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How to give feedback that leads to learning rather than arguments

Dan Haesler, Coach and Author

If you’ve ever found yourself thinking – or even saying – “How many times do I have to tell you this?” then it’s a fair chance the feedback you’re giving isn’t working as well as you might hope.  Assuming that the purpose of your giving feedback is to encourage a change in behaviour that will see your direct report learn, grow or develop in some way, these five considerations are ones you should be mindful of when giving feedback.

Culture

The quality of the feedback you give is only as good as the quality of the culture in which you give it. In recent times organisations have started to realise the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard University defines Psychological Safety as:  “A belief that no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

Psychologically safe workplaces are collegial instead of competitive and oriented towards learning not judgement and mistakes, questions or concerns are spoken about, not swept under the rug and critically. Feedback in psychologically safe environments is the norm, it is sought out and welcomed whereas in less safe spaces, it is avoided or seen as a threat.

Expectations

Even if you feel your workplace is psychologically safe, it’s likely that some of your colleagues may still have fears or be anxious about receiving feedback. They may even prepare for – or respond to – feedback in a similar way to how they might a physical threat. Their heart rate increases, their breathing rate shallows and they are ready to fight, take flight or freeze. Attempting to give feedback to someone who feels this way is an exercise in futility, so we should ensure that we don’t add to their anxiety by sending them an ambiguous email like, “Could you come by my office later, I need to speak to you about something.”

When communicating expectations with a colleague the more transparent you can be the better, as clarity of intention helps both parties prepare in a more productive fashion for the discussion. So perhaps by first stating, “I’ll come to you,” and then clearly articulating what we are hoping to achieve from the conversation, “I’d like to talk about X, and I’m keen to hear your thoughts on Y.”

Agency

By shifting the power dynamic – by going to them and inviting their ideas – you’re deliberately increasing their sense of agency. The more agency or volition an individual feels, the more likely they are to affect the change we’re seeking. If your direct report lacks a sense of agency their predominant motivation will be to protect themselves. In feedback settings they won’t discuss their thoughts or feelings around their behaviour, preferring instead to keep them bottled up. Some simple ways to ameliorate this could be to sit away from your own desk or find a separate space where you can sit together without emails pinging or phones. Ask good questions and then actively listen to the responses.

Or you might just stop talking to indicate that others’ ideas are just as important as yours. This might seem counter-intuitive to the leader who just wants their direct report to comply, but if you’re genuinely interested in helping this person grow it’s essential to understand that people change when they want to, not when they’re told to, so anything you can do to increase the likelihood of this should be more important that satisfying your own ego.

Language

We’re aiming to give feedback that stimulates thinking and conversation, rather than shut it down, or put someone in their place. Instead of scripting a typical positive – negative – positive feedback session, try this:  “I’ve noticed [insert scenario] and I’m a little concerned about how it’s playing out. What’s your perspective on that?”

Assuming that the first three elements are in place, you can then facilitate a coaching conversation, with as much or as little input from you as you deem appropriate – which ends with your direct report articulating what changes they will make and when. If the first three elements are not in place. Fix that before trying to ‘fix’ your direct report. 

Follow Through

Whether it’s a formal 360 Survey or a 1:1 conversation, it’s essential to understand that the giving of the feedback is only the start of the change of behaviour. By adopting a coaching approach to identify the new habits required to make the change, and then setting a time to check-in (not ‘check-up’ – language is important!) to reflect on how things are progressing is critical in ensuring the best chance of our feedback having the impact we’re hoping for and addressing any barriers that are preventing this from being the case.

Dan Haesler, author of The Act of Leadership 

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