“Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.”– Rick Riordan
Consider Riordan’s statement within the framework of career success.
One of the challenging aspects of leadership that also empowers personal and team members' career success is delivering candid performance feedback. And that may be even more difficult for a leader when communicating feedback to specific people groups.
Yet, honest performance feedback is an aspect of fairness that advances a team member’s career success.
The Harvard Business Review article Women Get “Nicer” Feedback indicates a reluctance to give honest feedback to women. Instead, the tendency is to lean toward kindness in delivering feedback to women rather than providing what could be a stern, constructive message.
Groups like Black women, people of color, or individuals with other intersectional social identities may also experience inflated (watered down) feedback.
What is a Leader to Do?
Open the Door.
Create an environment of vulnerability, transparency, and trust. For example, during a planned one-to-one meeting, ask each team member to share their feedback about how you are supporting them as their leader. Be curious – ask relevant clarifying questions, but resist defending or explaining your action on the spot. Instead, walk away to consider what you hear and re-engage to address the feedback appropriately.
You will get a sense of what it feels like to receive feedback. It also models your expectations of giving, obtaining, and constructively managing feedback.
Build Relationships with Your Team.
Realize the relationship with your team members is equally important as those with executives and colleagues within the organization and external relationships.
Genuinely get to know your team members, including their origin stories, life interests (including hobbies), strengths, professional development interests, and career goals.
While this will likely not impact the team member’s expected performance delivery, it does provide the backdrop to enable understanding and facilitating conversations about how to better align the individual to their strengths, interests, and overall capabilities.
Building relationships with each team member helps develop a trusting environment for candid, productive conversations. Get to know team members before the need to have a difficult conversation.
Choose Your Words Wisely.
There is a saying that it is appropriate to speak only that which is good to build others up according to their needs.
That does not mean sugarcoating the truth about performance but delivering the message respectfully. Likewise, provide feedback promptly. Make the employee aware of the gap between actual and expected performance early, so they have time to course correct.
Focus your message on the individual’s performance, not on the person. In doing so, it maintains a psychologically safe and healthy workplace.
For example, if the team member consistently misses deadlines, point out that fact:
✅ What to Say: “You have missed the milestone completion dates 80% of the time. Consequently, the project is three weeks behind schedule, and we are in serious jeopardy of not meeting the agreed-upon completion goal. That will result in a negative business impact on our clients and colleagues.”
❌ What to Avoid: “You don’t seem to have any sense of urgency, and it’s a part of your nature,” or “You’re doing a good job, and we will catch up on the timeline.”
Speak the truth with attention to maintaining a mutually respectful work environment.
No matter your level in the leadership hierarchy, taking the lead in creating an engaging environment is a mark of exceptional leadership.
Which leadership behaviors will enable you to fortify your career success – your team members’ career success? Please share your action plan with me.