We’re even more uncomfortable giving feedback than receiving it. Let’s make it hugely rewarding.

Last week I wrote about the various ways in which managers sabotage their team members’ capacity to perform at their best. This week I want to explore some ways to combat that.

At the heart of each of the examples I gave is a fundamental and very human desire to avoid discomfort. A recent article in PWC’s Strategy and Business magazine described research that points to us being even less comfortable giving feedback than we are at receiving it. Not only that, this month Harvard Business Review reports we’re really ineffectual at it when we do. So, we feel like crap when we do it, and then it doesn’t work. No wonder we avoid it.

One of the reasons we’re not very good at providing feedback is that we’re really bad at objectively evaluating performance. Much of what we see as not working relates to how we feel about an issue. Which is not to say those feelings shouldn’t be acted on, but rather our feelings are not great arbiters of truth. Think about how many performance and conduct issues relate to behaviours; Sheryl is undermining a colleague in meetings, for example. You can tell Sheryl what you witnessed, but you only have your story of what’s occurred. Maybe the colleague has been undermining Sheryl among their peers, maybe Sheryl was recently given a cancer diagnosis and she’s barely keeping herself together, maybe Sheryl has no intention of undermining her colleague and has no idea she’s coming across that way. And yet we often present feedback with ‘’you’re doing …’, you’re not doing … “, “you should do …”, “you need to …”, “this isn’t …” Definitive black and white statements that are invariably not all the story and/or that shut down discussion. It also does nothing to develop the problem solving and initiative you want your team members to have so they can resolve issues into the future.

The same can be said for hard data. Rock hard evidence right? And yet there is almost always a story behind it if you ask. Sure, the story might be totally unrealistic, but even then it must be heard to be addressed. For example, I once worked with a woman who had been placed in a managerial role by a mate who’d told her she’d never have to worry about all the things on her PD. For 3 years they worked together, happy as clams. Then her mate left and a new manager expected her to do the work she was being paid (very, very well) for and to have turned things around within a month. He wrote her a performance plan that was six A3 pages long and had over 50 items on it, all of which were legitimate functions of the role. He had reams of paper showing how she hadn’t met her obligations. She felt this was hugely unfair because no one had ever asked her to do these things before and because the timeframe was so short. And as I unpicked the mess of this particular scenario it became clear she also didn’t have many of the skills required for the role.

Both parties were right in part, but they were at loggerheads because they felt the other was being unreasonable and wouldn’t listen. Worked, imperfectly but diligently toward an agreed reasonable strategy and supports, stuck to our guns on agreed expectations and to,day she’s a star performer. But she needed to be met with equity, belief in her capacity to improve, she needed support and the belief we would stick to our guns – both in expecting her to improve and in supporting her to do so. She also needed to know (as did her manager in terms of his own responses) that falling backward from time to time was not the end of the world, as long as overall the movement was forward.

Fundamentally, be you explicit about your expectations and tie them to a legitimate reason (“I need you to be processing x widgets to meet our obligation to y or the potential consequence is outcome z”, “The timeframes we set matter for these reasons when they’re not met, a is the outcome”). Where feedback is about improvement make it about you; “This is my reaction to y”, “When you did x, I didn’t understand it, can you explain your thinking?” and so on. If you reach an agreement that there is an issue, or a staff member come to you seeking help, then ask them to think about how they have solved similar problems in the past. Ask them what they already know they need to do (often they will just be avoiding it because something about it is uncomfortable; this is human and something we all do – they need support to push past it, not judgement); if they’re struggling you can prompt “Here’s what I would do” (as opposed to “here’s what you should/have to do”). This approach is much less threatening to both of you. It comes from a place of curiosity rather than definitiveness. It leaves space for alternative narratives and opportunities for people to save face (both managers and team members) and to start over.

We tend to wait to provide feedback for things that haven’t worked or for big wins. We don’t talk regularly about the things that people do easily and naturally every day. And where we do provide praise, we’re not specific about what the praise was for; it’s “good job’ rather than “see how you have done x here, that’s exactly what I am looking for because y”. This makes feedback real and meaningful; people feel like their unique skills (perhaps ones they didn’t know they had) have been seen. Mastery is a key motivator in the workplace.

I encourage you to learn about coaching – which is really about listening and helping people come to their own answers. Coaching is simpler than the myriad of training courses and ‘experts’ would have you believe. I highly recommend The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay-Stanier (no affiliate links), which does a great job of describing just how simple coaching is. In reali,ty it is hard to let people find their own answers simply because we want to jump in; it is hard to just listen and prompt. But if this is the way you work with your teams every day, they will thrive.

I have never seen this approach fail, even with the hardest nuts to crack. But you need time that sometimes you simply won’t have and/or the relationship may have already broken down to such an extent that to do so will be detrimental to business outcomes and/or the individuals involved. In these instances, a different and more pragmatic course of action is needed. But in general switching to this approach works reasonably quickly and very effectively and it is immensely personally rewarding as a leader.