Providing someone with feedback about their performance is stressful. That’s why most managers prepare for it carefully by scheduling time, gathering examples, and rehearsing how to present the information in a non-threatening way.
Even with all of this preparation, how often do you suppose that the feedback is received in the spirit it was given, and then acknowledged, agreed with, and used as a springboard for a permanent change in behavior? If you have been managing for any length of time, you know that it seldom works out this way.
Still, there are those rare times when you say something and the feedback sinks in. This can be a cathartic event for the person with whom you’re talking, and he or she is forever changed. What causes that? Why is it that sometimes when you are thoughtful, purposeful, and charge-neutral with your feedback it ends up backfiring, but other times when you throw out an offhand comment it sinks right to the heart of the matter, hits the person between the eyes, and results in a major impact?
As the old cliché says, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” A big part of someone’s readiness to receive feedback includes sensing that the feedback isn’t part of a manager’s hidden agenda to influence or manipulate. That’s what gets in the way of effective feedback. Typically, when we sense that someone wants to influence us through feedback, our guard goes up — we have a radar for it. If we think someone is trying to get something from us, it’s only natural to dig in our heels and be skeptical. But when feedback is free and clear, there is a much greater chance it will sink in.
Feedback as free as a feather
At our recent Client Summit in San Diego, I (Scott) was walking away happy with the experience when a client stopped me and said one of those things that sank in and stayed with me for days. And I ended up calling her and having a conversation about it.
It was because she caught me off guard and gave me something to ponder, and she didn’t have an agenda. She just threw it up in the air like it was a feather, and it was really attractive and compelling.
How often do you, as a leader, present feedback this way? If it’s not very often, it’s possible that the decision to give feedback is spoiling your chances for success before you even get started.
According to feedback expert Dr. Charlie Seashore, in most cases feedback says more about the giver than it does about the receiver. When some leaders decide to “give feedback,” it is often tied to an employee behavior issue, such as failure to complete a sales report. But instead of addressing the issue in a straightforward way, the leader will try to soften the blow by positioning it as feedback. For example, “I would like to give you some feedback about how people perceive you when you do not meet your deadlines,” is not a clear directive.
Three best practices for managers who want to give better feedback
•The next time you’re considering providing feedback to someone, ask yourself, “What is it about me and this situation that is causing me to want to give feedback right now? Is there something unspoken or related to some other issue that needs to be addressed? Is there a need I haven’t expressed, or some fear that I have?” As a manager, you need to get your own house in order first.
•After that, ask yourself, “What is my intention?” If your intention is to give the person a gift — a bit of wisdom that has helped you in your career or life — you might have a chance to present feedback that actually will be heard.
•If you have a specific objective you want to achieve and you’re thinking of presenting it as feedback, how about just making a request? Instead of saying, “I’ve got some feedback on that sales report — ” say, “I have a request: We had agreed that sales report would be turned in last Friday. Will you please finish it today?” People will trust you and thank you for clearly separating direction from counterfeit “feedback.”
The bottom line
Consider carefully when and where to give feedback. Remember that sometimes it’s better to make a request instead. The bottom line is: Feedback is incredibly important — people need access to information that lets them know how they are doing. Don’t muddy up the waters by couching direction as feedback. Provide feedback that is free from agenda. It will allow people to better hear — and act on — what you are sharing with them.
Scott Blanchard is the Executive Vice President of Client Solutions of The Ken Blanchard Companies and co-author of Leading at a Higher Level. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager and 50 other books on leadership and creating great organizations. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard or The Ken Blanchard Companies @LeaderChat.