How Leaders Can Fix Feedback

Sep 25, 2019

Feedback has a branding problem. The very notion of it worries people and raises our defenses. Our brains are often not ready to hear it or give it. Words and context are crucial as sometimes feedback can hurt or give offense, and often doesn’t seem very helpful. Ultimately much of this comes down to the individuals who are giving and hearing the feedback. This is one part of performance management that definitely needs a makeover.

At Workhuman® Live 2019 there were a number of sessions that dealt with feedback. Many looked specifically at the role it plays in performance management, where continuous two-way conversations help with the coaching, mentoring, and enablement of employees. But there were also many keynote speakers who inadvertently touched on it when discussing leadership, management, respect, and humanity.

For example, Kat Cole, COO of Focus Brands North America, said: “My job isn’t to make everyone happy. My job is to help everyone do their best work. I would be failing you if I didn’t make it happen.”

I think this can only be achieved through a culture of constructive, helpful, and enabling feedback – a culture which starts at the top of the organization. This was corroborated in a session on “Rebooting Feedback” by Tamra Chandler, CEO of PeopleFirm LLC and author of two books on performance management and feedback. She said, “feedback determines how you are seen as a leader, by concentrating on the strengths of your people.”

Reasons for feedback’s image problem

Tamra outlined three reasons why feedback has an image problem:

  1. Too many have a misguided belief that brutal frankness is necessary.

  2. Feedback has become something dumped on us once a year.

  3. Through a tendency to turn it back on the giver, we are in effect “drunk on negativity.”

Her research showed that development-oriented feedback was a top driver in engagement and inclusion, giving employees a belief that what they do matters. It can also give them the feeling that their leader or manager sees something in them that they haven’t seen in themselves, a challenge they can rise to and achieve.

Encouraged to think back on negative feedback experiences, some attendees at her session said they had been left feeling isolated, and that the negative parts of what they heard had registered more strongly than the positive. One interesting perspective was the feeling of having to prove the value of what you had done, rather than find out how to improve as an individual. When reflecting on positive feedback experiences, most people said it made them feel energized, enthusiastic and trusted.

So, how can we fix feedback?

From Tamra’s point of view, it’s a case of managers and leaders wiping the slate clean and rebooting their approach. “If you’re engaging with feedback without the intention of helping people, then stop. Look at the future, help them move forward,” she said.

Developing connections and building trust are key to creating an environment, and relationships, in which feedback can thrive. The foundations of this are fairness, focus, and frequency, and can be achieved by entering into two-way conversations rather than just giving feedback. In this respect, framing is all important.

If your feedback is based on things you’ve noticed, then it can be received as help, however, if the delivery is more a judgment of what the employee has done, then trust might disappear, and the relationship dynamic becomes more defensive.

A way forward

One helpful way of adopting a new approach is to reflect on three roles in feedback – being a seeker, a receiver, and an extender. “The power lies with the seekers. Build an army of seekers,” Tamara advised. She also said that seeking for feedback was the ultimate trust generator.

I like these personas and believe that they can help us understand how to improve feedback.

  • Seekers look to improve and have a clear idea of the type of feedback they need and how they want to hear it.

  • Receivers seem more passive and are likely to take feedback more negatively, sometimes becoming defensive.

  • Extenders have to check that they are truly noticing what people are doing and that their assessments are grounded in fact and observation, rather than judgments or assumptions. They also need to be clear on their own intentions in giving feedback and understand if it’s the right time.

As with so much of the narrative around performance management, it is a question of whether the culture of your organization can help these personas develop and allow constructive feedback to thrive as a way of enabling better performance, rather than leaving employees feeling isolated and disengaged.

If we are looking at organizational culture, then we have to begin with the leaders, and the role they play in setting the tone. Kat Cole urged leaders to take responsibility when she said, “Instead of assuming that a failure or mistake on the part of an employee is his or her fault, ask yourself if there is something in your business or structure that caused it.” Author and keynote speaker Brené Brown advised, “The mythology that leaders have all of the answers is so dangerous. The best leaders have very few answers and amazing questions. The best leaders ask the right things.”

Creating a culture in which we can fix feedback, end its image problem, use it to enable both employees and managers to achieve their best work, and thereby help the organization achieve their business goals, can be hard. It needs to start with brave, visible, and honest leaders, setting the tone in creating a culture in which recognition, appreciation, and respect can thrive. As Brené said (to much audience applause): “Brave leaders are never quiet about hard things.”

Written by:  Mervyn Dinnen

Subscribe to HR Connection

HR Connection Subscribe