“Set the bar for receiving feedback.” With Chris Williams

Set the bar for receiving feedback. Just like everything else in leadership, you have to go first. Whether in groups, or facing your counterpart one-to-one, offer an opportunity for people to give feedback before they get it. Ask them to be direct. Ask them difficult questions that force you to examine, and potentially get better. […]

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Set the bar for receiving feedback. Just like everything else in leadership, you have to go first. Whether in groups, or facing your counterpart one-to-one, offer an opportunity for people to give feedback before they get it. Ask them to be direct. Ask them difficult questions that force you to examine, and potentially get better. For example, “Where am I failing? What am I absolutely good at and what am I absolutely not good at? If you could change one thing about me, what would it be?”. By asking questions like this, you not only open the door to honest discussion, you also model how a leader receives that information. (Keep in mind, most people will make feedback very, very gentle because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. But if you do it often enough, your team will come to trust you and begin to offer honest insight).

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Williams.

Chris is a Performance Coach and Podcaster located in Toronto, Canada. He’s also the owner of The Badass Agile Forge, an online leadership immersion experience.

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?

In the mid-1990’s, with an education in English and Psychology, I struggled to find meaningful work until I encountered the technical space, which was starting to boom at that time. I became a trainer in the technical certification game, then moved quickly into executive, consulting and coaching roles.

Although I found success there, I had a nagging sense that I still wasn’t the person that I needed to be to make the impact I wanted to make, to build the things that I wanted to build, and to live a life that was meaningful and fulfilling to me. So, in 2014, I joined a program run by ex-Navy SEALs with the intention of figuring out how they survive and thrive in the worst possible conditions while maintaining the highest level of confidence and excellence in everything they do.

What I learned there merged perfectly with my consulting ideals. That realization led me to start a podcast, change my coaching game, and leave the corporate/employment world behind forever. My focus is now about radically shifting mindsets and awareness so I can help others enjoy the success and experiences that I’ve had.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think it’s a certain level of honesty and distinction — zigging where others zag. My content goes completely against the grain. That wasn’t initially the intention; but I have learned that boldness and courage attract a certain kind of listener — and client. My stuff doesn’t work for everybody, but for those to whom it speaks, it’s been changing lives in measurable and remarkable ways.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in — Technology, HR, Marketing, Sales, Operations, Customer Service — people are just people. I always say, “there are no Agile problems, only human problems”. People may join my program to learn how to be better Agile leaders, but ultimately, it always comes back to their relationship with themselves.

On any given day, I’m showing people how to transform their existing beliefs and experiences. People come into my coaching or learning programs struggling with a variety of issues — anger, frustration, impatience, paralyzing fear, crises of identity, negativity, lack of confidence, obsession with pleasing others — but once we get to the heart of that and start working with it, their ability to inspire, influence and lead is permanently and organically amped up.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was working at a very large consulting and services firm. In the course of my daily work, I’m always referring to my podcast — either as an information resource or just to spread the word — and in the process, I met some people who believed so strongly in the message and the unique presentation that they wanted to make it available as a public offering for their clients. Since then, I’ve had people from all over the world in every language reach out to me to let me know how the show has changed and inspired them. All of this happened without doing any traditional social media, sales, or marketing, which solidified my belief that you should never do what everyone else is doing. Just focus on creating valuable things in service of others.

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?

I’m not sure if it’s exactly funny, but I think the most important thing I learned is that not everybody will get you. I spent a lot of time trying to promote and market my content — assuming that it was good for the entire world — but learned very quickly that when you make that assumption (“how could anybody NOT want this?”), oftentimes only three or four people show up.

But I had to learn that the hard way; by assuming that there was a recipe that I should be following, trying to follow it and having it fail hard repeatedly. I stress “repeatedly” because it’s so easy to fall for the logical trap that if everyone else is doing it, it must be right. I forgot to ask if a given approach was authentically me, or if it actually worked for people who are just like me. It’s funny to look around and see how much content and product is trying to be “the next Uber”, or “the Netflix of pet videos”. Instead of putting makeup on an existing innovation, why not be the innovation? There is a tragic amount of sameness in product, content, marketing and thinking. There’s an enormous originality gap.

Now, I’ve trained myself out of trying to squeeze into the same elevator with everybody else. Be patient; a new idea or solution is always just around the corner. The best recipe is the one that you create yourself.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Be obsessive about zapping waste. The most insidious form of waste is that which we do in the name of avoiding failure. You can’t avoid failure; you can only contain the downside. If you’re wise, you’ll figure out how to leverage the learning from your failures — and that actually creates an upside. But creating processes and flowcharts, seeking mass consensus, and trying to shield yourself from negative outcomes won’t allow you to cheat the reaper. The universe tends to laugh at your plans, so don’t spend six months making them, and don’t pretend that more detail makes more realistic plans.

