Feedback is hard. In my experience, well-meaning, smart professionals responsible for developing others often fail in giving appropriate feedback. Why is it hard, and what can you do about it?
I became a student of feedback through trial and error-a lot of the latter. Over time, I crafted a model to help myself stay out of trouble, help others do the same, and ultimately serve as a catalyst to help professionals advance their success, in their own terms. It has been a fun journey. In 2006 I designed, sold, and taught a course on “Giving and Receiving Feedback” through a social-benefit organization. Somewhat to my surprise, it was well attended! And, much to our delight, it was well received. Emboldened by success, I continued to practice, evolve the model, and share my findings with those that I feel would benefit directly and indirectly from giving feedback.
What circumstances warrant giving feedback?
While leading a seminar recently and after some grappling with feedback practice, I asked the group, “Why do we give feedback?” Quietly, one manager spoke, “To develop people,” to which was added, “to reward good behavior,” then, swiftly, “to help people change.” After several seconds of silence I observed, “I didn’t hear anyone say ‘because we are expected to.’” The group nodded in confirmation.
On the other hand, have you ever found yourself saying, “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me about that?!?” In this case the recipient of critical feedback might have feelings of sabotage, sadness, embarrassment, and even resentment. I trust that you would not like to provoke such feelings in another, so take the risk. A small bump to the system is preferred to the whack of a Mack truck traveling from the rear.
We managers must let our charges know that in order to help them advance, we will use real opportunities, or “teachable moments,” for this purpose. One way is through giving feedback. Meetings are great venues, as I am wont to say, “If we can be observed, then we are presenting.” One way to gauge the viability of a teachable moment is to witness how team members respond to the employee. Observe evidence of engagement, shock, agreement with, disagreement with, levity, and such. We must be mindful of our deductions based on evidence; bear in mind, too, that nonverbal behavior and tone of voice outweigh the words we use.
Why is giving feedback hard?
Giving feedback is hard because while we know that we need to do it and even agree, it is a challenge to know when and how. Furthermore, if our employee is conducting him or herself in a manner that doesn’t serve him or her or the team well, it somehow reflects upon, well, us, the managers. We may feel angry about that, and strong emotions can trump critical thinking. Giving feedback is complex, more art than science, and precious few of us went to “Feedback Class” when we got our promotions. In development, including and especially our own, we begin with self awareness and the acknowledgement that in order to advance our own skills we must practice.
In advance of giving feedback, decide whether you ought to go forward at all:
- Check your intentions. If giving feedback is for the benefit of the professional first and then her immediate team, continue to the next test.
- Ask permission to share something with the professional in person. Seek to do this within 24 hours of the teachable moment or event. I feel that the best way to do this is immediately prior to giving the feedback. Time lags can cause a lot of stress, for both of you. If you receive a supportive response, proceed.
Once you have inspected your reasons for giving feedback, and immediately prior to sharing it, get yourself grounded. This is no easy task. I recommend learning and practicing The State of Ease by the Institute of HeartMath to achieve this state.
Feedback can result in damage if not done deftly, so take care! There is value in restraint as there is value in action.
After thanking the professional for meeting with you, set the context, share a brief bit of information about the particular scene, or situation to which you are referring.
Start by stating your observation of the professional’s behavior or actions. Be descriptive.
Then, say how the professional’s actions affected you and the team. Use emotional language. I recommend learning about and advancing your Emotional Intelligence (for this purpose, and with many benefits beyond feedback). Strive to link the behavior with an actual result or forecast a future potential outcome.
Offer a suggestion to the professional. Explain what the benefit would be if that fits with the situation. Avoid coercion. Expect that during the “suggestion” phase the person may not have the capacity for listening well; she may still be taking in and thinking about what you have just said. Emotions could amplify. Pay attention. Remain engaged, calm, and supportive.
Example A: Patricia, during our team meeting when you shared your concerns about the proposal, you really got my attention! I am happy that you had the courage to speak your mind, and did so while remaining respectful of the dissension at the table. I feel that we collaborated at a deep level and ultimately came up with the best decision. Patricia, please continue to share your ideas and feelings with our team!
Example B: James, during my presentation on the change initiative I saw you on your phone. I felt disregarded. When, instead of making a quick check, you continued to work on your phone, I became angry and embarrassed. I think that my emotions interfered with my ability to do a good job, and I fear that some of the attendees may not support this initiative as a result. In the future, James, please stay engaged. If you must conduct business on your phone or otherwise, take it outside of the room.
I recommend experimenting with people who love you and will therefore help you to weather your mistakes. I also suggest that in giving feedback suggesting, encourage continued positive behavior. To paraphrase Karen Pryor in her book Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training, behavior that is rewarded continues.
Through small, perhaps undetected efforts, you can build strength, flexibility and ease in giving feedback. Done well, it has many benefits for the recipient, you, and the team.