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Got Feedback? Bring it.

Written by Robin Klein

Countless times in my career, I have been told that I have a gift for giving people feedback — almost like it’s my own superpower. My intention here is not to brag. I don’t know how I first realized I had this gift, but I do know it certainly made a difference for me in my career. It is my desire to share this gift with anyone hoping to improve their own feedback-giving skills.

I recently learned of Jane Dutton’s work on building high-quality connections in the workplace. Her research shows that people in higher quality connections tend to have greater cognitive functioning, are more creative, exhibit greater learning behaviors, and bounce back more effectively from setbacks. One of the key strategies for building high quality connections is to respectfully engage people. I believe the way I share and discuss feedback with individuals in the workplace connects well with Dutton’s work on engagement. Deep down I come at issues with the belief that people are generally good at their core, and that they are often shaped by the experiences of their lives. It is my desire to help people excel and be sought after for their talents. I ground my feedback in honesty and compassion.

So why does honest, compassionate feedback matter? Consider these examples:

  1. You are a strong performer, get good performance reviews, but aren’t aware of the blind spots holding you back. You wonder why your raises aren’t better.
  2. You are struggling in your job and don’t know what to do about it. You are afraid of failing.
  3. You like your actual job, but a coworker makes the environment less than desirable for everyone on the team, especially you. Your manager does nothing about it.
  4. You were up for a big promotion and didn’t get it. You got a pep talk of “hopefully next time,” but you truly don’t understand why you didn’t get the promotion this time. You are wondering if you need to quit and go somewhere else.
  5. It is likely that you have been in one of these situations or know of someone in the workplace who has experienced a similar situation. Reflecting on these situations, perhaps honest and compassionate feedback was given, but there is a good chance it wasn’t. Maybe the feedback was given, but it wasn’t clear and direct. Maybe the feedback was given, but it was done in a lighthearted or jovial way and the message didn’t get across. For some reason, most of us aren’t comfortable letting others know how they can be better. We care more about not hurting their feelings than we do about helping them be more effective. To me, that just doesn’t make sense, especially for people in leadership roles, since a big part of being a leader is growing talent for the organization.

Talents and skills of employees can be compared to those of athletes, and leaders in a way are like the coach. If a wide receiver starts having issues with frequently dropping the football, you better believe the coach is helping that athlete dissect the issue and look at the problem from all angles. The team can’t perform at its highest level if one of their wide receivers is dropping balls. It’s the same at work. If you are a leader and an employee is having any kind of performance issue, it is better to help them dissect it and engage them to help fix it, than it is to ignore it and hope it goes away. It likely won’t go away on its own, and the degree of ineffectiveness will only expand over time. We all need and deserve coaching from time to time.

If the individual gets defensive when receiving feedback, that is an issue that also needs to be addressed. The best performers are curious about how they can be better. As a leader, you can model this by asking for feedback and taking it to heart. If you come across as perfect and lack humility, you will likely struggle more with giving others feedback. To be a world class giver of feedback, you must also be an effective receiver of feedback.

Here are some tips you can practice for giving effective performance feedback at work:

  1. Build a relationship with those on your teams and with colleagues. Relationships are key to feedback. Practice caring for others and being honest with others in small and big ways, not just when something goes wrong.
  2. Demonstrate Empathy, not Sympathy. We can feel bad for people (sympathy) when things happen to them outside of their control. Perhaps a family member is very sick, or the person is injured and not able to do a favorite activity. But it’s empathy that is important when giving others feedback. Having empathy for others is part of the human connection. Performance flaws can happen to ANYONE. We need to empathize with the individual and demonstrate that we care about them as a human being who wants to do well in their job.
  3. Be direct and be willing to expand the conversation to the desire of the individual. Be prepared to “sit” (literally or figuratively) with the person while they process the feedback. Discuss and explore with the person how the poor performance or blind spot or flaw shows up and get them talking about it. Look for clues to why they behave the way they do. Help them look at their performance logically when demonstrating an open heart. Approach them with the belief that they want to be better. If they are angry, let them vent, but then engage them in a way that is compassionate. Stay calm. Be the coach. Encourage them to be curious.
  4. Allow questions, but keep the conversation focused on the performance flaw and how to change so it doesn’t hold them back. Don’t bring up others in the conversation to take the heat off you for having the conversation. Don’t let the individual think that someone made you do this. Take ownership for caring about the person and wanting to help them be at their best.
  5. Practice being in the moment with the person and remaining honest. This isn’t something you can always rehearse ahead of time because the conversation is most effective when both parties are engaging authentically and trusting one another to find a better way.

If I do have a superpower as my colleagues suggested, it was not all native. Although I may have had an initial affinity, it was something I worked at over my entire career. Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Outliers shares it can take 10,000 hours of practice to be truly great at something. 10,000 hours might seem daunting for practicing good performance feedback, but every hour matters, not just the 10,000th one.

Positive high performing cultures require excellence in giving and receiving feedback. If you desire to get better at giving and receiving feedback or care about this issue for your organization, just reach out. Another bit of practice is always good for me!

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