The common trope that feedback is a gift is a misnomer: we love giving and receiving gifts but recoil from delivering and accepting feedback. Some truths are hard to hear and discuss, so the gift-giving metaphor falls short.
What if I told you there was a way to overcome that sinking feeling associated with delivering feedback? Yes, delivering great actionable feedback is a learnable skill that improves with deliberate practice. Read on to learn some useful techniques.
Feedback is a crucial requirement for high-performing teams since it is necessary for compounding growth driven by learning from mistakes. When done correctly; it accelerates growth by eliminating limiting beliefs; however, when done poorly; it stunts development by causing divisive splits.
Given the potential upside, why do many leaders shy away from delivering feedback? Because it is hard, it’s easier to avoid the elephant in the room; sadly, when that elephant is finally exposed, people feel doubly hurt they were never corrected.
And why is most feedback terrible? Because there is a shortage of great practical examples to copy, and since most folks avoid it due to the emotional toil, they consequently do not improve their feedback delivery skills.
Niceness vs Kindness: The spinach test
If your manager had spinach in his teeth; would you tell him?
- Niceness: Nope, I don’t want to hurt his feelings and embarrass him.
- Kindness: Definitely, I’ll tell him
Niceness is easy in the short term but hurts in the long term; Kindness is difficult in the short term but pays off in the long term.
This post is for anyone seeking to become more effective at providing feedback and having it stick. The good news is that delivering candid advice is a learnable skill and improves with practice.
Mistakes I have made
I used to shy away from crucial conversations; I knew I had to hold team members accountable, but I could not bring myself to have these difficult discussions.
Every time I chose the easier path by letting things slide, I learned the hard way from the arguably-preventable and worse outcomes. First, let’s review three key lessons from my experiences:
- Shying away from the accountability chat: The team was going through a turbulent period, and one member was not pulling their weight. I avoided the performance topic – I was worried about the impact of critical feedback during such a period. Alas, this led to a subpar yearly review which surprised and saddened them. Looking back, this was a failure on my part – I shied away from holding people accountable because I cared too much, and my timidity led to a worse outcome.
- Fuzzy feedback: A great engineer kept repeating the same mistakes, which limited their impact. While I had learned from the first experience by having the conversation, I failed to clarify expectations. My reliance on the sandwich approach and my effusive praise of their contributions watered down the feedback. The muddled feedback meant the report had the wrong impression of their performance; they thought the critical issues were trivial. Again, I failed to clearly set the right expectations.
- Wrong delivery: I should have done my pre-feedback homework, which meant that the session started on a less-than-ideal note. During the conversation, I uttered a word that unfortunately triggered my partner; for them, it evoked memories, and the conversation spiraled out of control. This is probably the trickiest scenario – a seemingly harmless word triggering a spontaneous outburst, and I learned how to reduce the risk of this happening.
The common theme across all three examples is surprise and disappointment due to unvoiced expectations, unclear delivery, or unforeseen reactions.
Learn from my mistakes; there can be no surprises; you must not surprise anyone with unvoiced feedback. Again, you cannot leave any gap (be it temporal, values, impact, etc.) between your expectations and your communications.
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A kinder approach to feedback
The source of the feedback might be an observation, an event, or another person. Unless this is some execrable situation, do not immediately respond with a knee-jerk reaction, you might worsen the issue! Here are a few cues to isolate the unmet expectation and extract the salient points.
Step 1: Data gathering
- What: What is the missing expectation gap? Is this a behavior? E.g. Low-quality work? Low productivity?
- Who: Who is impacted? Colleagues, partners, or customers? E.g., when working with a specific individual? Collaborating with partner teams? Working with people in other roles?
- When: Does this happen in certain circumstances?
- How? Can you describe the impact with clear objective examples? Is there a repeated pattern or a one-off?
- Why? Why is this important to you? To the team? To the business?
Step 2: Analysis
Build upon the gathered data to generate the feedback sentence. The Situation-Behaviour-Impact (SBI) model is handy for generating precise summaries.
- Succinctness: concise feedback is sticky; extract the core point into a sentence.
- Clarity: The input must be clear and objective so the recipient does not come to the wrong conclusions.
- Specificity: Being specific makes feedback actionable. Saying, “you are not a team player,” is too vague; compare with: “When you do not review pull requests within one day, it slows down our lead time and hurts our team productivity.”.
Step 3: Set up
At this stage, you now have the objective feedback statement and are ready to talk. While it is crucial to avoid feedback decay by quickly having the conversation, a guaranteed way to wreck all your hard work is to deliver feedback at the wrong time. Emotions might derail the topic if either person is going through a tough time.
- Schedule: Reach out to the recipient and ask for a great time to discuss. Make sure you clarify that this is a feedback session on the identified topic; this way, they are not completely caught off guard.
