One of the great perks of being a leader is giving positive feedback. It’s such a joy to be in a position to reward someone when they’re doing well. But of course, you can’t have the good without the bad – in this case, giving negative feedback.
In Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston observe that “every leader we’ve ever worked with reports giving performance feedback to team members is one of the most stressful parts of the job.” But it’s also a vital skill to develop.
So what do Berger and Johnston advise for leaders hoping to hone their ability to give useful feedback?
Feedback matters in complex times
First things first: remind yourself of how important it is to do the work. Setting up good feedback systems isn’t just about the individual development of your direct reports – it’s necessary for creating organisational resilience and agility.
“Without good feedback mechanisms and without feedback given and received in ways that enable real learning (rather than defensiveness),” say Berger and Johnston, “people can’t learn, and the early and weak signals of coming change are lost. We strongly believe that in a complex and uncertain context, creating a feedback-rich, safe-to-learn organization is the first thing for a team to get right.”
Giving feedback well is tough
So, you’ve reminded yourself of why it’s important to get good at giving feedback. The next step is understanding why it’s so tough. Ultimately, much of this is just down to how we’re wired – for example, what Daniel Kahneman calls the ‘what you see is all there is’ phenomenon.
“In study after study,” explain Berger and Johnston, “he shows that humans have the uncanny ability to race into problem solving or decision making with only the data in front of them and, worse still, to not notice that they have raced ahead. What you see is all there is.”
What can you learn?
One of the best ways to overcome the ‘what you see is all there is’ problem is by actively listening. When you step into a feedback session, don’t assume you already know everything relevant. Instead, go in with a learning mindset: I know what I think is going on, but what can the other person teach me?
This is a particularly telling anecdote from Simple Habits for Complex Times:
“When we ask clients what prevents them from listening, one key issue that always comes up is that if they listen, they might learn something new and might have to change what they were planning to do. They might become less certain about the direction they’re taking. They might have core ideas unsettled. They might become confused.”
Though this is a very natural feeling – no one wants to feel confused – it also cuts you off from potentially vital information. So when giving feedback, treat the other person as a ‘sensemaker’ rather than a problem to be solved, and you might learn something which changes your view and leads to a more productive conversation.
Data, feeling and impact
One tool I love from this book is breaking your feedback down into three things: data; feeling; and impact.
‘Data’ simply means what actually happened. For instance, has your direct report hit their targets? What evidence do you have? What can everyone agree on about the situation?
‘Feeling’ specifically refers to your emotional response to the data. Perhaps you feel frustrated that they keep missing their targets, as you’ve spoken to them about it repeatedly.
And finally, ‘impact’ means what effect the situation has on the workplace. In this case, others in the team may have to pick up the slack, or everyone may be penalised for failing to hit a collective target.
Though giving negative feedback is tough for most of us, heading into a feedback session with data, feeling and impact separated out, and approaching the conversation as a learning opportunity, gives you a much higher chance of success. Not only are you more likely to make a difference in this individual case, but you may learn something which helps you and the team more broadly chart a course through a complex situation.