Feedback – it’s not about you!

Palms sweating? Check. Heart pumping? Check. Stomach performing somersaults? Check. If you’ve had to give feedback before, you may be familiar with the discomfort that accompanies it. There are few words in the business lexicon that have an effect like it: two syllables that produce groans almost universally. And yet feedback continues to be a hot topic! So why the visceral reaction?

There are two reasons that Farscape frequently encounters. Firstly, people feel that they ought to be giving more feedback. Secondly, leaders feel that they are not skilled at giving feedback, meaning they avoid it if possible. And so the notion of ‘feedback’ continues to produce more questions than answers: Am I doing enough? Am I doing it correctly? How can I find out if I’m doing it right?

But is this frenzy justified? At Farscape, we believe that feedback can be given until leaders, managers and colleagues are blue in the face. It doesn’t mean that those people on the receiving end will hear it! Giving feedback isn’t just about being highly skilled. It’s about having the right culture in place that permits feedback to be heard – and acted upon. As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) points out, simply giving feedback assumes that the receiver wants to hear it and make a change.

In short, successfully giving feedback starts with creating a culture that is conducive to the exchange of feedback, not just saying the words. It’s about building an environment that enables the receiver of feedback to do something with it and make a change; the giver of feedback and their needs are secondary – which isn’t the given that it might seem!

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators

There are many instances in life where a high degree of skill increases the likelihood of a favourable outcome. Regular training makes the athlete more effective and the artist more refined. When it comes to feedback, however, an individual needs more than skill – the right culture is needed so that feedback lands and is actioned. It’s something we see often: people get het up about having ‘courageous conversations’, being brave and ripping the plaster off. However, this assumes that there is an open culture which allows these frank exchanges to happen. Moreover, who does this courageousness actually refer to? In this narrative, the giver of feedback must be bold, they must conquer their own fears and blurt out the truth, in order to deliver the wayward soul from the error of their ways.

This centres around a lot of assumptions about giving feedback, not least that the receiver wants to change – or even hear what you think they need to change! Perhaps they vehemently believe that theirs is the best way to do things. Maybe they are simply not interested in their impact on a particular situation. Feedback needs to be related to the receiver. Their intrinsic motivators are a much more powerful force than the extrinsic motivations, standards, or beliefs of others. Otherwise, telling people how you think they can change, according to your motivations, relies on them not only wanting to hear your feedback but that your motivations, external to them, are more compelling than their own internal motivations.

Resolving hang-ups about positive and negative feedback

There’s no such thing as positive or negative feedback. Each and every person has their own reference points, their own experiences of the world. So, whatever is said runs through their internal computer and spits out a positive or negative result to them. We can only be experts in our own feelings and experience, not other people’s. If you work in sales and your experience tells you that being loud, abrasive, forward and using aggressive sales tactics is a sure-fire way to send a prospect running for the door, it’s likely you believe that this behaviour is not the way to close a sale. If your colleague’s experience is that these behaviours are the most effective way to procure a signature on the dotted line, they’re likely to be non-plussed when you gravely inform them, ‘You were very brash in that meeting today Simon.’

It’s important to note here that we’re not saying that feedback is all message, all environment, and zero skill. Of course, there is a skill to giving feedback; being a better listener, asking effective questions, adopting a curious mindset, for example. And Farscape regularly works with leaders to help develop these skills. The point is that when this skill is combined with positive intent that focuses on the person, then it’s a good basis for a useful exchange of feedback. The third leg of the tripod is an open, honest, trusting culture where people are willing to be more vulnerable with each other; this creates the best environment to give feedback. Before examining what this ideal environment, this safe space, looks like, it’s useful to understand the common roadblocks when it comes to feedback.

What gets in the way of feedback?

Perhaps the most common way in which leaders and managers give less than effective feedback is by talking in broad brushstrokes that don’t deeply resonate with the individual. Focusing on the team or the organisation as a whole is a common trope – touching the desire to motivate individuals for the wider good. This broad focus doesn’t work. As the HBR article suggests, humans are not capable of holding abstract concepts in their mind, such as ‘agile teamwork’ or ‘organisational excellence’, or any of the other corporate values that might populate the employee handbook. We experience those concepts through our own thoughts and feelings, through the prism of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’. The prism of 1, not 10 or 20 or 3,000. And remember, ‘the team’, ‘the organisation’ are extrinsic motivators, which are less likely to compel the receiver of feedback to action. So, the feedback needs to focus on the individual.

Trust and respect are also vital to feedback being given and effectively actioned. While we all exist as individuals, trust and respect allow for the recognition that there are many others whose thoughts and experiences may differ from our own, but who are at least worthy of listening to. If there is no trust or respect, feedback will fail. People might not only struggle to understand your point or reasoning, they might even choose to ignore your feedback because they don’t respect you or trust your motivations.

