Ask these questions to create self-awareness about your work, goals and growth.
Great coaching starts with mirror holding – the things we say and do to help people see themselves in a whole new light. Instead of telling others how to improve, great coaches ask questions that help others chart their own improvement path.
It’s also the key to generating more self-awareness about how you work and develop next-level strengths.
Based on the inspiring leaders I wrote about in The Feedback Fix and my own experiences as a leadership coach, here are five must-have question sets that can help you become more self-aware and drive deeply honest conversation about work, goals, and growth.
1. Strengths: What am I good at doing? Which work activities require less effort? What do I take on because I believe I’m the best person to do it? What have I been recognized for throughout my career?
2. Passions: What do I enjoy? In a typical work-week, what do I look forward to doing? What do I see on my calendar that energizes me? If I could design a job with no restrictions, how would I spend my time?
3. Values: What feels most useful? Which work outcomes make me most proud? Which of my tasks are most critical to the team or organization? What are the highest priorities for my life and how does my work fit in?
4. Goals: What creates a sense of forward momentum? What am I learning that will help me in the future? What do I envision for myself next? How’s my work today getting me closer to what I want for myself?
5. Relationships: How do I relate to others? Which working partnerships are best for me? What would an office of my favorite people look like? How does my work enhance my family and social connections?
Asking these kinds of questions helps us re-calibrate our personal and professional objectives and create an inner sense of alignment. It sets the conditions for more intentional and purposeful work and allows us to cut through the clutter and noise so that we have a clearer view of who we are, and, more importantly, who we are becoming.
Before you offer feedback, make sure you PREP first.
It’s a simple four-part formula to make your feedback more specific, actionable and clear. And it’s incredibly easy to do, whether you’re offering unsolicited feedback or asked to weigh in on an issue.
“PREP” stands for Point, Reason, Explain, & Prompt. And it can be applied virtually anytime and in any situation.
Let’s say your boss asks for your thoughts on a new product idea. Instead of offering up a hazy or unfocused praise sandwich, use the PREP method to deliver more specific and substantive feedback.
Point: “I have concerns about the new product.”
Reason: “It seems to me that developing this concept is going to interfere with other important projects.”
Explain: “My team is deep into our current project, and taking on something new will push us off course. That’s gong to cost us valuable time and resources.”
Prompt: “Could we hold off on the new concept until our current project is finished?”
Or, if you see a report doing something that needs correction, try this:
Point: “I think you should consider listening more and talking less when meeting clients.”
Reason: “You’ll actually get a better understanding of their needs this way.”
Explain: “Our clients really appreciate it when they feel heard.”
Prompt: “Would you like me to show a few techniques that have helped me?”
Here’s why the PREP approach is so effective:
You state your feedback clearly and up front. (Specific)
You provide clear rationale and context to back up your feedback. (Clear)
You offer purposeful alternatives instead of just shutting ideas down. (Actionable)
Rather than disguise our feelings or dance around them, we share feedback openly, honestly, and with radical transparency. We tell people where we stand and make sure they understand why we feel that way. And because we offer context and future directions, we don’t alienate others or cause undue resentment.
The PREP approach is an effective way to handle feedback in a variety of settings and situations. Whether you’re offering advice to a report, pointers to your boss, or even guidance to your child, PREP your feedback before you give it. You’ll not only make sure that others hear what you’re saying, but will want to act on it, too.
Resist the urge to begin with easy but trivial matters.
Are you “bike-shedding” your feedback?
Bike-shedding refers to the act of spending lots of time on unimportant details while leaving crucial matters unattended.
The term traces back to 1955 article in The Economist by C. Northcote Parkinson, a British naval historian and author. “Parkinson’s Law of Triviality” states that people tend to focus on things that are trivial but easy rather than those that are important and hard.
To make his point, Parkinson described a fictitious committee overseeing plans for a nuclear power plant. The members spent the majority of their time discussing relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself – a far more important but detail-heavy undertaking.
Too often, people end up “bike-shedding” their feedback. They focus on easy but trivial issues related to performance while ignoring the bigger and more nuanced conditions surrounding development. It’s easy to tell people who they are. It’s much harder to show them who they are becoming. That requires a coach approach to giving feedback – one that turns feedback givers into mirror holders.
If we want people to act on our suggestions for improvement, the trick may not be what we say, but how much we share. While it’s tempting to try to fix all the wrongs we find in others, going after everything means getting comparatively little in return.
