As leaders in the workplace, how often to we buffer our employees from feedback? How often do we find ourselves holding back valid and useful information and giving messages that are diluted at best? For most leaders, the response is: too often to count.
That’s because honest feedback is difficult -- even painful -- to give and to receive. It’s so much easier to shirk these uncomfortable situations by just avoiding them. Yet this takes a toll on productivity.
This dynamic shows up in organizations of all shapes and sizes, and I’ve boiled it down to a three-prong paradigm -- one I like to call the“Feedback Trifecta”.
In the Feedback Trifecta, the skills needed to give feedback are underdeveloped, leaders responsible for delivering the feedback lack the courage to do it, and the typical workplace environment unknowingly and sometimes knowingly promotes avoiding honest and open communication. And organizations pay for it, since avoidance merely causes problems to fester and resentment to grow. Teams and entire companies can become feedback-resistant, and will inevitably suffer.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. As leaders, we can take control of our feedback situation and make it work for us. Listed below are a few tips I offer to workplace leaders for giving consistent, on-point feedback:
Minimize the Threat We Represent. Giving feedback that inspires courage and moves others to action (not reaction), requires minimizing the threat we represent. As the feedback giver, we are not outside the process but within the process. And when you’re inside the process of receiving feedback, you are vulnerable. This means that the feedback giver should mirror the receiver’s vulnerability. One way to do this is start the feedback process by sharing the intention behind what you are sharing and setting a non-threatening but supportive tone for the conversation.
Show Empathy. True empathy is about feeling with someone, and acknowledging how the other person is feeling. When we do this, we allow the emotion to surface and find its appropriate place in the conversation. If we ignore the emotion or pretend it’s not there, we become even more of threat to the person we’re speaking with.
Use Exploratory Language versus Absolutes. The language we use when providing feedback can be critical to the outcome. Using absolutes such as “always,” “never,”” none,” and can’t,” or imperatives such as “must” and “should” back our receiver into a corner and make them feel judged and defensive. Instead, try using exploratory language, which demonstrates a willingness to be open. Exploratory language includes phrases like “I’m wondering if,” “Have you considered,” “I’d like to share some thoughts I have”, “Can I explore this with you further?” When we are using exploratory language, we are inviting the other person to consider our perspective as a perspective not as an absolute. In doing so, we minimize the threat our words represent
Demonstrate Compassionate Persistence. Compassionate persistence requires staying true to the message regardless of the pushback the giver might receive from the receiver of the feedback. It also means not allowing the message to be derailed, deflected or diluted. This can be extremely tough sometimes when others don’t want to hear feedback. We are tempted to change our message so others can hear it rather than change how we deliver it so that others can hear it.
The tough consequence of giving feedback is that we can’t control how the other person will hear our words. Nor can we decide what they will choose to do with these words. Feedback may very well cause the people we care about and work with to avoid us, hold grudges, and lash out at us. If they choose to be the victim, we become the villain. This is why giving feedback takes courage. The choice we have is to shy away from it -- or give it skillfully and courageously, thus driving real, constructive results.
Angela Sebaly, author of The Courageous Leader (Wiley, spring 2017), is co-founder and CEO of the firm Personify Leadership, a training provider. Formerly the Vice President of Leadership Development for a global oil, gas and chemicals inspection company, Angela also serves as principle consultant for the firm Invested Leadership, a training provider. An entrepreneur developing a global presence, Angela has been coaching, facilitating and leading teams and organizations for over two decades.