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What We Don’t Know Hurts

Imagine the pain of waking up one day and discovering the world had passed you by. Truly, consider the agony of believing you had been doing a good job and realizing you hadn’t. The brutality of the sinking awareness that you’re overpaid and are unlikely to find another job that pays even remotely close to what you made yesterday. The panic of knowing the secure career you thought you had is no more. The dread of knowing that your future plans for you and your family are now irrelevant.

It knots the stomach just thinking about it.

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We’re told feedback is a gift. It sounds trite to say, but it really is. It’s a chance to think, learn, and reconsider our thoughts and actions from a different point of view. It’s a chance to improve. Sure, most people hate feedback. Near as I can tell, the average person doesn’t want to find the right way to do things, they just want their way of doing things to be right. (Hint: that’s why they’re average.)

And so what? Whether people want useful feedback or not, managers have a responsibility to themselves, their employees, and their company to help their people be at their best and find ways to get better. But that sometimes requires tough conversations. The employee getting handed that feedback “gift” might not like it. They might sulk, argue, push back, or shut down. They might make work difficult.

That’s ok. That’s their choice. They might think on the feedback and come around. Or they might keep trying to do what they’ve always done. Or they might just get a whole lot worse. There are other conversations to have depending on what they choose, but that’s not a reason not to give the feedback.

Why is the feedback we give our employees a gift? Because if we don’t give it, we have hurt that person and their career at some point in the future. Because not giving it is the same as taking something away from them.

I have been fortunate and blessed to have had managers and mentors who made very conscious choices to hold me to a higher standard. They taught me to expect more from myself and showed me how to get it. It wasn’t always easy or fun or even appreciated at that moment, but I owe them my career. I suspect you can relate.

As I get older and look around at others who are mid to late career I’m starting to see a pattern. I’m starting to see people who had weak managers; people who didn’t receive constructive feedback. They’re easy to spot from this vantage point because their careers have stalled or are flaming out. They were allowed to get comfortable, to get their own way, or be miserable to others because they “got results”. They believed they were doing a good job simply because no one told them they weren’t. Sadly, they never thought to figure out their own blind spots.

That coddled person, deprived of feedback, is now in a comfortable spot in life where they have a lot to lose. Then something happens. Maybe their company merges, gets bought out, or restructured. Maybe they get promoted or change jobs or get a new manager. Whatever the situation, now things are different. Their knowledge, skills, approaches, and results are no longer acceptable and their career is off track. They wake up and realize the world has passed them by.

If only someone had cared enough to have a difficult conversation with them five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. If only they had cared enough to seek that conversation out.

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