Judge Based On Intent: Too many people believe it’s necessary to judge a person or team’s usefulness based on their results. Although results are important, when giving feedback, intent is what matters most. When giving negative feedback, always consider the intent of the person who takes the action that you are dissatisfied with, it may cause you to avoid discouraging a beneficial mindset that happened to lead to a negative result. For example, I am constantly reminded of the time when one of my team members was late to a meeting I was giving, but the reason they were late was because they had to pick up ANOTHER team member who had no car that day. If I never considered the intent of the action, I’d otherwise have given negative feedback for something that was truly beneficial to my organization.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Austin Denison.
Austin Denison is the owner of Denison Success Systems and Denison Digital Marketing, a consulting and marketing firm located in Southern California. He has written books on a variety of topics including personal development, change management, and most recently, content marketing. He enjoys doing all he can to ensure the success of brands and businesses everywhere, and to enjoy the process simultaneously.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Leadership has always been a field that has interested me. The dynamic between people, attitudes, and mindsets is something that piques my curiosity and has caused me to learn all I can about leadership, both organizationally and personally. When I was fresh out of university, I continually noticed in many of the jobs that I performed that I would be the person who quelled confusions, gave directions, and take charge when there was nobody else who could. I did so because it felt more natural for me to be solutions-oriented, and to cut away and pierce through the problem-oriented mindsets. To provide direction and clarity is something I’ve always enjoyed doing, whether I’ve been a formally positioned leader or not.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company provides a wide array of services, of which, I think executive coaching is the one that most fits this bill in terms of experience. Any successful organization needs to remember that the customer or client is the single most important factor of business. It’s easy to become caught up believing that your businesses matters most, when in reality, as a consultant, the businesses of others is what will ultimately define my own success. The more people I can truly help, the more successful I become in every sense of the matter. It’s the same way with most businesses. Providing an excellent product and/or service that solves the consumer’s issue is the most important factor in business success. Here’s a quick story as to why this is: As a marketing consultant, I was asked by a larger organization to review their consumer conversion process. I analyzed their sales funnels, content, copywriting, and followed the conversion cycle from awareness to loyalty. They’d been having issues with decreasing revenue, and I was to help them resolve it. What I noticed was one thing: Their copywriting continuously framed themselves as the point of discussion (the “hero”), and not the consumer. After reframing this, their conversions leveled and grew again as it had before! Our organization is unique because all we do is for the consumer. This ensures both our success and their success.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I had been in businesses for 6 years prior to putting a label on my business. Gaining clients through word of mouth alone in my local sphere of influence. I decided recently to move in a new direction. At the beginning of this year (2020) I had decided to further pursue a speaking career in which I combined my knowledge of online marketing, consumer trends, and organizational psychology. I had just began reaching out to various events when the worldwide pandemic struck, decimating my projected revenues for this entire year. Ultimately, I was able to further grow a social influence on LinkedIn and make the most of it. But it goes to show that, occasionally, the most unexpected things happen and are totally outside of your control. And the only choices you have are to accept defeat, or adapt and decide not to let external forces influence your internal environment.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During high school, when I had first began leading a group of my peers (numbering 150), I made the classic leadership mistake of assuming that they knew what I knew and that they thought the same way that I thought. I had been organizing a charitable event in which we would work as staff for the venue. Ultimately, I had a detailed plan and placement of every individual, and as long as I was there to keep things running smoothly, everything was well. Until the moment that I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion! We had been running around in nearly 100-degree (Fahrenheit) weather. The moment I was no longer able to support the plan, and with nobody appointed to execute it within my realm of logic, things fell apart. Luckily, the event ended well, but the result was a lesson that I wouldn’t forget. As a leader, you need to work to be replaceable by the next in line. Leaders should NEVER be indispensable. Or else you face the possibility of an organization that can’t maintain itself through culture.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Burnout occurs as a result of implementing augmented actions to your current schedule instead of replacing unimportant actions. Put simply, you try to add before you subtract. When leaders make the habit of adding more and more tasks to their teams without replacing non-beneficial ones, the teams become more overloaded with actions they must take in the same amount of time. The main issue is that the existence of these actions, without being delegated or prioritized properly will lead to burn-out. Bruce Lee once said “It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away the unessential.” And I believe this applies perfectly. To really make a team more productive you need to give them just enough of the tasks that truly make a difference, and “hack away” those that don’t. Remember, multitasking actually decreases productivity because the brain takes time to pivot from one mindset to another. That being said, here’s the simple list of ways to increase productivity in order. 1) Identify and drop the actions that don’t make a difference. 2) Implement just enough substitute actions so that they can be completed without multitasking or sacrificing quality. 3) Hold meetings and prioritize actions and results so that your teams know what is expected, and what they do that matters most.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I personally define leadership as a person’s ability to communicate the value behind a cause, married to an ideal, and to instill that ideal into the minds of those who follow the leader. The reason that I define leadership this way is because it is necessary for a leader to instill the ideal into the culture of others. In doing so, the leader ensures that the community they gather can continue to operate effectively without them. After all, a movement that can’t operate without the leader is not a strong movement at all. This is the difference between a war and a revolution. Wars are fought for order’s sake. Revolutions are fought for the individual’s sake. Revolutions have been far and away more effective than wars have in instilling cultural ideals. I’m not saying there needs to be a revolution in business! What I AM saying is that tethering a person’s beliefs to an ideal will be far more effective than merely providing orders. The most successful leaders need to strive to provide their employees a reason to come to work for more than the money involved.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
The single most effective thing that works to relieve my stress is some amazing preparation. Long ago, I was tasked with giving a presentation to an Air Force General. To me, at the time, this was a high-profile presentation that would pivot on my ability to communicate effectively and have “all” the answers they were looking for. Preparation is what got me through this presentation. With “above and beyond” preparation, you not only gain the confidence in what you know, but also the expertise in how you can present it. This further ensures that, whatever the situation is, you are confident in your ability to perform and knowledgeable of whatever material or topic that you are requested to provide. In this way, I often remind myself of the “5 P” acronym! Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?
