Leaders must focus on intent more than delivery

We all have some sort of talent.  Skills that shine relative to others.

We also have the capacity to learn.  What is not a talent today can become a talent tomorrow, or next week.

What we deliver is a product or service

As leaders, our job entails teaching others new skills.  Getting them the training or experience necessary to go from newbie to talented.  To make their greatest contribution to the organization.

Regardless of what an individual can do, often how they do it makes the difference between success and failure.

How we deliver builds up or tears down

If leaders only focus on what people can do (their delivery), rather than how they do it, what are we motivating?  Individuals and teams that are all about producing and doing more.

Yet, how our people do and deliver impacts more than the end result.  It influences their own work, and the work of those around them.

Production at the expense of others’ input, cooperation, or participation does not last long.

The best feedback joins the what and the how

Optimal results are based on a mix of the what and the how.  Leaders’ feedback to their teams, therefore, must also be a mix.

When we start talking about how someone performs their roles, leaders must be mindful how that feedback is shared.  Going in blindly, our feedback may be resented or rejected.

Delivering “how” feedback

For years, I struggled with “how” feedback.  Whatever was said, what I heard was “We like your work, but not the package it comes in.”

It wasn’t until I realized that the feedback was not about who I am as a person, but rather how I presented myself to the world, that I could internalize it and address it.

A few months ago, I had the good fortune of hearing Adam Grant speak at the Mass Conference for Women.

A challenging “how” may be necessary for growth

He talked about the value of a devil’s advocate.  By his definition, a devil’s advocate has two characteristics.

  1. Internal Motivation.  Devil’s advocates are givers.  They give freely of themselves with no expectation of return.
  2. Interpersonal Interaction.  Devil’s advocates are often perceived as disagreeable.  They will tell you the hard truth, not just what you want to hear.

The second is about the “how.”  While we may confuse disagreeableness with someone who has poor internal motivation, they are not interchangeable.

Someone with a poor “how” may have positive intent that gets lost in interactions.  If we find those with positive intent, but hard truths, they can give us the valuable critical feedback we need to be successful.

Differentiating who we are, with how we are perceived

Adam described these valuable individuals with an expression he once heard…

“S/He has a wonderful operating system, but their user interface could use some work.”

Changing an operating system is very difficult.  It’s the guts of a system.  For human beings, it’s the core of who we are.

On the other hand, changing the color of a screen, or the placement of a field is relatively easy.  For humans, how we interact with others is much easier to adjust.

I wish someone, anyone, in the last 20 years had been able to put it so simply.  It would have saved me a lot of angst and hurt feelings.

Start from a place of positive intent

As leaders, providing critical feedback can be challenging.  For us, as well as the person receiving it.

Consider – does the individual mean well?  Then maybe this is more about interpersonal interactions…“how” they do or say something vs “what” and “why” they do it.

Framing feedback in a way that reflects the person’s positive intent can make it easier for them to hear our message regarding their delivery.

If we’re the ones receiving feedback that is difficult to hear, take a moment before rejecting it or being hurt by it.  “Is this about who I am, or about how I engage others?”  They are not the same things.


How do you differentiate between “what” and “how” feedback?  Do you find one easier to accept and address?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.