When my husband and I were engaged, we got into a car accident on the way home from seeing a movie. A blizzard had started up while we were at the theater. It was clear when we got there, an icy mess when we left. Josh lost control of his car on the ice-filmed road and we spun out. We hit the curb hard, and when we came to a complete stop, the front tires were pointing in different directions. Josh got on his phone to call a towing company, and I got on mine to call his sister, Sarah, to come get us. I was a little shaken up from the accident, but I felt okay. No one was injured and no other cars were involved.

This was well before Google Maps. I walked to the nearest corner and looked up at the street signs to see where we were. “Sarah, we’re at the intersection of 44th Street and Big South Drive, right across from Grace Bible Church.” Sarah bundled up to brave the storm and headed our way.

Some time later I got a call from Sarah. She couldn’t find us. I looked up at the street names again repeated our location: 44th and Big South Drive. Right across from the church. We were the only people out at this point. Josh’s car was running with the headlights on. She couldn’t miss us.

Fifteen minutes later, another call: “I can’t find that church!” Sarah said. “I’m inching up and down 44th Street and don’t see you anywhere. Where are you again?” I looked at the street names again: Wilson Ave and Big South Drive. Wilson. Not 44th Street. No wonder she couldn’t find us. She was driving up and down the road I told her we were on, but in my anxiety I had given her the wrong location.

Anxiety makes us stupid. So stupid that we miss what’s right in front of our faces. I am able to read street signs correctly on quite a regular basis, but in the aftermath of that small accident, I wasn’t. We had taken 44th Street to get to the movie theater, so my brain was saying 44th Street, even though the sign right in front of me, which I read repeatedly, clearly spelled out WILSON.

I learned an important lesson those twenty years ago: I can’t always trust my own judgment, especially when I’m feeling strong emotion. This is true for all of us. Anxiety makes us stupid.

There are times as a leader when it’s especially important to remember how anxiety affects humans. One of those times is when you give someone adjusting feedback. Feedback, both affirming and adjusting, is incredibly important to developing individuals. I believe that it is an act of love, even when the feedback is painful. Often, when you give someone adjusting feedback, anxiety will make them stupid. Why? Because it’s scary to be told something needs to change! They may not hear or understand what you are saying, even if it seems like they do. Generally, the more serious the adjusting feedback, the harder it is for the person to really understand what you are asking of them.

But don’t despair! You can mitigate this very human response. Here are a few tips:

  • Give them the feedback even though it’s painful. Please. It really is a gift.
  • Circle back with them in the next day or so. Check in to see how they are feeling and what questions they have. Their anxiety may be lower at this point and they might be thinking more clearly.
  • Have them repeat back what they heard you say. They may have heard something entirely different than what you intended them to hear.
  • Listen to them! Listen until you understand their perspective and they FEEL like you understand.
  • Stay connected to them, perhaps a little more than before. Not because you’re checking up on them, but because it’s important for them to know that you are on their side, that you are there to help them succeed. Be available.
  • Give affirming feedback as soon as you see the behavior changing. This might be the most important, and overlooked, technique in helping someone change their behavior. Affirming feedback is a powerful tool, both to help lower anxiety and to reinforce new behavior. Be specific and timely. Use it liberally.

Giving adjusting feedback is difficult. It is also necessary, loving, and part of what it takes to be a great leader. This week I challenge you to think about some adjusting feedback you’ve perhaps been putting off. Maybe it’s time to share it.

Lead on,

Image by sovraskin. Used under CC by 2.0 license.