It’s neither helpful nor productive to pile on feedback that becomes too overwhelming the moment it is delivered. Being particular about our feedback rescues people from information overload and helps them focus their decision-making energy on one choice at a time. The less we say, the more others will do.
When you give feedback, choose your frame carefully. You can’t fix everything, and not everything matters. Stick with feedback that helps people become incrementally better. Provide them with small but significant support. It’s easy to build bike sheds. But with the right feedback techniques, we can help people build – and become – so much more.
Honest feedback is a gift. Here’s how you can start delivering it.
Giving transparent feedback is a challenge for most people.
Want to know what radically transparent feedback looks like? Here’s an actual email sent to Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, by an employee named Jim Haskel:
You deserve a “D-” for your performance today in the meeting. You did not prepare at all, because there is no way you could have and been that disorganized.
In the future, I/we would ask you to take some time and prepare, and maybe even I should come up and start talking to you to get you warmed up or something, but we can’t let this happen again.
Now, if you’re the billionaire CIO of one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, what are the odds that you’d fire Jim Haskel? But not only didn’t Dalio fire Haskel, he sent him an apology. Not just that, he copied the management committee of Bridgewater and asked them to investigate his history to see if this behavior was part of an ongoing pattern.
That’s radical transparency. And it’s why Bridgewater consistently outperforms other firms – they relentlessly probe for feedback that shows where the consensus is wrong.
Even though there’s surprising research that highlights several benefits of giving negative feedback, most people are reluctant to share it with others. This happens because:
We don’t think they’re smart enough to handle it.
We don’t think they’re mature enough to handle it.
We don’t want others to think we’re jerks.
We don’t want to be mean.
The problem with resisting transparency is that it creates a weak signal. Critical information keeps getting filtered out of conversations or muted entirely. We disguise negative feedback with pleasantries, serve up praise sandwiches, or simply void giving it altogether. By time we come around to breaking the bad news, it’s usually too late for a course correction. Our desire to be “nice” and avoid “rocking the boat” perpetuates the unforced errors that could have otherwise been resolved had we only mustered the courage to speak up with candor, clarity and confidence.
It turns out there are measurable performance benefits to being more honest. A 2010 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 showed that employee engagement rose when managers provided honest feedback – what employees needed to know, not simply wanted to hear.
How can you break down barriers to honest feedback?
Begin with those you trust. If the prospect of becoming a transparent organization seems too risky, consider a slow rollout, starting with the people you trust most. Approach close colleagues and offer to give honest feedback about their performance in exchange for transparency about your own. The two-way nature of the arrangement divides the stakes equally and reduces the potential for judgement and acrimony. From there, broaden the effort to include others in the organization, demonstrating how your team’s transparency practices can be duplicated and shared. Transparency should be radical in its design but not in its delivery.
Keep others in the loop.Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits trust and undermines teamwork. If you want to create a transparent environment, everyone in the organization has to work on a “need to know” basis. People can’t be transparent when they’re kept in the dark.
Build a challenge network. Change starts at the top, and leaders have to model transparency if they want it to spread throughout the culture. In my book The Feedback Fix, I describe how some of the most successful organizations have transformed their feedback processes starting with the way information reaches the CEO. These leaders appoint a circle of “loving critics” – the people who are empowered to give their bosses the honest feedback they need, even when they don’t think they need it at all. When leadership takes an active role in modeling and reinforcing the behavior – like Ray Dalio did at Bridgewater – then radical transparency can become a radical reality.
Be deliberate about how you put together your teams.
Fresh ideas and new perspectives are the lifeblood of great work. But what happens when inspiration routinely comes from the same place – people who think the same as you? Homogeny of thought can stifle originality and threaten creativity, leading to a creative echo chamber that prevents good ideas from reverberating across teams. Read More
Feedforward is a unique approach to giving feedback that improves performance, boosts productivity, and keeps teams on track. Unlike traditional feedback, feedforward is timely, continuous, and focused on development – a refreshing change from the typical feedback fare that rarely makes a positive difference or offers much insight about how work gets done. Read More
People can’t fix what they can’t see. From time to time, it’s our job – as managers, teachers, parents and friends – to see for them. By providing eye-opening feedback, we eliminate some of the tunnel vision that keeps others from recognizing their personal or professional flaws. And while sharing negative feedback can be good news, we need to be particular about how much of it we share at once. Read More
Few people like hearing bad news about themselves. Getting a tough performance review or being called out for a mistake challenges our status and triggers feelings of shame, frustration, and helplessness. Negative feedback floods the brain with stress-inducing hormones that raise our threat awareness and causes a momentary loss of executive functioning. If an unfavorable report makes you think you’ve lost your mind, it’s probably because you have.
