Have you ever needed to give a team member feedback about their performance and found yourself avoiding the task, and maybe even avoiding that person for a time, because you didn’t feel confident about how to proceed?
Perhaps you were concerned that you’d offend or upset them, which might affect your future working relationship. Or maybe you worried that they’d react badly to the feedback and either report you for bullying or perhaps even quit, which would be a problem because their skills and experience would be hard to replace.
This is a common issue on large-scale projects, where complex interdependencies mean milestones get missed and deadlines slip when individuals fail to deliver on time, with enormous costs in project overruns.
This article positions feedback conversations as invaluable opportunities to contribute to the growth and development of your people. It frames feedback as a gift, inviting you to step powerfully into the role of leader and offering six practical strategies to support you in engaging confidently in feedback conversations.
As leaders, we need to give feedback about actions or behaviours to team members, contractors, peers, suppliers and sometimes even to our managers. However, many leaders still find it challenging to appropriately talk through issues and hold others accountable for their actions. Even when they do try to offer some feedback, their desire to have the conversation go well often means they tiptoe around the issue rather than confronting the behaviour head-on.
Then there are the people who dive in with both feet and say exactly what they think without any filters or consideration as to how it lands. They’re focused on having their say, but their abrasive or even aggressive delivery leaves the recipient of their feedback feeling battered and bruised.
I know of one senior tech manager who lost her temper with staff so often and so badly that several people left the business. Others stayed, but refused to work with her. This manager would allow her frustration to get so high that the feedback literally spewed out of her, spraying everyone in the vicinity. In scenarios like these, feedback is either dreaded or seen as a chore. And its potential to create opportunities for growth remains unfulfilled.
So what’s the solution?
Through coaching, this manager learned to value the ‘gift’ of feedback and the opportunity it gave her to develop her people. By becoming more aware of her impact (by seeking feedback herself) and being more responsible for her role as leader, she began to offer small pieces of feedback in the moment, whenever an issue arose. This allowed her to be far more measured and considerate in her delivery and ultimately, much more effective.
When feedback is poorly delivered, the recipient feels so unsafe during the conversation that they struggle to stay present and fully appreciate the information being shared. Whenever we feel vulnerable or threatened, the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and the brain is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. This literally shuts down our executive function so our ability to process and take on the feedback is reduced. So nothing changes.
As leaders, we need to be responsible for how we deliver feedback and role model this for our colleagues and team members. It’s not good enough to simply say, “We’re all adults here and we need to manage our feelings.” When you lash out at another person because of your own lack of self-control, the chemical reaction that occurs in their brain is automatic and the experience can be very triggering.
People who get triggered into a fight response will typically push back and defend themselves, at times even matching the aggression of the other person. At the other end of the spectrum are people who react by going into flight, either shutting down or being passive. These people might defend themselves internally and seek to justify their position, at least to themselves, but they will struggle to hold their own in the conversation and will tend to just check out emotionally.
Rather than dreading or avoiding feedback, we need to lean in and embrace feedback opportunities. By being intentional and choosing to maximise learning interactions, we can play an important role in facilitating growth and developing our people for bigger and more challenging roles.
Below are some practical ways to support you in confidently and effectively creating a safer and more conducive context for growth interactions:
1. First and foremost is how you are Being. Be responsible for your impact. Exercise awareness – both of how you’re behaving in the moment and how the other person is reacting to your comments and your approach. Be willing to modify your behaviour if things aren’t going well. Choose to be assertive and direct (as opposed to passive, passive aggressive or aggressive) since only assertiveness is effective.
2. Be respectful. No one will take on your feedback if it is not delivered in a respectful and considerate way. Make sure you listen to what the other person has to say as well as sharing your issues and concerns, and frame your comments as opinions or observations rather than absolutes.
3. Establish your positive intent for the conversation. Be clear about WHY you’re giving the feedback and phrase it supportively ie. wanting to help them to improve their performance, supporting them to achieve their professional aspirations or fulfil their potential.
4. Connect to their values. When you link your desired outcome with their personal or professional values, you will be able to deeply engage their intrinsic motivation ie. if they want a promotion or a pay rise, highlight how the desired improvement will support them in achieving that goal.
5. Recognise that they are doing their best based on their current resources and beliefs. Few people deliberately perform poorly. It’s more likely that they are feeling powerless, unresourceful or lack confidence in the task, so by supporting them to reframe their thinking, access additional resources or by building up their confidence you could well see a marked improvement in their results.
6. Separate the person from their behaviour and avoid getting personal. People are not their behaviour, and when we make the mistake of conflating the two, we make it difficult for them to take on feedback because your comments feel like an attack. By supporting them as a person and challenging their actions as something outside them – something they do, which they can change – we increase the possibility of improvement, as they will no longer feel their identity is being threatened.
When we embrace and lean into feedback conversations - both for ourselves and others - we develop greater awareness of our impact and effectiveness and have the chance to make improvements and grow. This is one of the most important gifts we can give our people, and to ourselves.