Welcoming failure also lubricates the path to trusting your people — giving them real autonomy by pushing decisions down.

The other major source of waste is being too lazy to evaluate the value of everything you do. There’s an easy fix for that. Start your day by establishing the three most important outcomes — not ‘things to do’, but real value or momentum generated — and focusing only on those. Even then, you can get lost in the doing, so ask “If I could only spend 25 minutes on this, what would I want to deliver?” You don’t want to be productive; you want to be effective — the difference being that you want to spend your best energy on the things that matter most. It may seem counterintuitive to only spend 25 minutes on the most important things, but the truth is, small effort applied consistently over time will create far less burnout and far better results. That’s perhaps the most important lesson that I teach. Part of that is my background in Agility; some of it comes from being a keen observer of human folly.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I’m not the first to say that leadership means going first; but going first is ill-defined.

It means protecting your team from harm when things go wrong. You can’t innovate without sheltering your team from the negative consequences of failure.

It means being true to your voice and not diluting your mission under any circumstance. If you’ll bend on your purpose and values, you’ll bend on anything. People are wired at a biological level to notice incongruencies in what you say, or expect of others, and what you actually do.

It means in the absence of certainty and safety, to BE certainty and safety. When the way is unclear, remain committed to the outcome, and help your team find the way together.

It means showing people by example what courage looks like. It means showing them what victory feels like. It means letting others do their work their way. It means letting go of control and giving people what they say they need to hit home runs. It does mean holding them to a higher standard, too. But it most certainly means taking the focus off of yourself. As tempting as it may be for leaders to be proud of their own achievements, their own story, their ability to inspire, I think your most important job is being a steward of people as they learn to inspire themselves.

The most leader-like thing I do is get my hands dirty and simply do the work. Often it takes a person to say, “I’ll build the website. I’ll create the logo; I’ll make the marketing copy. And you guys can feed back on it” to get something in motion. Do that once, and other people will echo that behavior. Too often, we want to be democratic and let others lead, but sometimes that creates a kind of inertia, where people are just staring at each other, waiting for someone else to make the first move. Leadership means knowing what you want and relentlessly going after it.

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?

Anxiety and relaxation are rooted in emotion. Nobody gets stressed for logical reasons. Therefore, nobody gets unstressed for logical reasons. It’s all emotion. And because it’s emotional, it’s very difficult to cure anxiety through dialogue and contemplation. Maybe the most important question you can ask yourself is “what can I let go of today?”. Meaning that what you’re about to do may or may not work, but what if you weren’t attached to a particular outcome? What if you didn’t care what others thought? What if everything goes wrong, and you found it didn’t result in disaster; that you can cope? You’ll be okay. If it’s a struggle, you’ll be okay. If it’s difficult. You’ll be okay with whatever comes.

As you do that, see if you can visualize the tension in your body, really identify it — not with words, but with feelings. Where is it? What does it feel like? — and try injecting yourself with the opposite. Breathing deeply always helps. So does focusing on the sensation, the cadence, or the sound of your breath. It sounds fundamental, but it really does work.

Before a high stakes meeting, I have a ritual. I’ve written the dialogue out for myself and recorded it as a guided meditation and visualization. I picture myself being in the meeting — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the people — I picture a series of events; both good and bad. How the right words will be available to me; how I will lead from passion and noble intention. How I will handle objections with ease and humility. Most importantly, how I will stay emotionally centered and calm — not getting anxious, not getting tense, not reacting automatically, but consciously, to the things that happen

There are other simple practices — getting up and moving every 25 minutes. Spending time in nature, with your feet on the earth, also matters. Maybe the single most important thing we can do now to reduce stress and anxiety in a time of great uncertainty and division is put our devices down. They are creating 80% of the unreal levels of anxiety we experience today.

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?

I’ve managed many teams over the course of 20 years; some in person, some entirely online. I’ve given feedback to employees and contractors, peers, subordinates and bosses. Because I run The Forge, I have access to people who are interested in becoming elite and operating at the highest possible level. It’s a year-long immersion experience that includes weekly classrooms, ongoing assignments and challenges, and weekly coaching. Fair to say, I’ve given feedback in safe and unsafe environments; to willing and unwilling recipients.

