Lessons from Leadership is Language on Feedback

That title couldn’t be any more explicit. I spoke with a colleague who shared a challenging situation she’s in. After our talk, I couldn’t help myself from thinking what if I were in that situation and had to be the one to make that difficult conversation. I also took it as an opportunity to revisit what I read about from Leadership is Language by L. David Marquet, and relate aspects or lessons from the book on to the context of giving feedback. Of course, I can’t share the exact examples here, but I tried to give close enough explanations.


Give information, Not instructions

  • Instead of saying “You should do this or that,” try to provide the information that would reasonably lead to that suggestion (or maybe even better suggestions from them).

Focus on behavior, Not characteristics

People will have better control over their behaviors, than on characteristics they have.

  • Instead of saying “You’re an ineffective ______________,” try citing the specific behaviors that led to the idea that they’re an ineffective whatever.
  • Same when it’s positive. Instead of saying “You’re a great team member,” say the behaviors that you’d like to be repeated.

On the process, Not the person

While I think asking one’s self “How can I be a better <insert role here>” is good for introspection, asking that to another person might not always be taken positively. I think we are naturally defensive and we can’t expect everyone to be consciously going against that natural tendency. Asking “How can you be a better leader?” might somehow be misinterpreted as “You’re not a good leader, you suck, you really need to improve…”

  • Instead of asking that, shift focus on certain processes. Say that person’s responsibility includes owning say the peer review process, then instead of asking “How can you be a better peer reviewer,” ask “How can we improve on the peer review process,” “What do you think can we try to better track the peer review comments,” etc.

Observe, Not judge

I think this ties up with the previous items on focusing on behaviors and giving information. By trying to take a non-judgmental stance, ideally we get to show that we are not condemning the person, that we are open to working with the person to address the objective information provided.

  • Instead of (judging the person) “You wrote that report poorly,” or (judging the work) “That report is poorly written,” provide the observations instead “I noticed three spelling errors in the report”.

I just reused the example from the book here. With that example, it feels easier, clearer or more achievable to address the “three spelling errors” compared to a poorly written report.

On achieving excellence, Not avoiding errors

I think asking how to avoid errors is a fair question to ask because that is something you want to achieve. This also works well for me for introspection. But related to what I mentioned previously, asking that can be taken negatively even if you don’t mean it to be. “How can you avoid so-and-so” might come across as rubbing salt to the wound or might feel like the focus is on what the other person is doing wrong.

  • Instead of asking “Why do you keep on missing those bugs” (which also feels accusatory and it’s often not the case that people intentionally try to miss bugs), ask “What do you think can we try to find those bugs sooner?”
  • Instead of asking “How can your outputs be less buggy,” ask “What do you think are we missing in our process so that we can get things right in fewer reviews as possible?”

In writing about this, I have had a little more time to think about it. But the challenge I guess is making these conscious word choices on-the-fly or when the situation unexpectedly calls for it.

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