If ‘feedback is a gift’, how come it’s so often met with a negative reaction by those receiving it?
As a leader you are required to give feedback to your reports – whether it be positive or negative – and despite your best intentions, you too often end up generating fear and anxiety for the other person.
Why does it seem so hard to give feedback that is welcomed by the recipient?
If you feel this way, then you're not alone – this is one of the most common questions that we help business leaders to address, across all industries.
Here are five top tips to make sure your feedback is welcomed with open arms and an open mind.
1. Make sure that you have the right to give feedback to the member of staff involved
This point applies mainly, although not exclusively, to feedback that requires another person to change what they are doing.
In this case, giving feedback that you have no right to give is by far the most common cause of it being badly received and the core message of the feedback ignored.
You may think that, as a manager, you have the right to give feedback on any topic. But that isn’t the case. You have the right to give feedback about a direct report’s behaviour or actions that are impacting on their performance at work.
But make sure that the feedback you want to give is not simply because you don’t like something the other person is doing and therefore think they should change.
This is NOT feedback – it is interference and will not receive a positive response.
2. Get the right tone of voice
One of the primary causes of poorly received feedback is that it is given in the wrong tone of voice.
This is driven largely by the fact that we feel awkward about giving the feedback in the first place. As a result, we end up becoming too authoritarian and sound as if we are scolding the other person. Or maybe we’re embarrassed and deliver the feedback in a childish voice ourselves or try to turn it into some kind of joke.
The appropriate tone of voice is that of a mature reasonable adult delivering a message to another mature reasonable adult.
3. Pay attention to the other person’s reaction
Once you’re in your feedback-giving mode, it’s easy to get so caught up in your message that you fail to notice the other person’s reaction to it.
If you want your feedback to be well received, stay tuned to the other person’s reaction and respond appropriately.
If they appear embarrassed or tearful, stop talking and give them space. If they ask a question, answer it directly and honestly.
And don’t simply argue back if they disagree with you. Instead, listen to them and take on board their point of view.
4. Be clear whether you are ‘giving’ or ‘engaging in’
The term ‘giving feedback’ is used to cover a myriad of conversations.
I find it helps to be clear about when it is appropriate to ‘give’ and when it is appropriate to ‘engage in’ feedback.
‘Giving feedback’ implies an essentially one-way interaction. You are giving, not giving and receiving.
Therefore, ‘giving feedback’ is appropriate when you have the right to do so and the topic is pretty neutral. In this case it’s unlikely to cause the recipient to have a particularly strong view that they want to share, or have an emotional reaction to what you have said.
For example, ‘giving feedback’ is appropriate if a confident, talkative direct report tends to talk over other people in meetings and you want them to stop doing this.
It is not appropriate if that same confident, talkative direct report has messed up badly with an important project.
In this case, while you have the right – indeed, the responsibility – to talk about this with them, the topic is not neutral and it is likely that the other person will have views they want to share about it.
Now, rather than ‘giving’ feedback, you are ‘engaging in’ a feedback conversation. This implies a two-way interaction where you will be listening to and exploring the other person’s point of view as well as sharing your own.
5. Be clear and direct from the outset
Ask a manager if they want others to be clear and direct with them when they are the recipient of feedback and they will answer with a resounding ‘yes’.
But somehow they think that other people aren’t equally open to, and able to deal with, the clarity and directness that they themselves desire.
Instead, they use one of a number of ineffective ploys.
They ask a question to get the other person to second-guess what they want to say. They waffle round the subject rather than getting to the point. They soften tough messages with insincere platitudes.
And far too many still apply the positive/negative/positive 'feedback sandwich' which is so overused that everyone simply waits for the negative and ignores the positive.
None of these ploys works. Instead, say what you want to say respectfully, honestly and directly.
While the recipient of feedback may not always welcome your message with open arms, applying these five tips will make it far more likely that they will at least be open to it:
- Make sure you have the right to give feedback
- Get the right tone of voice
- Pay attention to the other person’s reaction
- Be clear whether you are ‘giving’ or ‘engaging in’ feedback
- Be clear and direct from the outset
For more information about giving feedback to staff, download our Engaging Feedback eBook.