- Prepare: Consider what might go wrong; see the common challenges section for possible scenarios. This also involves setting up the right environment (privacy, quiet locations, respecting vacations, etc.).
Tip 1: Refrain from feedback sessions if either party is hungry, angry, tired, or stressed.
Tip 2: Don’t send a generic “free to chat?” message or set up a “zero-context meeting invite late on a Friday afternoon”
This pre-check+scheduling step is even more important given the prevailing market conditions.
Now you’re all in the feedback delivery sync. Some useful icebreakers for facilitating safe, collaborative, and productive sessions:
- Transparency: Acknowledge your perspective might be incomplete and that you are open to closing information gaps.
- Assume positive intent: you are not trying to catch someone failing but seeking to understand the situation and help them grow.
- Safety: Eschew me-vs-you framing; you are all on the same side of the table and not on opposing sides. Seek collaborative options for resolution.
These openers make it easy to have difficult conversations – the recipients know you want the best for them and will be more amenable.
Now broach the topic objectively; if you’ve done the homework, you should have a concise sentence and multiple specific examples. Then invite the recipient to share their perspective and provide context; be kind and patient; this might be the first time they’ll hear about this growth area.
You seek to have a joint discussion on the issue, its impact, and remediation. You can also use open-ended questions to steer the conversation. As you both work towards a solution, do not just stop at the feedback acceptance phase; that reduces the effectiveness of the delivery; take it one step further; what actions can prevent recurrences? You want something specific, e.g., if I see x, I’ll do y.
I always ask these two questions at the end of every feedback discussion:
- Do you agree?
- Is the feedback actionable?
If any of these two is a no, the feedback session was suboptimal, so seek to improve. Finally, to clarify expectations, share a written summary; remember that verbal discussions get forgotten.
Tip: Consider following up a few weeks down the line to get extended thoughts.
Common challenges while delivering feedback
Is my feedback fair and objective?
Calibrate your assumptions by getting input from your colleagues; this is especially useful when you are new to an organization and still learning about its culture. Make sure to anonymize the actors to avoid falling into gossip – your goal is to validate your feedback.
Will this jeopardize my relationship with John Doe?
We all want to be universally liked, even though we all know that is impossible. Leaders must prioritize growing people with empathy over nicely smothering and stagnating them; also, if you truly like someone, then you’d want them to grow.
What if they try to change the topic?
The recipient changes the topic by bringing up a new topic (the classic red herring), pointing out inconsistencies in your behavior (this is Tu quoque, a form of ad hominem attack), or even giving you feedback!
This might be a subconscious response to the feedback; however, you must focus the conversation on the topic. So listen, acknowledge the point, and steer the conversation back to the critical subject.
How do I avoid triggering an angry outburst?
- Binary questions: Yes/No questions put people on the spot triggering defensive outbursts instead of productive resolutions. Compare “is this a good outcome?” with “how would you rate the project outcome?”. Ask questions that allow for graceful exits instead; try what/when/how/which probes instead of can/do.
- The Accusatory ‘you’: The you word can come across as accusatory and activate defensive responses: the never-ending cascade of I said, you said. Every time you want to use the “you” framing in a charged conversation, pause and see if you can reframe the conversation in first-person or third-person perspectives. Compare “You did not respond to my email yesterday” with “I was expecting a response yesterday”.
- Tone: Is there anything in your tone, demeanor, or delivery that can be threatening?
How do I handle pushback?
They disagree vehemently with the feedback; typical responses include “this is not true”, “I am different”, or “this does not apply to me”. Refrain from providing more logical evidence for an emotional response; try roleplaying – ask them to explain how they’ll set expectations if they were to be in your shoes. This is very effective at snapping back at productive collaboration.
What do I do if the session goes sideways?
Someone lashes out in annoyance or breaks down. Delivering feedback is hard enough; providing feedback and handling emotional outbursts is even more challenging: we all dread that scenario. Try:
- Provide support: Give space by being calm and patient: don’t talk, don’t judge, and let them express themselves.
- Consider reconvening at a later time: this allows for time to process the situation.
Whenever you feel uncomfortable about having a difficult conversation, do a gut check – are you choosing niceness?
Don’t conflate niceness with kindness; you need kind empathy at work, so hold people accountable, and address that elephant in the room. Also, ensure your feedback is crisp, clear, and direct – you do not want the recipient to wonder what the feedback is all about.
Do not shy away from giving feedback; it is a must-have skill for managers. It is essential for team building, resolving conflicts, and helping people grow. Ultimately, you have to evolve your technique by adapting several practices. For starters, I recommend both Radical Candor and Crucial conversations.
Thanks to Ayuba for reviewing the draft of this post.
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