Do you recognise any of these scenarios in your own organisation?
Scenario 1: Underperforming team member
It’s February, just three weeks after all of the performance reviews have been completed across the business. Janice, a line manager, comes into the HR office and explains that she’d like to put a member of her team, Ali, on a Performance Improvement Plan.
HR ask Janice what the problems have been with Ali’s performance and Janice explains that Ali’s work has not been at the required standard for over a year now. Ali has poor attention to detail, is reluctant to take on any tasks outside of his core role and does not fit well with the team. HR ask Janice if these issues have been discussed in the performance management meetings and recorded on the system. Janice looks surprised before saying no. When HR look up Ali’s recent performance ratings, they find he has been given a rating of ‘good’ for the past two years.
Scenario 2: High turnover in a team
Peter has been with the organisation for seven years and manages one of the larger teams in the business. He finds himself constantly recruiting for his team – it seems as though no sooner do people join, than they leave.
Peter sees himself as a manager who sets high standards and coaches others to develop and perform. His team members see him as an over directive micromanager who is inflexible and insists on there being only one right way to do things. They give him this feedback by leaving the team, rather than discussing it with him. Peter’s peers are aware of the issue and have tried to explain it to Peter, but he becomes abrupt and impatient with them, saying that they do not understand how to lead high performing teams.
Scenario 3: New talent management process
You have worked hard over the past year to design and introduce a new process to identify ‘high potentials’ in your organisation.
The Exec are firmly agreed that a robust process is needed to understand who the future leaders are. You run a thorough assessment process, with managers from across the business acting as assessors. At the end of the process, it is agreed which of the participants have high potential and which are core contributors rather than future leaders. The communications are drafted for line managers to share the outcomes with participants.
Two months later, 90 per cent of the participants still do not know the outcome of the assessment process and do not know why it is taking so long. Under pressure from line managers who are reluctant to have the conversations, the Exec have decided to revisit the decisions from the assessment process.
What’s behind these scenarios?
Scenario 1: Fear
A common problem is anxiety and fear about upsetting someone by giving them negative feedback. Many of us lack confidence in dealing with others’ emotions and we may also be motivated by our own desire to be liked. We assume that the recipient of the feedback will blame us for the message – and sometimes, this is true. Janice justifies why she hasn’t given the feedback to Ali (and in fact, has given the opposite feedback that everything is on track!) by saying that she couldn’t afford to rock the boat in her team because of an important project they were working on. She is confident that if she’d raised it earlier in the year, Ali would either have resigned immediately or she would have had to spend time that she didn’t have coaching and supporting Ali. In her mind, this is fair and logical reasoning.
Scenario 2: Defensiveness
Peter immediately feels under attack when his peers try to discuss his leadership style with him. After all, who are they to tell him how to manage his team? Although they might have lower turnover in their teams, he can’t see that the output is much better. The feedback that he micromanages cuts to the core of Peter’s identity and self-perception. His instinctive reaction is to protect this identity and ignore evidence that doesn’t support his view of himself. Eventually, his peers stop giving him the feedback as they feel as though they are hitting a brick wall – and have other things to focus on. Peter resents them for interfering in how he runs his team, which leads to negativity in his wider interactions with them.
Scenario 3: Doubt
Many of us feel that by giving feedback, we are positioning ourselves as somehow knowing better than the person we are giving feedback to. And by doing that, we believe that we are opening ourselves up to feedback that we’re not as good as we think we are! It’s a vicious circle. We then make excuses for why it’s not the right time to give the feedback, or that what we’ve seen may have just been a one-off and so on. Doubt also underpins the Exec’s discomfort in sticking with the decisions about who has high potential and who doesn’t in this scenario. The assessment process is new to them and although they have found it immensely valuable and insightful, they still don’t fully trust the outcomes. Avoiding the conversations creates doubt in the minds of the participants, who can’t understand the reason for the delay. Is it because they were all so bad? Or all so good?
How you can help
HR and Talent teams have a unique perspective on the organisation. You are a sounding board for people at all levels and you can take an objective view of others’ behaviour. This means that you see where the need is strongest and where you will achieve most return for the investment of resources.
In the next section, we share our recommendations for building a feedback culture, followed by some key enablers for giving and receiving feedback.
Building a feedback culture: Our recommendations
- Focus on helping employees to develop skills of receiving feedback as much as giving feedback. As people become increasingly confident in receiving and learning from feedback, they will seek it out and encourage others to give them feedback. You don’t need to wait until people are line managers to do this and it will accelerate your ability to create a feedback culture. Consider building in sessions on how to receive feedback in your induction programmes, introductory management programmes and materials that support performance management processes.
- Review your competency and leadership frameworks to incorporate language about growth and learning from experience. Ensure the language is not just about achievement but also about how an individual approaches a task – and how they apply their learning to the next situation. Carol Dweck’s work on ‘Growth Mindsets’ is invaluable in helping individuals to understand their personal approach to achievement – and how their current response to feedback may be holding them back.
