LeeAnn Renninger, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of LifeLabs Learning, reflects on how to handle tough conversations, de-escalate tension, and develop a company culture that thrives on constructive feedback.

Q. You teach four building blocks for giving feedback. What are they and how do they work?

LR: These building blocks can always be rearranged, but like cake ingredients, you need them all. The first is asking a question that leads to a “micro yes.” For example: “I have an observation about this, can I share it with you?” The micro yes prepares the recipient's brain for the feedback. It decreases the surprise factor and gives them a feeling of power in the situation. It adds structure to a potentially unstructured conversation.

The second building block is using clear and concise language to call out specific skills or behaviors that someone is missing. For example, if you say “you’re being lazy,” everyone will have a different understanding of what “lazy” means. It’s your responsibility to de-blur the labeling words. Instead of telling someone they’re not being proactive enough, identify the specific behavior they’re missing: “You only informed me about this major change yesterday, when I feel like I should have been informed last week.” Often, the person receiving feedback doesn’t know what they don't know. In our senior positions, we need to help them understand exactly what skill or behavior they're missing. That's when change startes to happen.

The third building block is giving an impact statement. Explain why you’re bringing a certain deficiency up, why it matters to you, and what its impact is on the team or society as a whole. People say they're going to change, and they don't — because they don't actually understand the impact of what you’re asking them to change. Providing an impact statement gives people the impetus to make the change happen.

And finally, the fourth block is what we call “Q-Steps,” or stepping into questions mode. Asking questions like “How are you seeing this,” “What do you see as a potential solution,” and “What can you do differently going forward” helps shift the recipient’s mental framework from closed- to open minded.

Q. What’s your advice for providing feedback to an employee who isn’t understanding, or tends to get emotional?

LR: Whenever I feel like I'm giving up on someone, I'll make sure I’m doing my best to get my point across. But when I realize someone seriously isn't getting it, I’ll ask for their advice on how I’m giving the feedback to make them feel like a co-creator.

I might say, “I need your help here. I'm sharing this thing. I feel like I'm saying it clearly, but I'm probably not because I feel like I'm not seeing the change happen. What should I do differently? How could I better position this? What can I do to make this easier?” Often they will come back with a helpful solution.

The second strategy I use is to raise the stakes. I’ll say, “There's a gap in your performance. Here's where it's at. Here's where I need it to be. If we can't fill this gap, I can't keep you in this position or I can't keep you on these projects.” If it becomes emotional, or the person’s not digesting what you’ve told them, you can always take a small break — go refill your water, or take 10 minutes to process.

Emotionality can hijack the conversation, especially if we start backtracking. In this situation, I say something like, “I can see that this is really important to you. It's important to me as well. I want to make sure we have space for this conversation. So it's okay that we go a little bit slower with this. We can even take a pause.” When things get emotional, you can also use intention statements. Hit the pause button, ask if you can re-share your intention, and clarify that your goal is to make life easier for both parties.

Q. You’ve mentioned that when providing feedback, you need to stay “on your side of the net.” What does that mean, and why is it important?

LeeAnn Renninger: Staying on your side of the net means that you can’t hop over into the other person’s mindset. You can’t make presumptions about whether someone is listening or not. Your goal is to clarify what’s missing for you, and why it’s important. That’s it.

Imagine I’m the type of person who makes tons of typos. I can’t help it. I am a big picture thinker, and can’t be bothered with spelling mistakes. But my team keeps telling me that I look unprofessional. In response, I say, “No I don’t. No one cares.” These are dumb conversations, and they lead no where. Instead, whoever is giving me feedback needs to stay on their side of the net and clarify their mindset. Instead of saying my spelling errors are unprofessional, they could say something like: “Spelling mistakes matter a lot to me. Here's why: When I read a spelling mistake, I feel like the writer wasn’t present, didn’t care, and won’t care about future things. For that reason, I think it's going to impact our company in the following way...”

Now she has my attention. If she had said, “You don’t care about details,” I would get defensive. It would feel like she’s getting on my side of the net and telling me what I think. When she stays on her side, I’m all ears.

Q. What first steps can you take to institutionalize a company-wide feedback culture?

LR: If you want your team to be better at giving and receiving feedback, you have to build feedback into your company values. Write it into job descriptions, look for a learning mindset when you interview people, speak about it at company all hands. Clarify how much feedback matters. It’s like weaving a thread.

You also need to model feedback pulse. As a leader, you want to pull feedback before it gets pushed onto you. If you do a presentation, go ask your team for feedback before they come to you. Modeling the feedback system for our direct reports normalizes it. Creating a positive feedback culture is about learning, not knowing — you want to hire learn-it-alls, not know-it-alls.

I recommend being really careful about seasonal feedback. When an organization has a performance review set up to happen at certain points in their company cycle, many people think they should hold their feedback until their review. You can still have quarterly performance reviews, but you also want to encourage continuous feedback. If you have a weekly one-on-one, make sure feedback is part of the rhythm — something to be expected. It reduces the surprise and builds the muscle.

Finally, one of the easiest ways to institutionalize feedback is to pause during or after any project that’s going particularly well and ask your team, “We know this thing succeeded, but before we move on, what caused it to succeed? What's something we could have done 10% better?”

Originally Published May 22, 2020