As a consultant who deals with high-profile clients (in terms of the organizational model) and with experience of leading groups between 2 and 150 individuals, feedback is one of the most critical factors of success that there is, but also one of the least understood and least comfortable for leaders to enact. Giving feedback is an art, and will rely heavily on EQ (emotional intelligence). In consulting, specifically, feedback is the name of the game. I am hired because I am supposed to give feedback, both honestly and professionally. Doing so with tact and poise can be difficult, but will always be necessary for some good improvement.
This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?
Ultimately, feedback is necessary for two core reasons that are dependent on the nature of the feedback: 1) To instill a behavior: Feedback that is given as positive kudos or congratulations are meant to instill a behavior that has already been presented. In this way, the leader would do well to identify both the specific actions and thought processes that lead to that positive result. Actions may change, but the thought process and “why” behind the behavior should not. 2) To optimize future results. This core reason is the difference between useful feedback and harmful communication. Feedback is always given to optimize future decisions, actions, and thoughts. Harmful communications are meant to berate, judge, and harm the mentality or actions of subordinates. As you can imagine, harmful communication should never be utilized by leaders. Useful feedback for optimization is often given when the end result or action did not produce intended benefits. In this case, the leaders do well to highlight some faults in thinking and actions that led to the negative result without attempting to place blame or failure on individuals. Because of these reasons, feedback is necessary to instill culture within the organization and/or shift the organization from ineffective to more effective.
One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.
1) Begin with the Good: In the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, he mentions that the mentality of a person who hears what is good before what is bad becomes more willing to engage and remain open-minded to their own improvement. This is because you feel like you are less attacked, and more considered as a functioning member of the team. The leader who rewards the good before giving feedback on the bad is communicating that they recognize and reward hard work, and in this way, the feedback comes as more honest and useful to the team. In my experience, there had been an instance when one member of my team had procrastinated and poorly written an SOP (standard operating procedure). When I met with them, I told them what I liked, what I didn’t like, and how it could be improved over the next few days. The man who had written the SOP admitted that he was apprehensive and defensive of coming into the meeting because he was afraid that I’d drill him with negativity in the same way that his managers had done before. But by being positive first and complimenting the good, I was able to break down the barriers of bias he had set in his mind and cause him to instill my suggestions for betterment.
2) Judge Based On Intent: Too many people believe it’s necessary to judge a person or team’s usefulness based on their results. Although results are important, when giving feedback, intent is what matters most. When giving negative feedback, always consider the intent of the person who takes the action that you are dissatisfied with, it may cause you to avoid discouraging a beneficial mindset that happened to lead to a negative result. For example, I am constantly reminded of the time when one of my team members was late to a meeting I was giving, but the reason they were late was because they had to pick up ANOTHER team member who had no car that day. If I never considered the intent of the action, I’d otherwise have given negative feedback for something that was truly beneficial to my organization.
3) Empathy Means Trust: The more empathy you have and practice when giving feedback means the more you are able to place yourself into the mind of the person to whom the feedback is directed. Empathy is probably the single most important factor of providing useful, but sensitive, feedback. With empathy, you look for the underlying situation of a person rather than merely the results they can bring you. When it comes to team members, empathy allows you to communicate in a way that remains respectful, yet powerful, and you begin to form trust with them. There was a time when I was scheduled to be performing a special project with a teammate of mine. A good amount of time after the project began, I still hadn’t heard from my teammate after multiple attempts to contact them. It would have been standard for many people to become angry, leave hurtful or accusatory voicemails and more, but I wanted to know what was going on in the life of my partner that would cause them to behave this way. Unfortunately, I had later found out that his mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and he was in no shape to work on the project. Had I not been curious about the life and well-being of my partner, and had not had empathy to the situation, I would have left scathing emails, messages and more that would have only harmed the trust between us. Fortunately, I allowed him to take his time and found another partner with which to perform the project.
