Why is Feedback Sometimes a Dreaded Activity?
Perhaps it is useful to remind ourself of something George Bernard Shaw said about giving feedback to help set the stage.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
I’ve worked with leaders who actively avoid giving feedback, especially if it might be negative. I’ve also seen leaders inspirational in their ability to communicate all forms of feedback. Like any skill, why is it effortless for some and so challenging for others?
Before we get any further, let’s ground ourselves in defining feedback. At its most basic, feedback is a real-time conversation to help the recipient. This means that it should never be a monologue, punishment or a surprise (long after the issue has passed).
Going into the process of giving feedback with the knowledge that you are helping to make the individual even more successful will go a long way to reducing any communication nerves. Let’s look at the habits of highly effective communicators.
How can you give feedback well?
Like any skill, feedback consists of a series of activities that combined generates communication mastery. The best practice I observe consists of three simple steps:
- Prepare very well
- Listen with an open mind
- See it through
Let’s get into each of these steps a little more.
All important conversations require pre-work, in both our personal and professional lives. Imagine that you want to talk to a peer (or as a leader to one of the team) about persistently missed targets. The discussion outcome depends on your preparation coupled with how you manage the conversation. Preparation includes anticipating likely questions, for instance:
- Why are the targets so important? Who’s affected by missed targets?
- Tell me, why are tight or unrealistic targets set?
- What needs adapting to prevent a recurrence in the future?
Taking time to anticipate the likely questions allows you to meaningfully focus the discussion so the right takeaways occur. An important element in giving feedback is doing so during regular 1-1 conversations. There is nothing more off-putting than a “special” conversation which can leave residual ill-feelings (potentially affecting team dynamics).
Feedback is a two-way conversation not a “fly-by”. It is important to maintain line of sight on the outcome: to help the individual improve. This means taking the time to discuss the specific area of concern and understand their point of view. I coach leaders to adopt an open and positive mindset when going into the conversations, this means assuming there is no malicious intent. Listening involves asking good questions, for example:
- How do you feel about your workload right now?
- How are you managing your two xxx and yyy projects?
- Tell me a little about how things outside of the office?
For each what or how question asked, more information will emerge along with an understanding of why the issues are occurring. Through this newfound insight and empathy (for their situation), you will deepen relationships and prevent future problems.
Talk is cheap (so the saying goes), doing is priceless. Following the discussion together, it’s essential to establish a plan of action setting out clear expectations. Nothing is more damaging to a relationship than uncertainty. The greater the clarity of what’s next, the greater the likelihood of success. Hewlett and Packard said of employee behaviour: “What gets measured, gets done”. Doing involves identifying the specific changes needed, to illustrate:
- Will you set up regular check-in or review meetings?
- Will a buddy system be put in place to help the individual?
- Are reviews of the documents/materials required prior to wider distribution?
What else should we do?
The process of feedback doesn’t stop with one conversation, it’s a cycle. A cycle dependent on repetition. Similar to the 3×3 presentation approach: tell them, say it and then remind them. In the context of positive or constructive feedback, it can occur in many ways. Through 1-1s, instant messaging, email, phone calls or video calls – the media chosen depends on each situation.
How the individual feels after the feedback depends entirely on the approach taken. You can leave the person feeling valued and motivated or leave them deflated and frustrated. The choice is yours, choose wisely…
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