My son, at age 20, is taking his first tentative steps into the world of work with a placement year at a large multinational company. A welcome step-change from lockdown student life, he is energised by the pace, the camaraderie, and the collective achievement that comes with being part of a team. Two months in, he asked his manager for some feedback. His manager’s reply: ‘That’s a great idea, I think I should do that, but I haven’t had my feedback training yet.’
I am deeply touched by this young manager’s commitment to doing this daunting task well. But I also worry about the lost opportunity of early candour, learning, and relationship-building.
Why is it that the prospect of giving feedback strikes fear into our hearts? Humans are clearly feedback addicts! (What is the ball in any sport other than a feedback device?) Yet, if you ask any group of professionals if they receive enough feedback to be continuously improving, the vast majority will shake their heads. Our fear of damaging fragile work relationships actively prevents us from creating meaningful ones through mutual feedback. Empathy, the base element of any decent manager or leader’s chemistry, actually subverts the cause too: we imagine the recipient of the feedback feeling bad about themselves and so avoid being the source of it.
I was lucky to get my feedback training very early on in my first job, and I was forced to practise it because my first manager was the most human of beings: she brought both expert support and expert challenge to the unenviable task of managing a young Helen (for more on exactly what expert support and challenge are, and why they’re needed, see our recent white paper on human-centred organisations). Suffice it to say, I am now on the outside of almost thirty years of experience in giving – and, mercifully, receiving – feedback. My perspective is that feedback is more than the catalyst for high performance; it’s the oil in the engine of achievement! And we need to both seek and provide more of it.
Often the hardest part of giving feedback is getting started. Here are my top tried-and-tested tips for creating the right environment and opening a quality conversation:
Don’t ask, ‘do you have five minutes?’ at the end of a meeting unless you want to instil dread and anxiety in the other person. Instead, book time in advance to have a conversation about how things are going for them right now. And show up to that meeting with a deep commitment to listening more than you talk.
Pick your opener with care. This is usually the bit that causes the amygdala hijack in both feedback giver and receiver, so for the sake of relieving your collective stress, here are my favourite three:
‘Are you open to some feedback?’ I love the honesty and relaxed tone of this question. If you’ve picked your moment badly, it allows your colleague to decline if they don’t have the headspace. (Be patient: they will come back to you.) The most powerful part of this question, however, is the word ‘open’. Saying yes to it bypasses any defensiveness instinct and opens the heart and mind to new inputs. This opener has wide applicability but is particularly useful for the trickiest conversations when you are sure that something needs to change.
‘How’s it going with project X?’ This one is helpful when the outcome of a project could be ameliorated with a change in behaviour. Gradually narrow your questions to zero in on the behaviour you want to discuss, while listening carefully for perspectives you hadn’t considered and adjusting what you need to say accordingly. Done skillfully, this approach often results in your colleague reflecting upon the very thing you thought you would have to broach.
‘What’s next for you?’ This is a useful opener for many different situations. It shows that you think of your colleague as a human being with vision and ambition beyond what they are currently doing, and therefore has deep value with or without the feedback element. However, it also provides a great platform for feedback, as once you know their hopes and intentions, the feedback can be framed either as a potential blocker to those goals or as something that will smooth the path towards them.
Notice and support their efforts to change. Once you have given the feedback, it’s imperative that you provide ongoing support as they try new, uncomfortable behaviours. Professionals are generally ‘high-need-for-achievement’ individuals and are not comfortable with doing new things poorly. But being initially bad at new things is the only route to eventually doing them well. (This is where experiential learning comes in!)
Ask for some feedback in return. ‘What do you wish I did more or less of?’ ‘Is there something I can improve on in how I support you?’ All the top performers I’ve ever managed were constantly bothering me for feedback. [Pro tip: if you want to fake being a top performer, it’s a quick route. Just beware, soliciting feedback and acting on it in any way may actually make you a top performer.]
Say thank you. If someone has given you the gift of feedback, thank them and be specific about how it helped you improve. You will boost their confidence to do it more often with others.
As for my son, I encouraged him to tell his manager that he has had twenty years of experience in receiving feedback (he is my son, after all), so he should take courage from that and plunge in.
Read more about feedback conversations and how to have them.
Helen Hibbott is Impact Asia CEO.