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How To Give Feedback People Actually Respond To

Constructive feedback shouldn’t be a euphemism for work-approved passive aggression.

How To Give Feedback People Actually Respond To
[Photo: Flickr user Leigh Harries]

A tech executive I coached recently was having a hard time getting things done. He had already devised elegant solutions for some of his company’s performance issues, from product differentiation to customer retention. But one thing still stood in his way: He couldn’t seem to reform the behaviors that dominated the business by using constructive feedback.

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As it turned out, that was because the feedback he was giving wasn’t all that constructive in the first place. And it’s no wonder—giving the kind of feedback that gets the results you want can be a tricky affair. But it can be done, and here’s how to do it.

More Than Logic

For starters, all businesses run the way my client’s did—on human behaviors. But since business cases can be solved with logic, effective leaders need to balance both reason and emotion when directing their teams. Otherwise, you’re fighting for results with one hand tied behind your back.

Second, feedback is about more than just tracking progress and prodding everyone forward. Some of the savviest managers think they can keep their teams on track just by redirecting focus on the business objectives. But when things fall through, no amount of logic can solve the underlying behavioral issues that go hand-in-hand with strategy.

Striking A Balance

Giving constructive feedback can be a delicate affair. A leader’s approach can either:

  • make or break the quality of teamwork;
  • enhance or diminish employees’ motivation; or
  • retain talent or lead them to jump ship to competitors

The management issues that good feedback is meant to address can cause bigger problems if they aren’t tackled properly—with consequences for a company’s promises to its customers and shareholders as well as its employees.

When Feedback Fails, Or Just Isn’t Given

Some leaders simply don’t give feedback at all. According to a 2014 Zenger/Folkman study published in the Harvard Business Review, that’s because many people hate giving negative feedback.

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But avoiding it altogether is no solution. Most of us want to receive feedback that improves how we work—just as long as it’s delivered constructively.

The stakes can be high, though. In my experience, feedback that doesn’t get the intended response can actually be counterproductive, creating even more problems than those it was meant to address. Here are three scenarios where that can happen:

  1. The feedback serves the giver’s needs more than the receiver’s
  2. The receiver resists or dismisses feedback because they’re over-confident about their competence
  3. The receiver resists or dismisses feedback because they’re unsure of the giver’s competence

Here are three better ways to deliver feedback in each of those situations:

1. Ask How Someone’s Behavior Serves Them Before You Weigh In

Leaders often dominate a feedback conversation in order to pre-empt resistance. But the surest way to build up even more resistance is by dictating instructions rather than asking questions.

So start by asking for your team member’s view.

John, have you noticed that your work is often submitted late and only after several follow-ups? How is this process and follow-up working for you?

Acknowledge his perspective, then share yours.

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I hear you, but it isn’t quite working for me. What can be done differently to make this process work better for both of us?

This approach puts you on the same side, working together to solve a problem that you’ve already identified affects you both.

2. Compare Their Intention With The Actual Outcome

I once worked with an executive many in the company felt was a bully, but he didn’t see anything wrong with his behavior.

One day his aggressive style pushed a team member to tears. I asked him:

Was your intention to make someone cry or simply to get everyone on board with your plans?

He responded defensively:

I can’t help how she takes things. If she’s sensitive, that’s on her.

So I focused on the intention-outcome gap.

Maybe, but was that your main goal? If it was, you’re doing a great job. But it probably wasn’t, so what is? What’s a faster way to get to your goal while bringing people with you?

Notice I didn’t tell him to stop being a bully. In a perfect world, bullies would cut it out after seeing the damage they cause to others. But that seldom happens. Instead, you need to show them the space between what they wanted to accomplish and what actually happened in order for them to consider changing ways.

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3. Show Them It Isn’t Personal

A multinational company hired me to coach a VP who led a diverse team and continually shut down members’ ideas during meetings. His boss gave feedback on that habit, but the VP felt his boss did the same thing, so he ignored the feedback.

I tried a different approach:

When your team offers ideas you don’t agree with, you quickly dismiss them. But you must notice the energy shift in the room when you do that. What outcome do you want in those meetings?

He responded:

I don’t think my ideas are better. They’re just more practical. Most of what the team suggests is completely unrealistic. I want this team to care about getting things done. I lead with my ideas so I can keep everyone focused.

Examining the gap between the outcome he wanted and the one he produced, I asked:

How can they truly care about getting things done when nothing they want to do seems to matter to you? What can you say or do in those meetings to motivate them to take actions based on their contribution?

By taking this approach, the outcome of his behavior was all that mattered. It no longer mattered whether or not he respected the source of the feedback—his boss—that was pushing him to change it.

Leaders who want to achieve extraordinary goals shouldn’t underestimate the power of good feedback for getting over major obstacles. But like the very behaviors it is meant to correct, feedback itself is only as good as the outcomes it produces—no matter how great all your other solutions look on paper.

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Nihar Chhaya is an executive coach and president of PartnerExec, which helps technology companies scale up to higher business expectations through targeted leader development.