But before we write off the criticisms we receive from bosses and friends, here’s the surprising part about negative feedback: It might actually be good for us.
Dynamic feedback drives creative thinking among teams
Pixar is one of the most successful movie studios in Hollywood. Over the years, it has collected more than twenty Academy Awards for hits like Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo. Its last eight films have grossed more than $500 million worldwide. The memorable characters and storylines that Pixar dreams up have delighted moviegoers of all ages. But behind all of the box office magic is an active feedback system that’s built on candor, communication, and a surprising openness to other people’s ideas.
Creating full-length animated films is definitely not child’s play. A single scene lasting just four seconds requires about one hundred frames, which can take up to a week to produce. For the 2001 smash Monsters, Inc., animators spent twelve hours on each frame, many of which featured Sully, the film’s furry blue hero, and his 2,320,413 individually animated hairs, each painstakingly created to appear like the real thing.
At times, the process can seem more forensic than artistic. Story artists comb through every detail of a scene, scanning for things that probably go unnoticed by viewers – the placement of a prop, perhaps, or the way a character’s eyes roll. They do so at their own peril: Changing even one minor detail in the animation means adjusting a character’s “rig,” or the digital dimensions that shape facial expressions and body movements. Rigging is a complex web of formulas, coding, and physics, and any imprecision in the rig can compromise a character’s lifelike performance on screen.
It doesn’t end there. Further down the pipeline, bits and pieces of the story – from camera angles and lighting to sound effects and motion capture – get reviewed and revised by film editors, technical directors, and creative designers. All that trimming adds up: It took Pixar’s team five years to scope more than 146,000 images before bringing its latest hit, Inside Out, to the box office. Making movies the Pixar way is a painstaking series of fills and cuts that lead to rapid design cycles that dunk ideas just as quickly as they’re dreamed up.
But instead of producing bottlenecks, which is what you’d expect, the process leads to breakthroughs – all because of a feedback technique Pixar calls “plussing.” Instead of shutting down ideas completely, animators try to add on to them with suggestions for improvement. So when the creative director for Pixar’s upcoming Toy Story 4 doesn’t like the way Woody’s eyes roll from frame to frame, he’ll won’t just toss the sketch. Instead, he’ll “plus” it by asking the story artist, “I like the way you drew Woody’s eyes. What if they rolled left?”
While that might seem semantic, the feedback effect is significant. Rather than reject ideas in their entirety, Pixar creates an additive approach to sharing feedback. It actively encourages artists to come up with their next steps based on the leads they receive.
Walt Disney captured the magic of plussing more than 60 years ago in an interview describing the planning of Disneyland:
“A picture is a thing that once you wrap it up and turn it over to Technicolor, you’re through. Snow White is a dead issue with me. The last picture I just finished—the one I just wrapped up a few weeks ago—it’s gone; I can’t touch it. There’s things in it I don’t like? I can’t do anything about it.
“I wanted something live, something that could grow, something I could keep plussing with ideas, you see? The park is that. Not only can I add things but even the trees will keep growing; the thing will get more beautiful every year.”
The process borrows from the tenets of improv, in which partners keep the sketch alive by “accepting all offers” and mining for comedic wrinkles in each other’s ideas. People who operate with “yes, and…” thinking use their words to amplify ideas, not silence them. Improv comedians furiously search for the just the right angle to keep ideas alive and “make their partner look good” by keeping the sketch rolling. Imagine what would happen in your next meeting if you tried to amplify someone else’s idea instead of just silencing it completely:
With just a simple tweak in our feedback, we help others think about ways to turn the corner rather than leaving them stranded at dead ends. And while this approach has worked wonders for Pixar, it can be applied as a non-critical feedback strategy to help just about anyone challenge their initial assumptions and come up with a better version than the one they had before. Whether it’s big-screen success or small wins in our work or relationships, “yes, and…” thinking lets people see the world in a whole new dimension.