I think The Forge is the most fun example, because here, without feedback, nobody changes. In fact, I owe it to people to give them feedback, even when they’re operating at a damn near-perfect level, because it’s through stretching that people actually grow. They want it. They expect it. The better they get, the more insightful and challenging they want the feedback to be. In other settings, feedback is not as welcome for various reasons. And in those situations, I have to build a culture where it becomes as desirable as it is in The Forge.

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?

Unfortunately, being direct and clear is losing favour as we culturally cherish empathy and sensitivity. But they are not polar opposites. The answer is to create a culture where clear feedback is preferred; because the sooner we can get feedback, the sooner we get to fulfill our grandest dreams as individuals.

The question that I sometimes ask when people ask for feedback is, “do you want me to make you feel better, or you want me to make you better?”. That helps people understand that even though the truth may be difficult to hear, it needs to be heard. Otherwise nothing changes.

If we wrap it up in too much niceness, ambiguous language, and the wrong kind of positivity, people don’t change. People change when there’s discomfort. People change when change is necessary and urgent. I’m not suggesting we inflict pain, but it should be uncomfortable to acknowledge your gaps so that you’re positively motivated to take the steps required to change. All change is hard. All striving is difficult. If this were easy, everyone would be doing it, and everyone would be a superstar.

One way to think of feedback is you’re simply offering people the benefit of your experience. Like a hitting coach in baseball, if you know what it takes to do something well, you’re helping people shift their habits and behaviours so they can reach that level more efficiently and more consistently — to get better results for themselves quicker.

What always helps take the sting out of direct feedback is to aim it at an act, not a person. You have to separate judgment of a performance from that of the actor. When people learn to fear or dislike feedback, it’s usually because their discomfort has nothing to do with the skills gap, and everything to do with their interpretation of what the feedback means about them — their likability, their lovability, their general ability, and their worthiness. Any such judgments should be completely out of bounds.

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.

When giving feedback to a remote employee, obviously you don’t have access to each other’s body language, which makes the conversation more challenging.

Here are some tips that may help you.

  1. Set the bar for receiving feedback. Just like everything else in leadership, you have to go first. Whether in groups, or facing your counterpart one-to-one, offer an opportunity for people to give feedback before they get it. Ask them to be direct. Ask them difficult questions that force you to examine, and potentially get better. For example, “Where am I failing? What am I absolutely good at and what am I absolutely not good at? If you could change one thing about me, what would it be?”. By asking questions like this, you not only open the door to honest discussion, you also model how a leader receives that information. (Keep in mind, most people will make feedback very, very gentle because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. But if you do it often enough, your team will come to trust you and begin to offer honest insight).
  2. Thank you for making me better. When receiving feedback in this manner, no matter how positive or negative, always say, “Thanks for making me better”. This shows, by example, that feedback is something to be grateful for because it’s an opportunity to improve 1% each day. The accumulation of frequent feedback eventually makes you uncommon and unstoppable.
  3. Make feedback about them getting more of what they want. After you’ve received feedback, you’re free to give a little feedback in return. Remember, the goal is not to create positivity by cushioning your words, but to create positivity by putting feedback in its context. You are not offering criticism, but rather small tweaks that your team can use to improve their game. It’s very helpful to know what the individuals on your team value. At some point — hopefully prior to the feedback session — you should take some time to ask people what they do in their spare time, and what their hobbies and passions are. This will illustrate whether they value things like timeliness, honor, contribution, teaching, compassion, healing, creativity, or family. Then, when you give feedback, it’s helpful to line it up to their values. For example, if somebody volunteers at a palliative care unit, they obviously value compassion, community and connectivity. Let’s say that same person comes into work and snaps at somebody else. Again, you’re not going to make it a personal judgment; nothing in your feedback should say “What you did makes you a bad person”. What you want to get at instead is that the choices that they made, or their approach to executing that choice, is probably not going to get them more of what they want and less of what they don’t. So, if they aim to be a compassionate person who is community and connection-based, they’re probably aware that yelling at people and being short isn’t the best way to achieve that goal. On the other hand, if they had a way to manage their frustration, they could choose a response that is more in line with who they most want to be.
  4. Within the team, get as direct as you can. In elite teams, we’re very comfortable saying things like “what you just did let your team down”. We’re comfortable with that kind of dialogue, because we desperately want to be the kind of people who don’t just say we never let our team down, but actually live that value. Here again, it rolls up to who you want to be and what you value.
  5. Get greedy for feedback. That kind of attitude, which we call “fighting over the last scrap of blame”, creates a culture where we almost get greedy for feedback, because we know from experience that if you get feedback, and apply your best efforts toward making change, you will improve — fast. You’ll get better results. You achieve things you didn’t think you were capable of. And that is addictive.