Fear: if feedback is only used as a tool to extract improvement from someone, people may come to fear it. We’ve all heard the words ‘I need to give you some feedback…’ cue the sirens in our heads! If feedback is the only time a manager or leader engages, for instance, then team members will associate feedback with a dressing down, a list of all the ways they are not performing well enough, or a showreel of their mistakes. They will dread feedback and this fear puts people into ‘threat brain’; this ‘fight or flight’ response means that they can’t act upon what they hear because their brain shuts out anything that isn’t helpful to their immediate survival. In these conditions, the chances of taking new information on board and learning from it are biologically, neurologically and evolutionarily stacked against the individual.

What’s needed for feedback? A safe space

Fear, mistrust, a lack of respect, and hidden agendas all lead to a poor feedback experience. For productive feedback, all the hallmarks of a great culture need to be in place. That’s the cornerstone of building a space where feedback can occur.

So what does this mean in practice? There needs to be recognition that my values are not your values, and that neither one of us is definitively in the right. Say I value timekeeping very highly and feel frustrated when you are late. Timekeeping is not something that you place much value on. When you’re late, you don’t think that it’s a very big deal. You believe that simply showing up is what’s valuable, regardless of the time. When I give you feedback about your timekeeping, or lack of, it assumes that my values are the correct values; that they are objectively right, and that it is my responsibility to inform you of that so that you can change your behaviour to meet this standard. Not everything is so clear, however!

Even when ‘positive’ feedback or praise is given, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the mists of confusion automatically lift. Leaders who give ‘positive’ feedback can be equally as unclear. Imagine that you are working towards a professional qualification. You have an assessment and your expectation is to achieve a score of 90%. The course has been very challenging, yet you pride yourself on holding yourself to high standards. When you achieve a score of 75%, sailing past the 65% pass threshold, you feel confused, hurt, maybe even insulted when your boss says, ‘Great job!’ Not explaining the specifics means it’s impossible for you to replicate those behaviours, as you don’t know what you did that led to a good outcome. If they had said, ‘Well done, you stuck with the course even though it was tough and your hard work paid off in the end with a pass,’ you would understand your boss’ point of view and which actions you should repeat.

Positive feedback is often glossed over, though its importance can’t be understated. When we receive praise, our brains fill with oxytocin and this ‘feel-good’ hormone enables our brains to forge new neural pathways. It supports, rather than inhibits, learning. In direct comparison to ‘threat brain’, brains in ‘safe’ mode are open, receptive and apt to retain information. And when the culture supports an environment that is free of fear, our brains can happily receive feedback, safe in the knowledge that is it only feedback.

What to do about feedback as a leader

Differing values exist, we all have them. And while we don’t always have to agree on what they should be, people want to be valued for what they value. As a leader, it’s down to you to put the time into giving feedback that’s suitable for each individual team member. Building up from the foundation of a safe space where people are trusted, respected and vulnerable, feedback is tailored to the individual that hears it. After all, feedback is about the person receiving it, not the person giving it.

The request that usually emerges when Farscape is approached about doing some work around feedback, is that leaders want to feel more comfortable while they deliver an uncomfortable message. What the request should be, if leaders are working towards that open culture, is: help me create a safe space, so that the person hearing the feedback has what they need to make sense of it and do something with it.

Part of this development work may well investigate the leader’s own thoughts, feelings and attitudes to feedback while refining their skill. In the live feedback scenario, the feelings of the leader have to play second fiddle. Leaders are paid to make sure people have what they need to do their job well. And if leaders’ agendas, feelings or values cloud that, it lacks meaning to the receiver and they will struggle to do anything with the feedback.

Focus on the individuals in your team, not just the team

The feedback development work we’re asked to do tends to focus on the leader. It’s vital that leaders ask themselves ‘Have I created an environment that’s conducive to feedback?’ If the answer is yes, it’s highly likely that feedback is simply a part of the fabric of everyday life. If there’s a lack of respect, trust or vulnerability, it leads to an environment where defensive posturing is the natural reaction to feedback. Of course, Farscape can help leaders develop the skills to deliver feedback effectively once this strong foundation is in place. Though it’s fundamental that we remember that the skill of delivery and the words used to convey the feedback are really the last pieces of the puzzle. Without the other pieces in place first, the big picture doesn’t make sense.

Feedback doesn’t have to be a ‘thing’, a black mark on the calendar, that everyone fears. It can be as straightforward as having an engaging conversation. If you’re tired of trotting out the same timeworn phrases and seeing few results, or if you’re exasperated by trying to align your senior leaders’ approaches to feedback, get in touch. We’ve helped organisations create open, honest, supportive cultures where feedback is the norm. We’re on 0117 370 1800 and would welcome the opportunity of a conversation.

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