My uncle used to cultivate grapes, and he told me: "When you trim a grape vine at the root, it will come back with a beautiful vengeance."
This advice might have been useless to someone who doesn't know the first thing about gardening, but this advice lingered in my mind for years as a metaphor. He didn't mean "beautiful vengeance" in any negative connotation; he meant that when he cut his meek vine that refused to bear fruit, it came back tenfold and proved its true potential.
The same thing goes for feedback. I had a staff member once who was working in a silo - struggling to communicate across teams when their work didn't overlap, which led to conflict and miscommunication with others. I provided her honest feedback on this, and I asked what might be causing this pattern to emerge. Oftentimes people don't realize how they are coming across to their colleagues, but people are naturally afraid of having honest conversations, which in turn deprives the person of a true growth opportunity.
My feedback was like trimming the root of a grapevine. She took it to heart, and because she is a woman of true grit and determination, she came back with a "beautiful vengeance." She incorporated new practices for checking in with others. She changed the way she talked about her work to give credit to the colleagues doing similar work, and she made a conscious effort to include others on her program updates, events, and problem solving. She truly took the feedback as an opportunity for growth, and it was a wonderful thing to watch.
Here are 3 takeaways from this experience that I wish to share:
1) Honesty is a valuable tool.
Of course, there is a reason people are afraid of being honest with each other when something isn't right. Feelings get hurt; people can feel misunderstood when they receive feedback and oftentimes one piece of negative feedback can overshadow anything positive you may have lead with. It is important that you aren't CUTTING DOWN the vine, but rather strategically trimming. This means that your honesty should come from a genuine place, and you should already have established trust as a leader so that the staff member understands you want them to succeed and you value their contributions.
2) Ask about what they need, and create a safe space for a real answer.
Your staff hold the keys to their professional development. They often already know what they are struggling with and where they want to go in their career, but in order to evaluate it with their supervisor, they need to feel that talking openly about their challenges is not to their own detriment. If they are wondering, "Will this be used against me when I ask for that raise?" or "Will my colleagues find out that I'm struggling with this?" then something needs to help them reframe. Cultivate a workplace where the desire to learn and grow is an asset, and "not knowing something" isn't a failure. Together, you can build a development plan where you recommend trainings, books, articles, or introductions to other people in your network.
3) Don't drop the ball - check in!
As a leader, your role will involve checking in on a person's follow through with their professional development plan. Everyone is balancing a lot of responsibilities in their jobs, and often (especially at nonprofits), people will prioritize helping others rather than themselves. Part of cultivating a workplace culture of growth is holding people accountable - gently, with understanding that they are juggling a lot. This might be with a casual check in, "Hey, any chance you've had any time to read the article I sent you? I'm excited to hear your thoughts," or simply, "Are you finding time to work through your professional development plan that we created last month?" A motivational coach provides helpful reminders, healthy pressure, and sympathizes with the fact that people have competing priorities.
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