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?

Well, it’s true — words matter. You can most definitely avoid language that makes people feel singled out or wrong.

I think it’s helpful in emails to say something like this:

Hello J.,

As you know, our mission statement is all about creating awesome experiences for customers. Knowing you as I do, I know that you share elements of that vision and you get great joy when we hit home runs for our customers.

I’d like to offer you some feedback that I think will help you get more of that when you’re on the phone with them. Try experimenting with talking less and letting them speak more. Customers feel more inspired, more engaged when they’re talking about themselves. It takes practice, but one suggestion is to just try to be mindful — see if you can flip the balance by maybe 10%.and then see what happens. That’s something you could work on and measure for yourself for the next 30 days and let me know if it makes a positive impact, in a way that’s meaningful for you, your values and your goals. If I can be of any help making that work for you, let me know. I have some experience and some ideas to share.

Above all, I appreciate your willingness to listen and try new things, and I want to commend you on the great job you’ve done and the way you become a valuable part of this team.

Notice there’s no blame, labeling or threats. Nor is there anything shameful or harsh that criticizes the individual, but rather, this approach suggests a small behaviour shift to see if it positively influences our collective goals. The change is achievable, and they have some autonomy in the scope and timeline of the solution.

What also helps us to have a team creed, or shared values. Most teams will independently arrive at a set of similar core values — try it and see. If you bring a team of people together and ask them to create shared values, they will always come up with “communication, honesty, commitment. hard work, teamwork, transparency”. You can go a step further and encourage them to consider what those values in action actually look like.

Then, when you have to give difficult feedback, it’s easier to point people to the values that they helped establish and ask them to what extent they think they’re crushing those values, and where might they need some work. Again, avoid using florid language to try to soften the blow. It’s okay to use very few words, as long as you can pin it up to a set of shared values. When you connect what you value to what they value, the whole conversation is much easier to have, even if it is brief and direct.

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, you should give feedback as close to the occasion as possible. If someone has made a mistake, they’re probably sitting around waiting for you to call them. Never call out people in front of the team, but rather reach out at a time when you know you’re likely to get them privately. Barring that, one of the most important practices I have — and this comes from the Agile world. — is the after-action report, or retrospective. If you bake it into the culture that every time we move as a unit, we analyze and inspect our performance, then feedback becomes not only habitual, but more immediate. For example, if you’ve just run a sales presentation or product demo, as soon as the event is over, hang back and ask people: “What went well? What can be done better?”.

If your work is not event-driven, you simply have it at the end of the day. “How did today go? What went well? What can be done differently?”

The only exception to this rule is if you’re dealing with emotionally charged situations, where people may need a little time and distance between the event and the discussion around it.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

A great boss is a person who perpetually lifts other people up, shines a light on their excellence, their mission and purpose — and their gaps. A great boss gives people simple “rails” — life lessons to follow — that are easy to remember, easy to execute, and easy to measure, in a way that shows them that, above all else, you have their best interests at heart. When you do these things, the rest of the corporate results tend to come as a natural by-product.

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. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, it would be around simplicity. We spend too much time learning leadership and excellence from books and gurus, each with their own particular method. But if you look deeply enough, the fundamentals that underpin them are the same. It is about accountability AND letting go of things that you can’t control. It’s about making simple promises consistently over time. It is about patience. It’s about mindfulness. It’s about knowing who you are, where you’re strong, and where you’re weak; it’s about humility.

As we say in The Forge, “Get visionary. Get focused. Get humble and flexible. Get gritty. Get badass”.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Seth Godin once said, rather simply, “The world needs your art”. Either that means the world needs more meaningful, authentic work, OR it means no matter how little greatness I see in it, someone is waiting for me to make what I make. Either way, that compels me.

Each presentation, each podcast, each lesson, or each scrap of writing is another chance to make impact. Another chance for a creator and their audience to connect perfectly. That’s inspiring in times when I wonder what I’m doing, or if I should keep going. Fab Dupont (music producer) also less famously said that when you see someone on stage or in the studio, writing or performing a song, you are seeing courage in action. All of art, all of creation is courage in motion. It is wise to remember that 99% of the people you meet wouldn’t dare try. Be someone who dares. It’s important.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The best place is to follow the show, Badass Agile (www.badassagile.com). From there you can connect with me on LinkedIn, Instagram or social media of your choice.

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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