Giving feedback: one of the toughest challenges that leaders face?

Stuart Duff shares his thoughts on the challenges of giving feedback and managing performance.

Feedback. We all talk about feedback. Giving feedback. Receiving feedback. Using the SBI model – or some other variation on the theme. I even heard somebody recently talking about using the ‘s**t sandwich’. Most unpleasant – even if the intention seemed broadly positive.

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We all talk about feedback. But talking and doing are, of course, very different things. And if you struggle to give clear, constructive, honest feedback to others, you are not alone.

We are running a long-term leadership programme that has seen more than five hundred senior managers through the process so far. The focus of the programme is naturally on leadership capability and maximising leadership performance. Of the leaders we worked with so far, an honest estimation would suggest that the majority of those leaders struggled with handling a feedback conversation in a calm, constructive and solution-focused way.  More than half would prefer to avoid having a tough conversation or would under-state their position, while around a fifth would take a much more controlling and aggressive tone in order to deliver a message and move on.

Given that it is very obvious that neither passive nor aggressive behaviours actually have any positive outcome in a work environment, how is it that so many leaders default to these strategies when under pressure?

Let’s go back to the start. Without doubt, when it comes to giving feedback, there are a lot of very honest feedback conversations that take place. Think about your day and how many frank, honest conversations you have with others. The only problem is, the conversations take place in our heads. We know what we want to say. We rehearse it. We prepare for the ‘fierce’ conversation as Susan Scott would describe them. But then, at the critical moment where we have a chance to give ‘the gift’ of feedback, we find some way not to give it.

Why? It often comes down to critical moments and ‘micro-behaviours’. We notice what is going on, we react and only afterwards do we think about it. We try to make eye contact, but we really notice when eye contact is broken.  We pick up on signs of anger, disappointment and upset in another’s body language. We read others’ faces and immediately see defensiveness. In those brief moments we react and we predict what others are going to do. It’s an impulsive response, but one that can strongly determine our ability to give feedback.

This impulsive response is a self-protective response. We don’t want to get embroiled in tense discussions. We don’t want to alienate colleagues who we might have to rely on later in the day. We don’t want to work in a tense environment.

And yet often we are wrong. These are rarely the actual consequences of giving feedback. Most often, people want to hear if they are not doing what they should be doing, or if they are doing something in a way that could be done better.

So, what can we do? Feedback models are often given as a solution and, in some instances, they can be helpful. They provide structure and clarity. But, they can also make the process mechanistic and rigid. From a psychological perspective, there are a few important things that will make a real difference to your approach.

  • The first is to become much more attuned to our personal reactions and to understand that these are natural reactions, but unnecessary reactions in the context of giving feedback at work. The ‘fight or flight’ response helps us in many situations, but when it stops us from having reasonable and positive discussions, it’s unhelpful.
  • The second is to become better at reflecting on our underlying beliefs when we encounter tough situations. It’s not helpful to say “I gave them feedback, they got tense, so I walked away”. It is helpful to ask why I walked away. What was I concerned about? What did I believe would have happened if I had continued?
  • The third is to go back to basics and reflect on the purpose of feedback (which is very easy to forget). If your mindset going in to a conversation is to give criticism to someone, this will be reflected in your behaviour. If your mindset is to give support and a way forward to someone, this will also be reflected in your behaviour.

In simple terms, we can control our thought process, but we can’t control the reaction of another person. More than anything, it is our belief about giving and receiving feedback that will determine the way that we approach others and read their behaviours. 

Some organisations, or even pockets within organisations, establish strong ‘feedback cultures’ in which leaders promote an attitude that, despite the personal challenges of giving feedback, the value of learning far outweighs the discomfort. The more we give feedback, the more we reinforce that belief. We overcome the discomfort and recognise that our reaction is the source of the problem, not the immediate response of the other person.


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