How a Tea Mug Can Empower Your Colleague

Giving feedback is one of the greatest challenges for most leaders, especially if the feedback is not positive, or if the person who could benefit from your insight doesn’t report to you.

A few days ago, Laurie, an executive in the electronics industry, asked me, “How do I give my colleague feedback? He made a mistake in a meeting and doesn’t get it. I want to help him but I’m unsure how.”

Knowing that I would not understand the content of the meeting, she used a tea mug to explain what happened.

“Let’s say that you are on a team tasked with creating a travel mug,” she said. “You are responsible for creating the green, metal part of the cup, and someone else is responsible for creating the rubber grippers for the top and bottom. Everyone is responsible for reaching certain milestones to ensure completion of the final product.”

Then, she asked, “Now, what if one person says, at the last minute, ‘I won’t be done with my part by that time’?” She explained that this is exactly what her colleague said in their meeting. “What would you think about that, Misti?”

I said I would want to know why he wouldn’t be done and if there was anything I could do to help him achieve his goal.

“Exactly,” Laurie said. “So, how do I give him this feedback?”

I have written and spoken at great length about how and when to provide feedback. But Laurie had already unknowingly created her own strategy. By using an analogy, she had simplified the situation so much that I could clearly identify the problem, and her explanation didn’t come across as judging.

The next day, Laurie had a one-on-one conversation with her colleague, explained the analogy as she had explained it to me and asked him all the same questions. He immediately saw the parallels and thanked Laurie for driving the point home in this way.

Instead of pointing fingers and criticizing him, she simply asked him to consider how he might feel in a similar, hypothetical situation, allowing him to see his actions through another perspective and to identify the problem on his own.

The reality is that most of us are hard enough on ourselves. We need less criticism and more questions. Analogies are an excellent way to help others (whether they report directly to you or work alongside you) understand how they’re coming across, and how they might consider behaving differently based on their own desired results.

So, how do you give feedback? I would love to hear your strategies.

Keeping it simple,

Misti Burmeister, best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations and Hidden Heroes