The Three Fingers Pointing Back


At some point in my childhood, it was impressed upon me that any time you point a finger at someone else, you should remember that you have three fingers pointing back at yourself. I always smile when one of these nuggets of wisdom from my youth is validated with modern research (apparently grandma really did know what she was talking about!). In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall note that more than half of your rating, your impression, of someone else’s performance is a reflection of your characteristics, not those of the other person. Therefore, Buckingham and Goodall recommend that you offer feedback in the context of how you experienced it, rather than making assumptions about characteristics of the other person . . . in other words, focus on the three fingers pointing back at you.

As a leader, your words carry extra weight. How often have you started a conversation with “you need to . . .” (feel the finger point?) and watched a person either wilt in front of you or respond defensively? I’m not saying that you shouldn’t share feedback with your team — that’s part of your job. How you offer it, however, makes all the difference in whether you open the door to a person’s growth or shut down their momentum. So how should you offer feedback?

Start with your three fingers. How did their actions affect you, or how would you respond? For example, “I didn’t get a clear picture of the key point you were trying to make . . .” (rather than “you were unclear”) or “When I was in a similar situation I . . .” (rather than “you should . . .”). This isn’t about soft-peddling your feedback. It is recognizing that you bring a particular lens to the situation that might be different from the perspective of others.

Ask about their three fingers. Given the opportunity, most people can self-reflect quite accurately. “Is there any part of the project you would have handled differently?” or “If you were in my shoes, how would you respond?” Probing for an answer rather than simply providing one fosters problem-solving and growth rather than pushback and second-guessing.

Focus on the ends, not the means. Let’s face it, your way probably isn’t the only way to get a task completed. Assuming adherence to basic organizational values, the “what” of an expectation is far more important than the “how”. And yet, how often do we start finger-pointing about the “how”?

As the leader, you set the tone for how feedback is given and received in your organization. In my experience, the growth or contraction that comes from critiques is usually a result of the fingers pointing back at you.

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