Giving Feedback Effectively: 4 Myths and 4 Steps to Do It Well
There’s a great quote from Susan Scott in her book Fierce Conversations about giving feedback. She says, “Our work, our relationships, and our very lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.” But I actually think it’s the conversations we’re not having that drive our success or failure.
We’re not having the conversations that we need to have to thrive. We’re thinking about a conversation or feedback we want to give to someone, but we say to ourselves, “Oh, maybe it’ll hurt,” or “I don’t want to surprise them,” or “It can wait until tomorrow,” so we don’t do it. And yet the best gift we can give to someone is to feed back to them how they’re being perceived or received based on our observations, for their benefit. I like how management guru and thought leader Ken Blanchard refers to feedback as “the breakfast of champions.” It is the fastest route to becoming the best leader we can be.
In the workplace, we tend to have these annual performance feedback conversations, but what I’m helping people do is embrace a culture of feedback or what the NeuroLeadership Institute calls “continuous performance management.” I want people to be doing this all the time. We’re thinking it, so we might as well be saying it. There’s an opportunity for us to embrace a culture of feedback and do it in real-time and on demand. And we don’t have to wait for it — we can proactively ask people for it. I’d like to see more conversations that start with, “Hey, I’d really like to be my best self at work. I want to know if there’s anything in the way. Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s like to interact with me during the day?”
In my course, Embracing a Culture of Feedback, I help employees get over the fear of giving feedback and practice a simple framework for delivering any type of feedback. Maybe our fear of giving feedback is related to our past experience when it’s gone badly. However, learning how to give feedback effectively can help you become more comfortable with doing it more often. In this post, I’ll offer a brief overview of feedback essentials to help you have effective and healthy and helpful feedback conversations. Find out how Udemy for Business can help train your employees on key soft skills like giving feedback.
4 common myths about feedback
Part of the reason people are so hesitant to give feedback is that there are a lot of myths out there about feedback. Here are some of the most common misconceptions and a quick explanation about why they’re simply not true.
Misconception 1: Feedback is going to hurt. The reality is that it will hurt more if you don’t give it. According to research cited in “Feedback: The Powerful Paradox,” 94% of feedback recipients said that corrective feedback improves their performance when it’s presented well.
We do more harm than good by not feeding back what we see and what we believe might be in the way of someone’s improvement. We are always making observations about people’s behavior and performance anyway — how could it be useful not to say it?
Misconception 2: People will be unpleasantly surprised by feedback. The reality is that only 12% of people are surprised by constructive feedback. Most seem relieved when it’s called out and they’re given the chance to improve.
Misconception 3: People can’t handle the truth. In fact, they are begging for it! Millennials, the next generation of leaders, expect it in real-time, and on demand.
Misconception 4: People are already getting enough feedback. Unfortunately, this is far from true. 60% of employees say they haven’t gotten any feedback over the past 6 months or more, and 70% say their performance and possibilities for success in their careers would have increased substantially if they had been given more feedback.
A simple 4-step process for giving any type of feedback
The actual feedback framework is extremely simple and quick — it should only take about two minutes to have the feedback conversation. However, there is some reflection and mindset prep the person delivering the feedback should do before they engage in the conversation.
It’s important to take time to reflect on the relationship with the person who will be receiving the feedback. We give feedback very differently to someone we’ve worked with for ten years versus someone we just met a few weeks ago. Regardless, we must take the time to put the receiver in “rest & digest” mode so they can really hear the feedback as it’s intended.
It’s also important to think about where the conversation should take place. It might be a good idea to invite the person out for a cup of coffee or to take a walk so they’re out of the regular office setting.
As much as possible, I recommend giving feedback in real-time. If we do it weeks or months later, the recipient’s trust is broken. They will know that you’ve been thinking about this for a long time and wondering why you didn’t tell them sooner. Finally, before beginning the actual feedback conversation, it can be helpful to remind the person that your intention is to help them. It may sound obvious, but sometimes people need to be reminded of that.
The receiver in a feedback conversation has the control, not the giver. If you throw a ball and nobody catches it, there’s no play. So we’re sure to give the receiver some “control” over the conversation in the first and final step of this four-step process, which is effective regardless of the type of feedback you’re offering:
Step 1: Ask if you can give the recipient some feedback. This creates openness, so they’re in control and ready to hear it.
Step 2: Describe the specific behavior that you observe. Remember, this is your observation — it’s not something you heard from someone else.
Step 3: Communicate the impact around a shared goal. What is the consequence of what you observed? It can’t just be, “I don’t like the way you speak.” It should be more like, “Here’s why this might get in the way of something that’s important to you and the organization.”
Step 4: Ask for their feedback, once again giving them control.
Let’s say there’s a person who was recently promoted to a leadership position, and just had an important client meeting where they didn’t say anything. The person providing the feedback in this situation might say something like: “[Person’s name], do you have a minute for some feedback? I noticed in that meeting, we didn’t get a chance to hear your point of view. In your new leadership role, it will increase your influence if the client knows you can form a point of view and share it in a meeting. What was that like for you? Tell me a little bit about your reaction to my observation.”
Dealing with resistance when providing constructive feedback
It’s natural for people to experience a little denial when they’re confronted with constructive feedback. I actually see this as being very similar to the stages of grief people go through when dealing with death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The more psychological safety the feedback giver can create upfront, the more quickly the recipient can move from denial to acceptance and gratitude.
However, sometimes people get stuck in the denial phase. And when we can’t move out of denial or anger, the prefrontal cortex — also known as the CEO of the brain — shuts down. This means we’re not capable of negotiating or collaborating when we’re in this state. When a person giving feedback sees that the recipient is feeling intense denial or anger, the best thing they can do is pull the ripcord. I recommend saying something like, “It sounds like this might be hard for you to hear and you seem upset. Let’s revisit this another time. Let me know if you have any questions right now, but maybe we can pick this conversation up again tomorrow.”
What comes next?
Once the feedback exchange is over, the person giving the feedback might simply want to shift gears and ask the other person if they want to talk about anything else. But, if they’re open to it, this is a great opportunity to take a “coach approach” to the conversation. If we sense that the person seems motivated by our feedback, we can say something like, “You seem open and ready to take this on. Let’s put a plan together right now. What are some steps you could take to speak up more in meetings?” You can suggest tips or courses that might help the person develop the skill or behavior in question. Generally people don’t change overnight — they need time to practice new behaviors and turn them into habits. Working with someone to put together a plan increases their likelihood of actually making the change happen.
The statistics I shared earlier demonstrate that the majority of us are not having the conversations we need to be having for all of us to thrive in our organizations. And we need to be having them up, down, and sideways — it’s not just about managers giving feedback to their direct reports, but direct reports sharing upwards and with their peers as well. I encourage you to set the intention that you’re going to have those conversations and encourage your employees to do the same. Once you do it and see how well it goes, it’ll start to happen naturally. Having these critical feedback conversations will become a habit. Your brain will be so excited when people say, “Thank you for helping me become the best I can be,” and avoidance will shift to anticipation as you look forward to having feedback conversations anywhere, with anyone, at any time.
Want to get more practice developing your feedback skills? Check out my course, Embracing a Culture of Feedback.
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