Why Didn't You Tell Me?
For the past 10 years, I have been a part of the faculty at GE Crotonville. Crotonville is an oasis in Upstate New York where this company’s best leaders are flown in from all over the world for life changing leadership development experiences. Last Spring I facilitated a 4-Day program with senior leaders of this company and I was reminded that life has a funny way of teaching us powerful lessons.
After dinner on the third evening, I stood in front of over 100 people at a campus-wide event. After the event I spoke with 20+ people before going back to my room. I provide these details because when I went to brush my teeth, I looked in the mirror and saw a piece of spinach staring back at me. Now...if you are imagining a little green thing sticking between two pearly whites...let me erase that image. This was a green LEAF covering the entire surface of my front tooth. I looked like a pirate.
I stood and stared at it for a long time…my cheeks reddening…as I slowly realized that this thing had been flapped over my tooth since dinner six hours ago. It was so enormous that there was NO WAY people had not noticed it. In fact, as I rewound the movie of my night, a few people were obviously fixated on my mouth while I was speaking to them. They saw it and said nothing. And that is when my embarrassment flipped into anger. How could none of them, including very senior leaders, point out the garden décor in my smile? I went to bed fuming.
The next morning I started my class with a simple question – “How many of you saw the giant piece of spinach in my teeth last night?” I watched as more than a few eyes widened, and a couple of people slumped down in their chair. Busted.
One brave soul raised her hand. I laughingly told her I would forgive her if she was willing to truly reflect on WHAT stopped her from telling me. She paused, and in a moment of pure honesty said, “I didn’t want to embarrass you.” I nodded in understanding, then asked, "How do you think I felt when I found it in the mirror a few hours later?"
The flood-gates opened as more people reflected on what prevented them from saying something – including it didn’t bother them, they thought it would work itself out, it wasn’t their place – and we collectively realized these are the same excuses we use to avoid giving feedback every day. One person said, “You are the kind of woman who is confident enough to pull off a piece of spinach.” While flattering, let me tell you, there is no amount of confidence that can overshadow a pirate tooth.
We had a great conversation that day about how feedback needs to be offered from a place of care, not judgement. We need to realize that it would be worse to let people operate in ongoing ignorance than to be uncomfortable for a moment. This group of leaders were being tasked with leading a transformation of GE's businesses which requires constant feedback and course correction. If they back-off from giving it, the whole company will pay for it.
So did they leave class and start giving more feedback? Turns out, YES! One guy spilled some coffee on his shirt later that morning, and during the break, five people pointed it out and offered advice on stain removers.
Am I giving enough feedback?
Am I letting anyone walk around in oblivion to the proverbial spinach in their teeth?
How can I better express my caring intentions when providing feedback?