Why giving good feedback isn’t just about following a framework

Feedback. Given or received, the word so often strikes fear into the heart of the listener. Criticism, attack, improvements, manipulative…any of these words might spring to mind, depending on which side of the fence you’re on. And for those tasked with giving feedback, two things tend to happen: people fear giving feedback so much that they avoid it altogether. Or, when feedback is given it’s haphazard, inconsistent or without actionable insights.

We at Farscape tend to find that where organisations embrace feedback, a third scenario emerges: delivery is via a feedback framework. While this is useful for creating structure, it impedes the feedback process when leaned upon. The individual giving feedback might not know how to think beyond the framework. Clinging to the structure, they’re not attuned to other verbal and non-verbal cues that could have an important bearing on the exchange.

Feedback in itself, then, isn’t the problem, neither are frameworks wholly to blame. Lacking the skills to have a productive, non-threatening dialogue is where most people who give feedback fall short.

What happens when feedback is given

When it’s not avoided, feedback is frequently vague and open to interpretation. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, structured or unstructured, there’s a danger that it won’t contain enough useful information. For example:

  • Positive feedback: People might say things like ‘Well done!’ or ‘Great job!’ It’s reassuring to hear praise of course, although ‘Well done’ isn’t transferable to another situation. What was good about that? How did I do well?
  • Negative feedback: Someone is pulled aside and ‘told off’; or they’re part of a team that witnesses a leader lose their temper. Again, this doesn’t provide the tools to do better next time. What exactly needs to change? ‘You messed up’ doesn’t give enough to improve upon.
  • Framework: There’s a risk that the person giving the feedback will cling to the framework. Frameworks vary, though they typically encompass a description of the situation, the individual’s behaviour, and the impact. While this structure can be helpful it can prevent active listening or moving beyond the framework to find out about the other person and their behaviour at a given point.

All the above styles of delivery can easily drift away from facts, into opinions and judgements that relate to someone’s personality. Saying ‘You were aggressive yesterday’ sounds to the receiving party like a judgement. Making opinionated statements instead of factual observations can feel like a character assassination. It also leaves the door ajar for argument; there’s too much room for interpretation. What I perceive as aggression might be very different to what you perceive as aggression. Our different experiences of an event leave us with very different opinions, cue the defensive or nonplussed response, ‘No I wasn’t!’

Feedback is simply a conversation

Giving feedback isn’t about ‘telling’, it’s about having a dialogue. That means less ‘You were X…’, more listening, asking questions, being genuinely interested in and curious about what the individual has to say.

Coaching forms a significant part of the work that we do at Farscape, and feedback is an issue for many organisations. We’ve seen plenty of organisations wrestle with feedback and have found that coaching skills equip individuals with the tools to have open and honest feedback conversations. If the thought of giving feedback makes your blood run cold, it makes a big difference to know that your intention is merely to have a discussion with another person, rather than feel that you are the bearer of bad news.

What a good feedback conversation looks like in practice

There are two key elements: sensory-specific feedback and, supporting that feedback, the underlying coaching skills.

  • Sensory-specific feedback
    Information is delivered as a verbal replay of the events as they occurred. This is followed by a clear, straightforward statement of the impression created on the other person. For instance, ‘You walked quickly out of the room and slammed the door, my perception was that you were angry.’ Or, ‘During the meeting yesterday when we were talking about the report, you were looking out of the window and smiling, it seemed like you were daydreaming.’ Descriptions make misinterpretation less likely. Sticking to facts and recounting actions gives the other party a chance to explain without things being heated or defensive.
  • Coaching skills
    The person giving feedback can practice curiosity by asking open questions. Building upon the sensory-specific feedback they might say something like, ‘What was going on for you when you left the room?’ This is devoid of judgement and invites a full response from the individual without fear of recrimination.

These are small but important differences. They change the tone of the conversation and –more important – the impact of the feedback. The delivery, the language used and the intent behind the words affect how the information is received by the hearer. Imagine that you’re in a restaurant with your partner. At the end of the meal, they say that you were ‘rude’ to the waiter. Perplexed, you can’t think what you have done to cause offence. Your immediate response is indignant denial because your experience doesn’t match up with your partner’s words. Now imagine that they provide specifics: ‘You didn’t say “thank you” when the waiter brought the food.’ You remember that you didn’t. You don’t feel accused or judged. Instead, you acknowledge what happened, explain that you were too engaged in conversation to notice the waiter and vow to have better spatial awareness next time!

Facts, rather than opinions or judgements, give you the opportunity to align your experience with what’s said, provides the space for you to tell your account, and gives both parties permission to agree what might be more appropriate in future.

Without trust, people fear conflict

In Lencioni’s model, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, a lack of trust leads to a fear of conflict. According to Lencioni, being vulnerable with colleagues is what defines trust. And discussing how to improve oneself is a very vulnerable experience for many people. If that trust, that vulnerability, is missing then individuals won’t be completely open and honest. Hiding thoughts, opinions and feelings creates an unhealthy loop which is perpetuated by a fear of conflict. And while it might seem like kindness to spare your colleague’s feelings by not telling them how they could do better, it means that nothing changes and a less-than-ideal situation persists.

Fear-free feedback and open discussions generate real change

Giving feedback is an unavoidable part of working life. Equipping leaders, managers and even staff with the tools to deliver effective, meaningful feedback isn’t an easy job. Spending an hour walking through a PowerPoint on how to deliver feedback will not yield any fundamental changes. Not to your staff’s confidence in giving feedback, the outcomes that emerge as a result of feedback, or their impact on the organisation. Teaching the use of a framework might appear to remove the fear of feedback, though that’s likely because it’s used as a crutch. Supporting your leaders and managers to give feedback is admirable; as with any business process, however, it needs to be frequently reviewed and refined. If feedback frameworks aren’t upholding the standards or results you expect, it’s time for a change.

Farscape has worked with organisations of all sizes to help people build coaching skills such as listening, curiosity, and asking open questions. Giving and taking feedback should just be a conversation, and so a conversation culture is what’s needed first and foremost. Coaching can’t solve every problem. What coaching skills can do, is enable productive conversations which improve your staff’s performance. Join our webinar to hear more about how a conversation culture can impact on your organisation, and how giving good feedback fits into that. The webinar is on Friday 7th December, sign up now and even if you’re not available at that time we’ll send you a recording to watch at your convenience.

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