Are Your Employees Trembling at the Gates of Feedback?

July 1, 2019 Glenn Case
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Make your feedback count by making it wanted

Gate with danger sign signifying fear of receiving feedback

"Feedback is the breakfast of champions", as Ken Blanchard famously said.

To develop, to grow and to win, feedback is essential.

Reality of the matter is, most leaders struggle with providing it. And while they may search inside themselves for answers around this, I believe it actually lies more with the "vibe" that it creates.

The blatant truth is, most people are loathe to receive feedback. And good managers can't help but tune into this negative energy. This is not the fault of the employee. Instead, the cause lies in how feedback has traditionally been offered.

More often than not, the traditional performance review has been the mainstay of feedback delivery, focusing on highlighting and closing gaps of some kind. Whether skills, performance or otherwise.

Leaders mean well in these undertakings. And while these reviews often incorporate acknowledgement of strengths and successes, their raison d'etre is often the opposite - a focus on what is not happening, or is happening that shouldn't be.

In fact, this goes for most feedback situations, not just performance reviews.

As we well know with news, it's the negative stories that have staying power. So it is that employees enter the "feedback zone" already predisposed to fear. Bracing to have their shortfalls illuminated.

Beware your subjectivity

No matter how it's provided, feedback is inherently subjective. Yet, managers provide it as if their view of the situation is fact. What they tend to forget is that their take is simply one interpretation. Seen through one lens.

Ask five people to assess the same scenario, situation or individual and you'll likely get 5 different versions of "reality".

There's simply no such thing as "objectivity-certified" feedback. When it's provided as a fact yet doesn't align with the recipient's view of the matter, its impact is much lessened.

Worse yet, it may be perceived that your feedback is unfair which can undermine trust, and limit future receptivity to it.

So, how can you provide feedback that employees really want. That ramps up receptivity, motivates, develops and builds trust?

Consider these 5 tips...

Focus on the impact

Feedback is often very transactional. focusing on the what and how it was done.

What is often overlooked is the impact it has on others. How was another's life or situation influenced as a result of this action? The "so-what".

This aspect uses the subjective nature of feedback - as mentioned earlier - but in a useful manner.

Suppose, for example, you experienced a team member, Jack, raising his voice in anger in a meeting.

As a good leader, you decide to offer feedback letting him know you observed his anger, and how this is not an acceptable behaviour. You even probe to determine what's behind it.

However, you also know that since you're seeing things through your own lens, Jack may walk away viewing the situation very differently from you. Perhaps in his mind, waving it off because it's his normal way of communicating and is only a reflection of his passion. Or, disagreeing fully that it happened in the first place.

So you decide to express how his actions made you feel. How you felt attacked, even threatened, and that others in the room probably felt the same way,.

This forces Jack to take stock of his impact on others. The "so-what". While he may want to discard your "take" on the matter, it's more difficult to ignore your emotional response to it. 

This awareness then often becomes a powerful staging point for a discussion around possible solutions.

Make it about strengths

The rear-mirror, weakness-based approach to feedback is a thing of the past. Or, at least it should be.

Employees all have natural strengths or honed skills sets.

Rather than focus on weaknesses, gear your feedback to these strengths. On how these have led to success and how they can be leveraged even more effectively in future.

Employee strengths are areas of immense development potential. Not only that, when they have ability to apply these, they allow the employee to move in the direction of flow in their roles.

As stated in this 2012 study on feedback from Indiana University,

"To fully reap the benefits of using feedback, managers should instead primarily rely on a strengths-based approach to feedback that consists of identifying employees’ areas of positive behaviour and results that stem from their knowledge, skills, or talents."

Feed-forward

Traditional feedback focuses on the past. 

When you feed-forward, you uproot your team member from a past that cannot be changed and help them imagine a future they want to see

In effect, you're feeding input on creating a vision, and working with the employee to co-create solutions to attain this vision.

But wait, you say. Isn't it my role to dig into my employees failures and missteps - to help them learn from them.

Is it?

Human beings are their own harshest critics. By the time you spend time scrutinizing what went wrong, you can bet that your team member has already been there countless times themselves.

When you dedicate your time to helping them explore a preferred future vision, they will inherently incorporate their lessons of the past in crafting a path to get there. Of course, you can suggest areas and approaches to consider based on observation, but now within a future-based, cooperative framework.

A feed-forward framework.

Not only does this get the employee focused on their potential, it involves them in exploring solutions within themselves. When solutions are created from within, so too is the motivation to apply them.

Avoid the blur of time

Timely feedback ensures clarity. The longer you wait to provide feedback, the more fuzzy the recollection of what actually happened - for both you and the employee. And the value of the feedback is limited as a result.

This is one of the main drawbacks of providing feedback every 6 or 12 months. You end up referring to examples that are now in the distant past, and perhaps the employee herself may not even recall it occurring. If you've been the recipient of this type of feedback, you'll know what I'm referring to.

Create a habit of providing feedback often and as "in the moment" as possible.

Get specific

Feedback really hits home when you provide as much detail as possible. It's been my personal experience that whenever I've been given lacklustre, general feedback, I was left wondering - does this person really know me? Understand what I do? Care about me?

Have you experienced this?

Use the 5-W approach when providing feedback.

If for example, you're commending your team member on his strong team work ability, let him know that you observed him..

...just yesterday in the cafeteria (when, where)

...stepping in to help Jenny (who)

...prepare for her presentation (what)

...and how he used his own strength as a presenter (how)

...to make Jenny feel more confident and focused (why)

Providing feedback in this manner gives laser-focused examples of not only the strength being applied, but also the positive outcome it created. Truly valuable and motivational feedback for the employee!

Summary

Make your feedback something your team members welcome by turning the traditional feedback approach on its head.

Move your discussions in to the positive space where they will find safety, confidence and motivation. And strengthen your trust and relationship at the same time.

Glenn Case is a Leadership and Executive Coach committed to helping leaders at all levels be the best they can be.

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