Feedback. Just reading that word can elicit deep feelings and produce undesirable physical responses in many of us. Our clients often use words like anxious, distressed, inept, and uncomfortable to describe how they feel about feedback. We’ve also heard people talk about having sweaty palms, weak knees, heavy arms, and a bitter taste in their mouths. And those emotional and physical reactions are from leaders who are talking about giving feedback!
What is it about giving feedback that’s so challenging for us? If we were talking only about giving constructive feedback, the usual suspects would rear their heads:
- “I’m afraid they won’t like me after I share this.”
- “I don’t think they can handle this piece of feedback.”
- “They won’t do anything with my feedback, so why share it?”
But, in our experience, many leaders aren’t sharing positive feedback either. Most cite time constraints as the primary reason, though we sometimes hear leaders express concerns about praising people for “just doing their job.”
If we are avoiding all feedback, something deeper must be at work here, and we believe it’s two factors:
- A fundamental misunderstanding of what feedback is.
- A lack of commitment to helping people excel.
What Feedback Really Is
At the core, feedback is simply an expression of what worked (or didn’t work) at any given moment. It’s outcome-focused, process-driven, and designed to help colleagues draw a connection between the goal and the process that helped them get there (or failed to get them there).
For instance, if a team member is addressing an angry consumer, the desired outcome is to de-escalate. They may try any number of techniques to achieve that goal—active listening, remaining calm, asking clarifying questions. Healthy feedback would shine a light on what you saw work in that moment. As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall noted in their Harvard Business Review article, “The Feedback Fallacy,” feedback is saying, “That! Yes, that!”
The same approach can be used to help our teammates identify gaps in their process and unmet outcomes. For example, it’s an Ethos practice to give each other feedback after our workshops, and it often sounds like this, “I thought they were with you right up to the point that you said giving feedback is easy, and that’s when it looked like they checked out, and I didn’t really get that part either.”
Notice that in both examples, we’re not telling someone what they should do. Instead, we’re helping them make connections, which is where learning takes place, and excellent future performance is grounded.
Commit to Helping People Excel
Even if we understand what feedback really is, we still must make a commitment to helping people excel, or we will find ourselves avoiding feedback moments. Becky uses a simple question to gut-check herself when she feels too busy to give feedback or finds herself wanting to avoid giving difficult feedback: “Do I care about this person?”
It may sound abrasive, but that simple question helps Becky focus on what she wants for that individual, which includes helping them achieve their personal and professional goals. When framed that way, feedback becomes a critical process we must employ to help people become who/what they want to be.
Reflection: What keeps you from giving feedback? What will you do differently in moments when giving feedback could be helpful?