What Makes Giving Feedback So Difficult for Leaders?

Two magazines arrived on my desk within weeks of one another and both highlighted “feedback” on their cover articles. Then I received an email inviting me to attend an online presentation about moving from feedback to action. Looks like the topic of feedback was on my radar.

Some of us have a hard time giving feedback and even receiving feedback.

“Can I give you some feedback?” 

Do you cringe at that question? Or do you look forward to discussions following that question? You and I can react so differently depending on the source of the feedback, your current work and life status, and what exactly you are being critiqued about. 

As Josh Bersin said in his presentation, From Feedback to Action: The Next Step in Employee Engagement, many managers and leaders do not know how to accept feedback, talk about it, or take action on it. Yet, he points out how employees actually thrive when they see managers take action on their feedback. Capturing feedback is important but acting on feedback is vital.

So why is feedback such a tough management competency to master?

Feedback Is More Complicated Than You Think

Marshall Buckingham and Ashley Goodall provide an interesting perspective in their Harvard Business Review article on The Feedback Fallacy.

They give a reality check showing how we are not very reliable raters of other people’s performance. You might think you’re good at doing this are but we’re not—for a variety of reasons. 

Did you know that giving critical feedback to people actually inhibits the brain’s ability to learn? Think on Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset versus fixed mindset. Negative feedback feeds the negative self-talk in the mind, which limits our ability to grow.

As for shooting for excellence, the authors suggest that excellence is idiosynchratic or peculiar to each individual and cannot be defined in advance.

Buckingham and Goodall’s advice for us on giving effective feedback is:

Managers should help team members see what is working well and share their experience in observing that and give feedback with them. As needed, they can stop a person in the moment when something is not working well so the individual knows exactly what they mean. 

Look for outcomes. The goal here is stop a succeeding individual at an appropriate time to bring their attention to what they just did that was good and worked well.

Replay your instinctive reactions. Share with them exactly what you saw and how it made you feel. This mirrors my Two-Part Specificity Rule in describing the Action observed and the Impact they made.

Never lose sight of your highest priority interrupt. Your goal is to dissect and break down what excellent work performance looks like. Then they will develop the thinking skills needed to correct errors on their own.

Explore the present, past, and future. Ask a direct report you’re working with to tell you three things that are working well for them right now in the present. Ask them, “when you had a problem like this in the past, what did you do that worked for you?” And finally, ask, “What do you already know you need to do? What do you already know that works in this situation?” Offer one or two suggestions if needed to spark the line of thinking.

Feedback Can Be Full of Biases

Patrick S. Malone and Zina B. Sutch wrote the Talent Development Magazine article about The Fear of Feedback and the fear we develop in giving or receiving feedback. They focus on understanding why employees get anxious about receiving feedback and teach how to overcome our fear in giving it.

It appears people want feedback but they want it on their own terms. While we think we might be evaluating a person’s work we are really judging them. So we react in a fight or flight mindset to protect us.

Biases are when we lean in favour for or against something, a person, or a group compared with others in an unfair way. Biases are most often learned implicitly or within cultural contexts.

Here are some of the biases that sneak in and affect giving feedback.

Negativity bias comes cognitively because we process negative information much quicker than positive details. It’s the reason we recall criticism over compliments. So this is one reason we intuitively shy away from feedback.

Central tendency bias is where we are more inclined to rate an employee as average than being better than this.

Contrast effect bias is when you first see an outstanding performer in action. Then you see a person performing at a fair level but score them lower because of the first employee you saw.

Confirmation bias you might simply discount someone’s positive performance just because their past performance has been below standard.

Overconfidence bias occurs when a manager might give a less than stellar appraisal based on their own, shared and similar knowledge as the person they’re evaluating.

Formula for Effective Feedback

Malone and Sutch offer a different set of advice and ideas for giving effective feedback.

1. Choose the right setting. Feedback is better given and received at the right time and place. Setting, environment, comfort, and mood are important.

2. Try to give it as soon as possible. Similar to Buckingham and Goodall, strive to give the feedback as close to the actual performance situation—positive or negative—the better.

3. Authentically try to help. Know what your intentions are in giving the feedback and make sure you’re in a good and positive place before doing so.

4. Connect emotionally first. Find out how the person is doing before giving any feedback. Maybe there are some personal issues affecting their work. Always separate out the issue from the emotions in giving feedback.

5. Stop and listen. Demonstrate active listening skills as you ask more coaching style questions to identify their thinking and the actions performed. Work at understanding their perspective first before giving them feedback.

6. Create a plan. Dialog on what they feel the next steps should be in going forward. Respect their ownership and perspective on the situation. Ask if they would feedback on their plan in the future and honor their wishes.

7. Try to balance negative and positive. Work at giving more positive than negative feedback. Use powerful coaching questions to help them self-identify any issues or concerns and how they would like to address things.

8. Make it a learning experience. Genuine feedback given openly and in a supportive manner will always be seen as encouraging learning and growth.

Recognition Reflection: Does recognition play a role with giving feedback to the people you work with?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

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