An essential skill of leadership is to be able to give feedback. It is something that great leaders do every day, navigating the amount of directness, specificity, and their own desired outcomes with all conversations whether it is with direct reports, peers and even when managing up.
For leaders to get to where they want to go, they must ensure that the people working with them have the skills to make things happen and achieve critical goals. This is essential for developmental conversations on skills, capacities, and attitudes of those who work with you. Providing specific, positive and constructive feedback is a strong management tool that goes a long way to ensuring high performance, positive morale, employee retention and ongoing workforce growth and development.
Inc.com columnist, Yael Bacharach, describes however, that giving constructive feedback during the developmental conversation can be challenging. “It implies a degree of evaluation. It implies being a bit directive. It is that point at which you take all the listening and all the questioning and begin to share your reactions. It is that phase of a conversation in which you want to share your observations and your point of view, express your opinion, take a position, and make a suggestion.”
There is often a tendency to avoid giving feedback which can sometimes exacerbate performance problems and have negative flow on effects for the organisation and its customers. No matter how difficult it is, feedback is the critical step in a developmental conversation. Yael Bacharach states, “It puts on the table blind spots people have, and the impact they have on others and on goal achievement”. The reality is feedback is a gift!
So why is giving feedback challenging for so many?
No matter the level, we all struggle with how to give feedback and can find it uncomfortable and even awkward.
Below lists some of the reasons why giving feedback can be difficult. Some of these may resonate with you:
- We are hardwired to avoid pain. Marcia Ruben, of Rubens Consulting refers to our hardwiring. Our cave dwelling ancestors relied on emotions and instincts for survival. When faced with danger, they had to make an instant decision – fight or flight. Even when balanced with positive messages, humans have an innate tendency to hear the negative ones the loudest. On some level, we all know that providing negative feedback could trigger a fight or flight response so it can be just easier to avoid the situation altogether. Giving feedback may be perceived as a threat to the feedback giver and that thought may trigger a flight or fight response.
- We don’t want to hurt a person’s feelings. This is a key reason for resisting giving feedback. In order to assuage our own feelings about conflict, we let constructive feedback go. We put it off, and when we put it off, the issue can have habit of growing, sometimes out of proportion.
- We are concerned that the feedback might be taken the wrong way. We imagine that despite our best efforts, some people will inevitably take any feedback the wrong way and may digest the feedback as personal criticism.
- Giving tough feedback requires emotional intelligence (EQ). Intellectual intelligence isn’t enough on its own. We need emotional intelligence to turn intention into action, and to connect to others in productive and nurturing ways. Leaders with emotional intelligence are well tuned to the emotions of others and are able to pick up on what is going on around them and are likely to have more positive experiences when providing constructive feedback. To be effective, leaders must be aware of and monitor their own emotions, demonstrate empathy and be aware when the person receiving feedback is in a fight or flight mode. This is an opportunity for leaders to be able to demonstrate their proficiency in managing relationships in a way that both parties walk away feeling heard, understood and aligned.
- Our thinking and processing styles make a difference. How individuals think, take in and process information can also influence the degree of difficulty in providing effective feedback in a way that does not raise defences, and is heard. Individuals who prefer left-brain or logical, analytical thinking over right-brain or feeling, emotional, and interpersonal thinking may have a tougher time demonstrating sensitivity in giving feedback. In so doing, they could miss the nuances of feeling and rely excessively on facts and logic in approaching potentially emotion-laden conversations. Their process may be more rational and impartial. Conversely those who prefer the feeling style could over-empathise with the feedback receiver and not give the feedback as intended. The result can lead to future avoidance in giving feedback, because it didn’t work so well.
- We forget to give positive feedback. It can be very easy to forget to give positive feedback. We forget or don’t think people need it but feedback, positive and/or constructive provides us with a GPS to adapt our behaviour in real time. Positive feedback also helps keep the negative in perspective.
- We are not sure what the effects of our feedback will be. We may be concerned about whether the feedback that we are providing will improve or worsen behaviours. Sometimes worrying about the other person’s reaction e.g. anger, non-communicative or oppositional. We may be anxious about not wanting to demotivate the person or cause them to consider leaving the organisation and it can become easy to convince yourself it is not that big a deal, or it will go away, or worse, thinking ‘they should be able to figure it out for themselves’. The key here, is to provide actionable feedback d to be specific with what you want the employee to achieve and to listen and provide ample opportunity for the other person to respond in a way where they feel truly heard.
- We don’t know how to approach it. Kristi Hedges, a contributor to Forbes magazine, talks about us not having an approach to feedback which stops us from giving it, especially if we have other priorities. By having a practical model to guide you, you can make giving feedback less overwhelming. A quick guide is:
- Provide context for issue and be specific and timely
- Describe the behaviour(s) in detail – in other words paint a picture (don’t draw conclusions)
- Explain the impact of their behaviour(s) (positive or negative)
- Discuss clear next steps for how the behaviour(s) could be improved or modified. Explain the importance of changing the behaviour and the positive results it will bring about
- Be specific and use concrete, tangible example
- Setting and managing expectations is a skill. Marcia Ruben, also talks about how the ability to confront others, requires courage and the ability to effectively manage conflict. These skills can be hard to develop and are often best gained through mentoring, professional coaching and ongoing development practices. A brief performance conversation may seem like a simple task, but in reality, it can be complex. Leaders need to consider their own biases, strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the person for whom the feedback is intended.
The gift of feedback
Everyone loses if leaders turn a blind eye to sub-par performance. Turning a blind eye to underperformance does not do the individual any favours and moreover is likely to seriously annoy and dampen motivation of top performers.
In conclusion, some might rather avoid the awkwardness that comes with telling someone else how they could improve. However, one of the fundamental skills in organisational or indeed any aspect of life, is being able to give and receive advice, feedback and even criticism.
Below are key precursors for delivering effective feedback:
- The feedback provider is credible in the eyes of the recipient
- The feedback provider is trusted by the feedback recipient
- The feedback is conveyed with good intentions
- The timing and circumstances of giving the feedback are appropriate
- The feedback is given in an interactive manner
- The feedback message is clear
- The feedback is helpful to the recipient
If feedback is given and received in the right spirit, perhaps sharing feedback, even if critical, can and should be a positive and rewarding experience and a valuable opportunity to enhance and strengthen relationships.
Remember, feedback is a gift!