To Create Moments of Development, Be Specific

Creating a culture of development – one in which team members at all levels frequently experience and create regular opportunities for personal and professional growth – can feel near impossible inside a large organization. The scale of systemic, top-down paradigm shifts is daunting to even the most senior decision makers.

The good news is: it’s possible to start small. Leaders at any level, even new managers, can spark development ‘moments’ in everyday conversations with relatively little time and effort.  Subtle adjustments to the way a question or comment is worded can spark new thinking.  

Noticing and naming specific observations in an individual can lead to greater self-awareness, confidence, and agency over their career – serving the recipient, their team, their organization, and that organization’s stakeholders. By offering team members specific directions – often in the form of behaviors to do ‘more’ or ‘less’ of – managers can turn daily interactions into opportunities to support a mindset of development.

Here are three approaches to getting specific with feedback and reflection managers can use to encourage moments of development on their teams.

Approach #1: Offer Specific Feedback To Team Members

Even with positive intent, non-specific feedback can fall flat and miss an opportunity to create a development moment.  

In their 2021 U.S. Employee Engagement Survey, Gallup found only 28% of employees strongly agree they received meaningful feedback in the past week. The survey also found meaningful feedback is a critical factor in the engagement of all workers.

But what makes an employee label some feedback ‘meaningful?’

To understand this, Beverly Kaye, author of the bestseller Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em, poured over exit interviews from a variety of organizations, and then followed up with the interviewees after they had moved on to their next organization.  

Kaye noticed a strange disconnect between team members and their managers. Team members who left said things like, “I never felt valued, I was never given feedback about what people appreciated [about my work].” Their former managers felt the opposite, the typical situation being, “I told her all the time how good she was and how well she was doing.”

Can both parties be right? Sure! The manager may well have given praise, but it clearly didn’t ‘stick,’ and thus the intended impact of the feedback – to make the team member feel valued and appreciated – was lost. 

What’s missing in this example is specificity. General positive feedback (e.g., “You are doing great!”) implies the recipient did something well. But it doesn’t tell the recipient exactly what made it great, thus missing an opportunity for that person to develop into someone who consistently delivers great work.

One small shift managers can make the next time they want to give praise: name one thing that made it great for you. It could be, “I really liked the quote you selected to kick off that presentation; it set us up with the right energy and framed the conversation perfectly.”  

As Kaye says, this gives team members something they can use and do more of. Or less of. 

This behavior shift further contributes to a culture of development by encouraging the manager to avoid surface-level feedback, and stretching them to more clearly articulate what success and growth looks like on their team.

Approach #2: Offer Specific Ways For Team Members To Self-Reflect

As mentioned above, managers who go beyond vagueness are nudged to create clearer language (and a clearer definition) of what success looks like. By encouraging team members to reflect on specifics around their own performance, managers can create similar opportunities to develop self-awareness and self-mastery, which leads to higher performance, confidence, and positive greater impact on the organization.  

Here’s how managers can encourage specific self-reflection by asking specific questions. 

When someone hands in a report, rather than saying ‘thank you’ and moving on, dig a little deeper by asking:

  • Which part of this work did you love doing the most? 
  • Which parts were challenging? 
  • How did you get through that challenge?

This lets the team member stretch their thinking while also providing greater insight to the manager on how to manage that individual moving forward. 

Especially when things are moving quickly, questions like these force individuals to take a pause, self-reflect, and nudge them ever so slightly to build self-awareness, anticipate roadblocks, and plan ahead to overcome them.

Approach #3: Request Specific Input On Your Own Performance

Finally, development moments don’t have to come from the top-down. 

When team members are given the psychological safety to offer constructive feedback back to their managers, two development opportunities emerge. 

First, team members develop the muscle of defining for themselves ‘what a good manager looks like.’ This is particularly helpful if the team member manages others, but is still a useful way for up-and-comers to get a clear mental model of how to act as a manager when the time comes. Offering feedback to one’s manager also develops greater confidence and the skills required to to ‘manage-up.’ 

At the same time, the manager who gets specific, constructive input from their team gains more awareness of how their management behaviors are perceived and interpreted, and creates an opportunity to make small shifts toward becoming a better manager.

Here’s one way managers can encourage specific input.

Start by asking, ‘On a scale from 1-10, how supported have you felt in the past two weeks of this project?” 

Once the team member answers, get specific input by asking things like:

  • Why did you rate it that way? 
  • What could I have done more (or less) to increase that number by one point? 
  • What would have made it a perfect 10?

This simple framework may take a bit of practice to feel natural, but it can open the door to ongoing moments of development for both team members and their managers.

Multiple Levels of Development

By getting more specific – asking specific questions, offering specific feedback, and encouraging others to self-reflect through specific observations – development moments can become a two-way street. 

This reframing may only take seconds, but it creates space for rich ideas that can have long term impacts. Offering examples of what to do ‘more’ or ‘less’ requires deeper thinking, and knowing what to do ‘more’ or ‘less’ shifts feedback from theory to action.

With some practice – and without much heavy lifting – specificity can become ingrained in one’s leadership style, leading to regular, powerful development moments for team members, managers, and organizations.

About Author
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Hudson Institute of Coaching

One of the early leaders in the field of coaching, Hudson Institute of Coaching has been providing developmentally based coach training for leaders for more than 30 years. We set the standard for experiential learning programs that lead organizations and people to reach for their best as leaders and human beings in our global world.