By John McCann, Chief Learning Officer, CI International

“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.” – Harvey S. Firestone

When I was young, I got a new shirt from my Aunt Edith every year on my Dad’s birthday. You might wonder why I would get a present when it was my Dad’s birthday and wonder what this has to do with feedback. Here’s the back story:

My Dad was raised in part by his older sister Edith after their father passed away.  Between Edith and their mom, these two strong women brought my Dad and his brother through adolescence and into adulthood during the Great Depression. My Dad loved his sister Edith with all his heart. She was a wonderful person – as good-hearted a person as I ever met.

One year, she sent my Dad a beautiful and expensive silk shirt for his birthday.  She never had a lot of money so this was clearly a big sacrifice for her. Dad loved the shirt.

Unfortunately, however, he wore an extra-large, and Aunt Edith sent him a medium. He couldn’t bear the thought of hurting his beloved sister’s feelings by saying the shirt wasn’t perfect, so he sent her a nice thank you note and gave the shirt to me. I was about 10 years old at the time.

Based on Dad’s gracious note, Edith thought she had a hit on her hands and sent Dad another silk shirt – medium size – on his next birthday.

Now Dad had a problem. Edith had seen Dad in the interim, so she knew he wasn’t any bigger than he was the year before. She just didn’t understand men’s shirt sizes.

Dad was afraid if he told her it didn’t fit, her first question would be “well, what happened to last year’s shirt”?  He was afraid he’d damage the relationship with his sister, so he took the easy route and gave the shirt to me, sending Edith another nice thank you note.

This went on for eight years. It only ended when I asked Dad if he could request an extra-large from Aunt Edith because the mediums didn’t fit me anymore.

This story travels a familiar arc from content to relationship to pattern of behavior that we see when people don’t give one another feedback. If Dad, after getting the first shirt, had said, “Edith, thank you for the shirt, it’s beautiful.  Unfortunately, you sent me a medium and I wear an extra-large,” Aunt Edith would have said, “Oh, Jack, I’m sorry. Thanks for letting me know. Send it back and I’ll get the right size.”

Problem solved – on to the next thing.  It would have been resolved when it was entirely about the issue’s content. Aunt Edith would most likely have been grateful for the feedback to ensure her dear brother received a useful gift on his birthday.

However, since Dad didn’t speak up, he subsequently had to worry about the impact on the relationship when (or if) he did raise the issue. The relationship was so important to Dad that he couldn’t bear to do something that could have a negative impact on it, so he put it off.

This didn’t make the problem go away though. It just made it harder and harder to ever raise the issue. Eventually, this became a pattern of behavior that was well-ingrained and nearly impossible to raise without all sorts of hurt feelings.

Dad was self-aware enough to put this on himself. He knew he was the source of the problem. He didn’t say, “how could Edith not realize I wear an extra-large? I’m over 200 pounds. She should realize this. I shouldn’t have to deal with this. It’s her fault for not paying attention.”

Too often, we find ourselves looking at others as the source of our problems. It can be easy to accuse someone else of discourtesy or disrespect when, in fact, we are the source of the problem because we failed to raise an issue that was important to us.

A colleague of mine put it well after a rant about another colleague – at the end of which she was struck by a bolt of self-awareness; “I guess I need to stop feeling resentment towards people who don’t pick up on the things I don’t bother to tell them.”

Sharing feedback in a timely way is honestly a genuine act of caring and respect that will help others to operate at their best and offer the most value to the world.

Deciding when to give feedback

However, just because feedback is an act of caring and respect, this doesn’t mean we should all walk around looking for things that bother us and pointing them out to others willy-nilly. It’s important to be picky in choosing which issues need to be addressed in any given situation.

Here’s a 4-part test that you can use when deciding whether to raise an issue with someone or not:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Does it need to be said?
  3. Does it need to be said at this time?
  4. Can it be said with caring and respect?

Going back to the story of Dad and Aunt Edith, we can find that it would have passed the test and should have been brought up early on.

  1. Is it true? Yes, the shirt was the wrong size.
  2. Does it need to be said? Yes, because although Aunt Edith happily bought me presents for my birthday, this was a present she wanted Dad to have.
  3. Does it need to be said at this time? Yes, because the longer it was put off the harder it became to say it.
  4. Can it be said with care and respect? Yes, because Dad would have expressed his deep appreciation for Edith even as he told her what she needed to know.

Here’s an example of when a piece of feedback didn’t pass the 4-part test and should not have been given. Early in my career with CI International, I was teaching a class with a colleague who, just as I was about to go up in front of the group said to me, “that tie is not a good color for you.”

That statement only passed two parts of this test – it was true and needed to be said!  However, did it need to be said at that time? No, because there was nothing I could do about it, and it undermined my confidence. It certainly wasn’t said with care and respect – it made me feel quite small.

This last part of test, “can it be said with caring and respect?” may be the most important part of the 4-step process.  We often think of giving someone feedback as “fixing them” or changing their behavior so they’re easier to be around. That is the wrong mindset and is disrespectful. If we approach feedback with a mindset of, “I care enough about this person to share something they need to hear” then we are acting with respect.

Giving feedback about something being done right

Feedback is not only for when something is not being done correctly. Some of the most valuable feedback can be about something that is being done correctly. When someone has been doing something right for a long time, we can often take it for granted and not think that there is anything worth mentioning.

This would be a mistake because positive feedback can be a huge confidence boost for an employee and reinforces correct action and behavior, which is very valuable. The right time to deliver positive feedback is always! There is no need to go through a 4-part test in this case.

Delivering feedback effectively

Just as important as knowing when to give feedback is knowing how to deliver feedback effectively. For tips on how to deliver feedback effectively, check out our blog on Giving Feedback.  If you are interested in learning about how to create a feedback-oriented culture where your employees know when and how to deliver feedback to drive improved organizational performance, get in touch with one of our leadership experts.

About CI International

At CI International, we transform individuals, organizations, and communities through custom solutions that lead to lasting results.

Every journey begins with a first step… Greatness exists in everyone: every individual, organization, and community. But sometimes, you need a partner to help guide the way to reach that full potential. CI International offers high-impact, customized solutions to help transform individuals, organizations, and communities.

We specialize in consulting, training, and coaching that leads to lasting change. From corporations and cabinet-level government agencies to public health institutions and non-profits, we’ve guided organizations and their leaders on the road to greatness.