This summer I was invited to Vienna to do a workshop on effectively giving and receiving feedback. The participants came from all over Europe, as well as Japan. But all of these human beings had one thing in common: They didn’t relish the thought of giving or receiving feedback.
Why? Let me explain through a simple example
Imagine you’re enjoying a relatively dysfunction-free day at work when you see your manager strolling towards you. After exchanging pleasantries, she says “Hey, drop by my office at noon. I’ve got some feedback for you.”
What’s the first possibility that pops to mind? That you’re going to receive a shout-out for your extraordinary facilitation of a difficult project negotiation? That she’ll applaud the way you kept your team focused on last week’s mission – critical deadline? ANY of the hundreds of things you did right on your project in the past week?
Most people I’ve encountered would be expecting something negative because – hey, seriously – how often do we receive positive feedback at work?
Unfortunately, “feedback” has become a euphemism for criticism. That’s a pity. Feedback is essential to growth, and positive feedback that’s skilfully designed and delivered can be absolutely transformative. However, giving and receiving truly effective feedback requires far more sophisticated communication skills than many professionals possess, including myself.
We simply don’t learn to speak with such care – at least I never did, but then I studied physics for seven years. (I should have studied psychology!) One factor working against a “culture of feedback” is that human beings remember negative events more strongly than positive ones. This is called “negativity bias”.
In fact, some studies have reported that employees need a 6:1 ratio of positive-to-negative comments in order to perform their best at work, and I’ve even heard that an 11:1 ratio is required for the positive and negative comments to feel equal.
Feedback in many workplaces is predominantly negative. In fact, one of my clients once bragged that they didn’t need to waste their time patting themselves – and each other – on the back. I can assure you that this view was NOT shared by the (many) disheartened individuals hungry for some sign that their contributions were appreciated – or at least noticed!
Establishing a “culture of appreciation” has been an important part of our work together. After all, if we don’t tell our teammates what they’re doing right they might stop doing it!
The absence of feedback
Many workplaces fail to integrate feedback into routine practice, except for the dreaded annual performance review and – gawd help us – stacked ranking. (Thankfully this is finally starting to change as people find traditional performance review practices often actually decrease performance, even for highly ranked individuals.)
I vividly recall an engineering friend telling me he had worked for six months without receiving any sign of what his new manager thought of his work performance. Finally, feeling that he was working in something akin to an anechoic chamber, he worked up the courage to approach his manager directly. He went to his manager’s desk and found him busily checking email.
“So,” my friend said, “I’ve been working for you for six months now. How’s it going?” His manager paused briefly, fingers poised above his keyboard, then said “Hmmm, good,” and immediately returned to his email. Yup, a half of year of performance feedback was succinctly communicated in barely more than a grunt.
Tips and tools to do it right
There is a better way. Like most of what I write about, it’s common sense, but not common practice. Here are my guidelines, in priority order:
1. Create psychological safety
2. Ensure feedback is focused on a goal the feedback recipient cares about
3. Before giving feedback, set a good example by asking for it and receiving it graciously
4. Use language skilfully to avoid judgemental words, focusing on effectiveness
5. Integrate both positive and corrective feedback routinely into the work environment
6. Use tools that will ensure feedback has a clear goal and will shape the language used
7. Master the art of transformational positive feedback
We’re much more likely to be open to feedback when we feel that we’re in a safe environment where we trust the people involved. This is known as psychological safety, a “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”. Naturally this must be built on a foundation of trust among the various individuals.
Trust can take a long time to build, but it can be destroyed in a moment, and can be difficult to repair, so it’s worth it to spend time purposefully building and maintaining trust. Given Gallup Research’s low global employee engagement scores, I’m quite certain most workplaces don’t meet the psychological safety requirement. This might also explain why the lowest scoring behaviour globally among the 30 Leadership Challenge behaviours studied by Posner & Kouzes for three decades is “Asks for feedback on how his/her actions affects people’s performance.”
Why care about feedback when you don’t feel engaged at work?!
Criticism – at least the unskilful type – occurs when one person tells another their opinion of what’s wrong with something about that other person. Anyone who’s got parents has surely experienced this. Recently my mom told me that my hair was too long. Now, I love my mother more than life itself…AND… how I choose to style my hair? I’m really not interested in her opinion of my hair. At all.
Feedback, on the other hand, is offering your opinion to the other person with the intention of supporting them in achieving a better outcome that matters to them. If my mom said something like, “Hey, I hear that you want to brand yourself as a badass global business consultant who helps people achieve what seems impossible but is merely difficult.
I think a shorter hairstyle would be more aligned with that image. And why don’t you add some electric blue streaks in it, too, to show that you’ve got a huge creative streak in you?” Now that would be feedback. (Are you reading this, Mom? Remember, I love you bunches!!) Focus on the other person’s goals and position your comments entirely to help them achieve what they want. Anything else is just criticism.
Leaders go first
If you want to build an environment where you can give feedback, first create a practice of asking for it, and receiving it gracefully. Easier said than done. Over 90 per cent of drivers rate themselves as “above average”. Called “illusory superiority,” not only is this a mathematical impossibility, it demonstrates that self-evaluation sucks. And our egos are not our friends when it comes to welcoming even helpful feedback.
Most of my consulting projects include a phase where I gather inputs from a diverse crosssection of people in the organisation. When I get comments related to the executives of that organisation I offer to share them with the executives, anonymously of course. Without fail, when the comments are negative the first question executives ask is, “Who said that?”
Naturally I never disclose the identity of the people who made these comments, but it’s telling that this reaction is so universal. It’s no wonder people hesitate to speak truth to power!
Ms Wiefling is co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, and author of Scrappy Project Management; a global business leadership consultant, and a force of nature – the good kind! She specialises in global team effectiveness – helping teams achieve what seems impossible but is merely difficult.