4) Not All Negative Feedback Is Necessary: When giving feedback, a leader must “pick their battles” so to speak. The truth is, not all feedback is absolutely necessary. And this is where we bridge the gap between feedback and micromanagement. Feedback is useful because it is centered around actions that produce a desired result. To correct any negative actions and enforce any positive ones is all for the sake of producing a result. However, micromanagement occurs when the process itself is unaccepted by the “leader”. That is to say, the leader wants the actions to be done their way, whether it has any consequence on the desired result or not. Here’s the simple test that you can use to determine how micromanaging a leader is. Do they provide negative feedback even when the result is accomplished? Assuming that the actions of the team don’t harm any other factor of business? When one of my team members came up with a new and improved method for designing emails, and produces the desired result, I could have said “no, you must do it the way I showed you.” But instead I rewarded the creativity, which further inspired the person to improve, innovate, and feel comfortable and satisfied with a work environment that appreciated the individuality.
5) Make Feedback A Regular Practice: One of the easiest ways to desensitize the team to believing that feedback is a harsh criticism is to have regular check-ups and provide feedback (in private) to each and every person. This works because nobody feels as though they are singled out, everybody has something they are applauded for, and can improve on, and over time everybody becomes more comfortable with improvement. Overall, most organizations don’t do this enough. They’ll have yearly feedback, but nothing more than that. I try and implement some kind of feedback every month or so to ensure that we can check up on the nature of things, both in mindset and in progress. In fact, it can be framed as an informal meeting, pizza party, or more to ensure that people remain open-minded and are unafraid to receive feedback on their own improvement as well as their progress. I have found in my own experience that providing a small and (psychologically secure) incentive to hear your feedback is a great way to remain open to the idea of improvement in these ways.
Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Giving feedback by written word is tricky and should never be used in some more extreme examples (such as termination). That being said, the issue with written word is that it lacks the ability to pick up on key non-verbal emotional cues that can inform the receiver of the feedback that there is a nuance in the message. For example, tone of voice makes a HUGE difference, and is missing when a person reads an e-mail message. The best way to give feedback over email is to, once again, begin with the good. This automatically lowers the guard of the person reading the email and ensures them that they are appreciated for certain efforts. The next tip is to use “I” and “we” in your message, as opposed to “you.” All this does is avoid the possibility of coming across as accusatory and enforce the fact that you function as a team. For example, tell me which of these sounds less harsh and invites more open-mindedness: 1)”You can certainly do better on this project” or 2) “I believe we can certainly do better on this project”. The next step is to remain solution oriented and provide a push in the right mental direction for your team member. Provide solutions to ensure them that you are not focused on the issue as opposed to how they can improve. Focusing on the issue will cause them embarrassment or defensiveness, focusing on the solution gives them something to strive for to RESOLVE their embarrassment or defensiveness. All of these things can accurately be communicated in written word!
In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?
Generally, giving feedback can be prioritized by the effect that an action has on the organization. A catastrophic effect of a continued action needs to be dealt with immediately. Whereas, an action that has not yet produced an affect may not even be recognized to be an ineffective action! This is the dichotomy of feedback. A leader must know not only what actions are harming the organizations effectiveness, but also which actions are producing the most harm. Those are the actions that you want to immediately resolve. Generally, you will want to give feedback relatively soon after the incident has taken place to ensure that you immediately cut off it’s effects. This also helps the receiver of the feedback categorize the actions they took, and their reasoning for doing so. As I mentioned before, when it comes to intervals, I find amazing value in having frequent feedback sessions! Once a month or every quarter are great timelines for consistent feedback.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
To be a “great boss” you must not only recognize when it is necessary to give feedback but also when it is necessary to ACCEPT feedback. Great leaders are only human, after all, and as such, they make mistakes like everybody else. One of the best things you can do as a leader is to not only give appropriate feedback when necessary but also put into place systems and procedures that allow other to give feedback to YOU, the leader. In this way, ego is left out of the game and a mindset of constant improvement and optimization inhabits the minds and culture of the organization, leader included. In my experience, the very experiences that had taught me these lessons are the feedback I gathered from my team members. They opened my eyes to the idea that I might be micromanaging, making assumptions, or providing ONLY negative feedback, all of which can harm the trust and efficiency of the team. That being said, once I became aware of these things, I’ve been able to study up and fix them!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A good while ago, I wrote a book called The Potential Dichotomy in which I shared my philosophy of the world. My goal is to establish a mindset of abundance within people to ensure that they don’t settle for a life in which they are unhappy. Life is too short to live as a victim of your own mindset, and getting people to realize that nobody but themselves are stopping them from reaching great heights is what it means to actualize potential instead of become accepting of it. Potential is the result that a person has not YET achieved. Therefore, it is unnecessary and is the cause of comfort within mediocrity, which is entirely debilitating. My goal is to help others avoid potential and to live a life that can be remembered.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Just recently I came across a quote by Henry Ford, “When everything seems to be going against you, remember that an airplane takes off against the wind, rather than with it.” In this time of uncertainty and unprecedented hardship, it is easy to believe that we are falling, but instead it may just produce the best conditions for our incredible rise to success. Pressure produces diamonds after all, and these times have opened my eye to many possibilities that I had not yet noticed before.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.
Thank you for having me! Stay safe and best of luck with giving your feedback!