- Developing Emotional Intelligence (EQ) will help your employees to establish trust, empathy and self-awareness – all essential ingredients of strong feedback conversations. The skills of EQ are not always in evidence though when they are needed most. Organisations tend to focus on their emerging or senior leaders when developing EQ rather than their middle managers. This population is often overlooked and may be cynical about development – yet they can have a massive impact on the culture if you invest in them and get their commitment. They may also be the group who could have the longest tenure in your organisation.
- Identify who is good at giving and receiving feedback in your organisation and arrange for them to mentor or coach those who struggle with feedback. Use coaching and mentoring schemes to proactively match people with this in mind.
- Finally – encourage colleagues to give positive as well as negative feedback, and not just to soften the blow of negative feedback. This will increase the number of feedback-based interactions that take place.
These recommendations can be introduced in a number of ways:
- As elements of other programmes you are running e.g. leadership and/or management skills, performance management training, coaching programmes
- Through the language used in frameworks and communications – not only HR communications, but also wider messaging from senior leadership
- By using psychometric tools in one-to-one or small group settings that help develop self-awareness and an understanding of the individuals’ impact on others
- Through your ad hoc conversations with the business, during which you can role model the skills of giving and receiving feedback and help others build their confidence in this area
And to conclude, we share some key enablers for giving and receiving feedback.
Enablers: Giving feedback
- Be honest about why you’re giving the feedback. Are you evaluating the other person’s performance, coaching them – or acknowledging their efforts? Telling the other person why you’re giving them feedback will help them to receive it without defensiveness.
- Ask yourself why you’re giving the feedback now. If the answer is because they are irritating you and you have to get it off your chest, the chances are you need to pause and reflect about how you are going to give it. Getting the timing right – so that the feedback is relevant but the individual is in a good position to receive it – will make all the difference to how much benefit it brings.
- Be specific about what you’ve seen and what the impact was. Check that you are not being judgemental – this isn’t about what the individual is like as a person, it is about what they said and did. Phrase your feedback in terms of what you have seen and heard the individual do and how this affected the other people involved. Ask questions to understand what their intention was and what they could have done differently. This will mean that the other person will understand what they can do differently and why it matters.
- Be thoughtful as you approach the conversation. Don’t assume that someone knows something that is obvious to you – it could be a blind spot which no one has ever raised with them before. Whilst it could be the right thing to address blind spots, you need to be well-prepared for what could be an emotional conversation.
- Put yourself in the other’s shoes. How do you think they would like to receive the feedback? Don’t assume that just because you like being told things straight, others do too. Equally, don’t sugarcoat a message when the other person has asked you to be forthright and direct. Tailoring your communication to what your audience needs – rather than what is right for you – will help your feedback achieve the desired effect.
- Watch your language. Focus on effort and input rather than ability and outcomes. Whilst delivering outcomes and achieving objectives is important, there will be times when, for whatever reason, best efforts fail. These are the times when you need to focus on what the person did – and how they can learn from the experience. Reinforcing and encouraging the right behaviours increases the probability that the person will take that approach again.
Enablers: Receiving feedback
- Be curious and seek to understand the feedback. Ask questions and keep an open mind – approach the conversation as a data-gathering activity which will help you form a view about what you need to do to get better. This can help you to identify mismatches between your self-perception and what others see of you, which you can then work on if needed.
- Foster a growth rather than fixed mindset – what you can learn and do differently next time. Concentrate on getting better at how you respond to the feedback, rather than focusing on the feedback itself. Remind yourself that we develop and grow throughout our lives and just because something has not gone well this time, doesn’t mean it won’t next time. Increased optimism and belief in your ability to grow and develop will help you to be more resilient to setbacks.
- Change your perspective. Imagine you are looking in on the conversation – suddenly, things you feel are important may seem less so. This can help you to manage your emotional response so that you can get to a point where you can learn from the feedback. Our emotions can lead us to focus on aspects of the feedback that aren’t important. Stepping back enables us to identify what we should be working on.
- Recognise that there may be crossed lines between why the feedback is being given and how you’re receiving it. If the other person is trying to coach you but you’re receiving it as an evaluation, you will not get the benefit of the feedback. When you understand why someone is giving you feedback, you can have a more constructive conversation.
- When things go wrong, it is human nature to attribute it to something that we have done personally. This can lead to a spiral of self-criticism. On the other hand, when things go well, we often attribute it to luck, or the efforts of others. We need to balance our interpretation of events so that we recognise how our behaviour has impacted the outcome – whether positive or negative.
- Finally, there is some feedback that we cannot learn from for a number of reasons. It may be that we are overwhelmed by feedback at the moment, or no matter how hard we try, we cannot understand what the feedback is or how it can help us. In these situations, it is within our power to say ‘no, thank you’ to the feedback.