If you want to increase your leadership presence, demonstrate greater empathy and show others they matter, then take stock of how you’re seeking and receiving information from your team. You might be surprised by what you hear.

Kobe Bryant, Coach

The NBA legend left a legacy from the sideline.

By anyone’s count, Kobe Bryant was a basketball god.

He led the NBA in scoring for two seasons and ranked third on both the league’s all-time regular season and post-season scoring lists.

His legendary achievements include a league-best 18 trips to the All-Star game, 12 All-Defensive team selections, the most points scored in a single game, and a record 15 appearances on the All-NBA team – and that’s before you start counting the five championship rings.

But there’s one stat that went largely unnoticed in Bryant’s spectacular record: player mentor.

After undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in 2015 to repair a torn rotator cuff, Bryant could have used rehab as a way to retreat. Instead, he took to the sidelines and started mentoring the younger players on the team. “I help them, mentor them and give them advice,” Bryant said, “because I’ve pretty much seen it all.”

Working with up-and-coming stars like D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, Bryant turned the bench into his personal academy. For former Lakers coach Byron Scott, who had a front row seat for Bryant’s second act, it was like having another coach on the sideline.

“I think he enjoys seeing these guys develop, because in the back of his mind somewhere he looks at them and remembers when he was in that position,” Scott said. “I think he enjoys the process of watching these guys grow.”

But instead of dumping decades of accumulated wisdom on each player, Bryant took a more selective approach. For shooting guard Wayne Ellington, he outlined what he called “little tricks” that made it easier to move and shoot more efficiently off the screen. During timeouts, Bryant took out a clipboard to diagram various pick-and-roll coverages to help rookie guard Jordan Clarkson find an open shot.  With rookie center Tarik Black, he showed him how to develop better footwork and slow down his drives to the hoop to allow his teammates better penetration in the paint.

For the better part of that season, Bryant, who had just turned 37, played the part of the wise old man to a group of rookies so young they could have been his teenage children. Being the elite that he was, the hard part wasn’t knowing what to say. It was deciding what not to say.

Having perfected his game on both sides of the ball, Bryant could have easily unloaded a sweeping critique of the players’ flaws and missteps, but that never happened.  His feedback was precise, tailored to individual needs, and highly selective – the hallmark of a great coach.

Great coaches show you where to look but not what to see. They guide you, with a mixture of prodding and patience, to discover a part of yourself you may not know. Not yet.

In that sense, Kobe’s legacy isn’t what he achieved for himself. It’s what he helped others accomplish for themselves.


Why Your Goals Should Be FAST, not SMART

Originally appeared at Inc.

Leaders are responsible for setting and managing goals for their teams. For most people, this means following a well-established process of designing SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. This approach has been used by many leaders to execute strategy and track performance, but is the conventional thinking on goal-setting doing enough to communicate each team member’s promise and potential?

According to researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, SMART goals undervalue ambition, focus narrowly on individual performance, and ignore the importance of discussing goals throughout the year. Instead, they recommend that leaders focus on goals that are FAST–frequently discussed, ambitious, specific, and transparent.

Goals should be frequently discussed. 

Depending on the nature of your work, realities can shift quickly: A sudden pivot in a project, unforeseen changes in team leadership, and new market conditions or client requests call for priorities to be reconsidered and realigned. Waiting for a capstone event (year-end reviews) to address an employee’s goals is simply not sufficient.

Consider setting and discussing goals on a quarterly basis. Several high-profile companies, including Microsoft, IBM, and Accenture, have recently transformed their traditional performance appraisal process to incorporate ongoing discussions on how employees are doing against their goals, which keeps these objectives top of mind throughout the year. 

Goals should be ambitious.

Setting goals that are “safe” may allow employees to feel good about their progress, but it may also deter them from the trial-and-error experimentation required to grow. By establishing ambitious goals for their team, leaders set a tone that promotes risk-taking and conveys faith in the abilities of others. 

Asking people to stretch past their comfort zone may require leaders to seriously reconsider how rewards are tied to work. A 40-year study on motivation found that intrinsic motivation–defined by a genuine sense of purpose and challenge–was nearly six times more effective than external incentives in motivating people to complete complex, creative tasks. People may be more willing to take risks in their work when they don’t fear repercussions in their jobs. 

