"Return To Sender" Leaders: How We Avoid Giving Feedback & Crush Connection

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“I wrote you a letter.”

“A letter?”

“Yeah,” they said with tears in their eyes. “These last few months have been pretty rough on me, and I thought that writing you a letter would be the best way to get it all out.”

“Are you sure you want me to read it?” I said with care in my voice.  

There are moments in our leadership career we want back. We want a do-over. This is one of mine. 

I was an up-and-coming Director of Sales running a multimillion dollar business for a global tech company. My protege and best manager, in their moment of need and with all of their mustered courage, writes me a letter and I ask them, “Are you sure?” 

I never read the letter, but years later, they told me it was about how they felt bullied by a direct report and how the team had been turned against them. 

I knew that. The manager and I had been working together for months to make things better. To get it right. And despite all the extra phone calls, the shared emotions, the pain, the lows, and the striving fortitude, I never knew HOW BAD it really was. 

In hindsight, it seems impossible. The day I rejected the letter is a vivid memory; a clear signal that I recognized its significance in the moment. And yet, an encounter years later redrew the story lines and recast the characters definitively. Instead of a compassionate boss, I became an unskilled and unaware dolt. 

Perhaps if I had read the letter, I’d have taken swifter action. Perhaps. I can list a thousand sentences that start with “perhaps;” a thousand recipes of repentance. Perhaps I could have slowed down. Perhaps I could have recognized my own discomfort. Perhaps I missed a genuine moment of connection. Those paths not taken can become ghosts of shame and regret. 

Did I mention I want a do-over?

As leaders we do variations of ‘rejecting letters’ all the time. Our six senses mail us emotional feedback in real time and we reject these signals outright. We have a dozen ways to instantly respond “return to sender.” 

Not only do we ignore communication within ourselves, we tie off communication with our teammates. My experience is that all leaders withhold feedback. This is not just poor communication, it’s an absence of communication. And we do this to save ourselves: withholding feedback is our misguided self-preservation strategy.

In my case, the fear of reading the letter had wrapped itself all through me to the point of confusion. I convinced myself I was looking out for my teammate. I truly believed I was acting with compassion and wisdom. Looking back, I now understand I was poorly coping with fear and I had convinced myself otherwise. A common “return to sender” instantaneous response for leaders is “I’m looking out for my teammate.”

We’re not.

Leaders fail to regularly communicate feedback because we are scared of feeling our own feelings. We tell ourselves that we don’t want to upset our teammates, but the truth is that we aren’t ready to deal with our own discomfort created by delivering the feedback.

We’re just looking out for ourselves. 

We stockpile critical feedback behind an imaginary dam. We withhold that feedback until the tension behind the dam is so unbearable that we’re willing to undergo extreme discomfort and report all our feedback to our teammate. 

There is no one standing at the river bank watching the contents of consciousness flow by. There’s only the river. - Sam Harris

Stop building dams. Let the natural flow of the river go. Stop ‘rejecting letters’ and tying off communication. While we are in survival mode pushing down our emotions, we’re blind to the consequences: distrust, miscommunication, disconnection, entitlement, resentment, and righteousness to name a few. Our daily actions betray our espoused values of team first, integrity, and transparency. It’s an amazing feat of courage for a direct report to write a letter when our blind actions thwart connection. 

What I’m learning is that we can increase our connection to our teammates and improve performance by leaning into our emotions; feeling them completely, with curiosity, and without an agenda. 

This is extremely difficult to do. We are never taught how to live in discomfort. We are never taught that it will all pass. We are never taught that all feelings have secret wisdom. We are never taught that “the great wisdom dwells in the body.” We are never taught to listen to emotion as energy and wisdom locked in our bodies. 

We are never taught that the key to compassion and wisdom and power begins with noticing discomfort in our body. Long term success is created by living each uncomfortable moment with presence. 

When we reject the emotion that arises with giving feedback, we close off connection with our teammates. Instead we focus on feedback techniques and tactics and rob ourselves of our greatest tool for improving the situation: we attempt to bypass the difficult work of connection and skip right to implementation. 

The result is our conversations become hollow and adversarial because “no one cares what you know until they know how much you care.” 

Slow down. State your feedback. Breathe. Feel the discomfort. Connect. And flow on.

“Nobody tells us the final truth. It is such a terrible rejection, a fundamental rejection of love, that nobody is really willing to help a dying person’s state of mind.” - Chögyam Trunpa

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Dave Shepherd

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