TL:DR — you need a variety of different relationships to give you feedback. These need to have a range of context and differing degrees of challenge to give you a holistic view of your performance.
Many people at work struggle with their relationship around feedback. Those receiving it can feel like it’s a personal attack, with the implicit aim of criticising one’s capabilities or performance. The challenge goes the other way too, with managers and peers often fearful of causing offence and damaging relationships by providing feedback that will be taken negatively.
In order to make the most of this important mechanism for personal development, we must reorientate how we view it and the way in which we seek it.
Your duty as a Leader
Leaders take many shapes and sizes, with individual strengths that are key to the success of organisations. They are not necessarily in senior positions within a hierarchy — we have all worked in teams that have leaders at every level, capable of driving positive behaviours and outcomes, regardless of their pay grade.
Regardless of where they find themselves, one of the underlying responsibilities of any leader is to improve the performance of the individuals around them. This will be done through a variety of different activities, roles and relationships, each unique to the people involved. A key piece of this toolkit is being able to give feedback in a way that is useful to all parties.
Good and Bad feedback
The academic Robert A. Baron proposes that constructive feedback is specific, does not make threats, does not make attributions for poor performance, is considerate in tone and is delivered promptly in an appropriate setting.
By acknowledging the fact that negative feedback is a socially problematic situation, even in organisationally defined mechanics such as PDRs, leaders can reduce the risk of negative outcomes. They can also ensure that the employee engages with the feedback and looks to develop.
For example, one might identify with the individual’s actions yourself and position your feedback as development you yourself have undergone, thus reducing the likelihood for conflict.
An alternative approach is for someone to launch directly into negative feedback. This may still be framed in positive way, for example focusing on what more they could do rather than what they are not currently achieving but it is typically delivered in a ‘matter of fact’ fashion.
The first approach leads to a more in depth conversation and exploration of the issue at hand and the second is more likely to result in a direct conclusion for the employee to take in order to address the feedback.
There seems to be a level of consensus that the 2nd approach is preferable — however, in my view, you to be able to know when to explore a situation and when to give direct feedback to develop the individual.
It’s all about perspective
Both positive and negative feedback rely on a level of respect between the individuals involved. Whilst socially pleasant, for many people positive feedback is not perceived as valuable if it comes from a source without understanding. The same is true of negative feedback.
It is down to leaders, to identify situations where their context is valuable to someone else’s development.
This is also an important development when receiving feedback. If you are able to consider someone else’s perspective, agenda and goals when they are giving you negative feedback, then it is easier to empathise with their point of view. Once that is established, you are more likely to be able to use their feedback to focus on elements of your performance that can be improved.
By considering others’ perspectives you are more likely to be see negative feedback as an opportunity to improve rather than an attack to be diverted.
Set the context and be specific
“If it doesn’t matter to me enough for me to do something about it, then it isn’t feedback.” Bill Withers
When having a feedback conversation, it is crucial to set the expectation and context in which it is being given. Whether that is explaining stages of a company review process or by discussing with a colleague why you are coming to them with a viewpoint, by doing so, you are far more likely to drive action.
By being specific in the feedback that you seek, you are far more likely to receive comments and direction that help you in your personal development. Large company feedback processes are terrible at driving this behaviour. By asking generic questions such as, “What could I do better” they encourage generalist answers, which only result in useful feedback through luck over design.
When asking for feedback ensure that you detail the areas of your personality or skill set that you are looking to improve through it. Ask for specific examples when you have either shown or not shown these behaviours and capabilities.
Creating feedback partnerships
Whilst many of us identify partnerships with individuals who can help us achieve particular outcomes in our work, it is rare that we identify someone who might be key in developing ourselves. This is an important gap to fill.
The ideal is one where you can consistently have adult to adult conversations, where expectations are clear on both sides. As such, it is important to draw up of a contract between the individuals involved. This helps you to understand why the partnership is being entered into, what both parties want to get out of it and how do you deal with the socially difficult situations, before they arise.
Whilst this model is usually proposed for a peer-to-peer relationship, what strikes me is that it is just as useful a model for describing an effective manager to employee feedback relationship. If you reframe the relationship between a manager and employee as a partnership where they are both trying to improve each others’ behaviours and actions then it is far more likely to be successful.
Our natural inclination is to avoid conflict where possible, and so this model fits well within that world-view. As such, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid ‘difficult’ conversations. A true partnership is one where both parties have enough respect and trust in each other to not worry about offending. Indeed, this is one of the unique and most valuable properties of this relationship.
Creating a range of Feedback Partnerships
A model for feedback partnerships that vary according to Context and Challenge — the ideal is to have a range of individuals that perform different roles for you.
One of the difficulties of feedback relationships, is that they are trying to be many different things at the same time. How many times have you been in a conversation with a manager that will switch from mentoring type advice to specific project based actions in the same breadth? To fix this situation, it is in everyone’s best interests to create a range of feedback partnerships for themselves.
These should vary in the level of knowledge that a person has about your situation (or context) and the amount of challenge that they will give to you.
In a peer to peer relationship, it is unlikely that a colleague would provide a lot of challenge about your actions, but they would have a fair amount of context about the situations you find yourself in.
Conversely, a Manager would also have a lot of context about your work but would be much more likely to challenge your approach.
In addition, an individual should also seek relationships with Coaches and Mentors, where the level of context may be reduced, but crucial developments can still be made.
Coaches help you to look at your approach to problems and work together to find solutions.
A useful Mentor is also unlikely to know the intricate elements of your work, but will be more likely to challenge you on why you took particular courses of action.
By generating a range of relationships for yourself and fulfilling a range of roles for others, more effective feedback will be delivered and better developments will be made.
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