Feedback: the gift that keeps on giving

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Stuart Duff, head of development at business psychologists Pearn Kandola, shares his thoughts on the challenges of giving feedback and managing performance.

Providing feedback: A leader’s greatest challenge?

Feedback. It’s a hot topic across all industries. But still key for a business to progress and for employees to act effectively and develop. There are many ways to give feedback, using the "compliment sandwich," for example, or the SBI model.

We’re always happy to talk about feedback and discuss the best forms of delivery.

However, discussing something and actually doing something successfully are two very different things. But if you struggle to give clear, constructive, honest feedback to others – you are not alone.

At Pearn Kandola, our leadership program is a long standing one – it has been utilised to develop more than 500 leaders in senior positions.

Naturally, this program focuses on improving leadership capabilities and performance. What we’ve found during this improvement process is that most leaders struggle with handling conversations which involve feedback.

Delivering feedback in a calm, constructive and solution focused way has proved difficult for most.

What is it about feedback that we find so uncomfortable?

More than half of the leaders we’ve come across would prefer to avoid having difficult conversations and would understate their position in an effort to do so.

People rarely react negatively to feedback. In fact, usually people want to hear if they are not doing what they’re supposed to, or if there are ways they can improve their performance.

Worse yet, roughly a fifth would take a much more controlling and aggressive approach in order to deliver a message and move on from the situation quickly.  

When we remove ourselves from the actual situation and think about delivering feedback critically, it is easy to see that both passive and aggressive behaviours will not have a positive outcome in the workplace.

So why do leaders automatically employ these strategies when they’re feeling pressured?

This is not to say that there are not plenty of honest feedback conversations which take place. In day to day life, we are perfectly capable of having open and honest conversations with our peers.

This is because the conversations take place in our heads. We know what we want to say and we rehearse it. Things go wrong when we get to the point of actually giving feedback in a formal setting – we find some way not to deliver it.

What are the underlying “micro-behaviours” that cause this discomfort?

This all boils down to critical moments and “micro-behaviours”. We take cues from what’s going on around us and the way people react to us – and it’s only afterwards that we think about it.

We try to make eye contact, but we only notice this behaviour when eye contact is broken. We understand people’s anger, disappointment or sadness through the signs they give us via their body language.

We read facial expressions, and understand the emotions of another. In those fleeting moments, we react and predict what the person we’re addressing is going to do.

More than half of the leaders we’ve come across would prefer to avoid having difficult conversations and would understate their position in an effort to do so.

This is an impulsive and natural reaction, however it can strongly determine our ability to give feedback.

This response is one that we make in order to protect ourselves. We don’t like to have uncomfortable discussions or alienate and upset our colleagues.

No-one likes to work in an unpleasant environment. However, often our assumptions about giving feedback are wrong.

People rarely react negatively to feedback. In fact, usually people want to hear if they are not doing what they’re supposed to, or if there are ways they can improve their performance.

How do we overcome our instinctual responses and deliver successful feedback?

So, how do we overcome our assumptions and give positive feedback? There are three major actions which we can practice to make a positive impact on the process:

  • The first action we can take is to become attuned to our personal reactions. We must remember that although they are natural, they are unnecessary in a professional context whilst giving feedback at work. When our reactions stop us from having reasonable and positive discussions, they become unhelpful and this is something we must work to recognise.
  • The second action we can take is to reflect on our personal beliefs when we encounter difficult scenarios. We should not simply say “I gave them feedback and they seemed tense, so I abandoned the conversation”. We should strive to ask ourselves why we walked away. What did I believe would occur if I carried on?
  • The final action we can take is simply to “go back to basics” by reflecting on the purpose of feedback. This simple method is something that’s easy to forget. If we go into a conversation to give criticism, this will be reflected in our tone and behaviour. If we go into a conversation instead to give support and solutions, this too will be reflected in our behaviour and received more positively.

Sometimes, organisations or fragments of them end up establishing strong “feedback cultures” in which leaders propagate the idea that the value of feedback far outweighs the discomfort that the process causes.

The more we give feedback, the more we reinforce this belief. We surpass our initial discomfort and recognise that our reaction and thoughts are the source of the problem rather than the responses of the other person.

About Stuart Duff

Stuart Duff

Stuart Duff is a Business Psychologist and Partner with Pearn Kandola. His primary focus is on helping people to take on new business challenges through widening selfunderstanding and focusing on clear goals.

Stuart has spent over twenty years advising organisations on performance and leadership development, and in the process has become extremely familiar with the nature of the challenges that senior managers and executives encounter.

His work with top teams and high potential employees from many of the FTSE 500 companies has also given him a highly commercial and grounded view of what it takes to be a successful leader in different business environments. Consequently Stuart can bring a very practical and pragmatic approach to coaching others, while, as a chartered psychologist, he brings a genuine edge to understanding and enhancing performance at work, drawing on a range of coaching tools and techniques such as personality profiling, motivational interviewing and leadership modelling.

Stuart has worked with managers and executives on areas such as leadership development, maintaining resilience, developing confidence and personal impact, developing strategic vision and building effective relationships.

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