Goals should be specific. 

Translating goals into action requires clarity and coherence. When leaders use specific metrics or milestones to track progress, employees know what is expected of them and how they can deliver on those objectives. 

With specifics, less is more. A meta-analysis of 83 interventions in organizations including the U.S. Air Force, high-tech manufacturing plants, and hospitals found that setting only a handful of objectives, assigning simple metrics to each goal, and providing regular feedback improved performance enough to move an average team to the 88th percentile of performance. Simplifying the details helps others think through the steps of how to achieve their goals without becoming overwhelmed.

Goals should be transparent.

While it’s understandable that certain goals–such as those related to individual improvement–must be kept private, team objectives should be aired for all to see and know. Leaders should bring greater visibility to the responsibilities of different groups within their organizations. Not only can this publicity shape a collective understanding of strategy and values, it can also help team members locate colleagues in similar situations who can provide advice on how they can do better.

It is every leader’s job to bring out the best in other people. By focusing on goals that are FAST, not just SMART, you’ll help others see their path of progress more clearly. 

Turn Feedback Into A Partnership With These Conversation Prompts

Originally appeared at Inc.

When was the last time your feedback felt like a partnership?

Getting others to accept feedback can prove challenging, especially when it’s critical. Negative feedback triggers a primal threat response, leading others to become defensive, angry and self-conscious. It can weaken their overall effectiveness at work. And it might even cause them to prioritize relationships with those who affirm, rather than challenge, their positive self-view. 

Whether it’s provoked by a heightened state of stress or the pale of rater bias, our resistance to feedback runs deep. That aversion cuts both ways. According to a 2016 survey of more than six hundred managers, over a third (37 percent) said that they’re uncomfortable giving direct feedback about their employees’ performance if they think it will provoke a negative response, while nearly 70 percent felt uncomfortable talking to their employees in general.

While the reasons vary — a perceived lack of time, coaching expertise, or fear of ensuing drama — the outcome is almost always the same: Wary managers resort to feedback techniques like the “praise sandwich”  that can end up doing more harm than good. What emerges is a tenuous feedback culture built largely upon evasion, confusion and self-delusion.

For more effective feedback, managers should build partnership through the use of simple conversation prompts. By increasing two-way conversation, you’ll create a more authentic and revealing feedback experience that fosters trust, flows with the rhythm of work, and sets the conditions for positive, lasting change. 

To change the tone and trajectory of feedback, try incorporating these prompts into your performance conversations: 

Ask more “hero” questions.

Start by unlocking the potential of your employees with “hero” questions that focus on their strengths and stories of success. As they reflect on these peak moments, you’ll get a better sense of how they got there — and how you can partner with them to do it again.  Among my favorite hero questions:

  • Tell me about a time this month you felt energized.
  • What have you learned about yourself from working on this project?
  • What strengths have you found most useful on this project?
  • Who have you recently helped, and what difference did it make in their work and yours?

Solve problems collaboratively.  

When employees hint to a challenge, pay attention to their cues. Is this person holding back? What does that individual’s body language and tone of voice convey?

By actively listening and scanning, you’ll show genuine interest and engagement, putting the other person at ease. Rather than offer your own solutions, seek ways to understand the issue from the other person’s perspective by creating meaningful dialogue. For example:

  • What outcome are you trying to achieve?  
  • What is happening? Why do you think it’s happening?
  • What have you tried so far? How have you handled similar challenges in the past?
  • Have you tried to resolve this challenge? What happened as a result?  

Shape the path of progress.

If performance is a journey, then it’s the manager’s job to help shape a path towards progress. Once employees suggest a way forward, managers should guide their next steps. This steers the conversation towards actionable outcomes, making feedback more concrete. Here are some effective conversation closers:

  • How do you think you’ll act on this?
  • What is holding you back from achieving your goals?
  • How can I help you recreate the conditions of your success?

The best feedback helps others understand their strengths and provides the encouragement and guidance to build on those strengths. Turning feedback into a partnership sets the conditions for positive and lasting change. Making that small shift can produce a world of difference in your message — and just might help others see themselves in an entirely new way.