When I asked how she tended to give feedback to staff, the CEO told me, “Oh, I’m very direct. They always know where they stand with me. I tell them straight.” In her mind there was no contradiction with what I’d witnessed at her meeting less than an hour earlier. She’d told the 40 staff attending, “Some of you were late for this meeting, though you’ve known about it for weeks. It’s disappointing and disrespectful behaviour. You need to do better.” At this there was much eye-rolling and raising of eyebrows, especially among the 36 attendees who had arrived on time.
As people filed out of the room I heard a number of sotto voce exchanges in which “Blah, blah, bloody blah . . !” featured prominently.
This leader’s self-assessment of practices, while remarkable because it was in such immediate contrast with what I’d directly witnessed, was not otherwise surprising. Much workplace feedback is given similarly: indirectly shotgun-scattered, and insulting or embarrassing to those for whom it’s intended, in the style of a scolding, judgemental parent to errant children in front of their peers. You kids better behave yourselves . . !
Feedback like that may contribute to a reduction of the unwanted behaviour, but it’s counterproductive; it weakens trust, damages relationships and eventually becomes boring and annoying. People turn off, long before the speaker finishes their comments. Did you intend that they hear you out? Uh-oh, shot yourself in the foot.
In the same week I’d asked 16 senior managers at one of my skill-training workshops to carefully observe my behaviour to later give me feedback as I demonstrated four different ways of setting limits over a minor dispute with a colleague. This is an exercise I’ve conducted many times in all kinds of organisations, industries and levels of seniority, always with identical results.
After each instance I asked them to describe the behaviours I’d used. As they did this I silently wrote their verbatim comments in various groupings on the whiteboard. Then I added headings to each group: Judgements. Labels. Interpretations & Assumptions (about my attitudes known only to me). Absence of Behaviours (rather than their presence). Objective Comment on Specific Behaviours Observed. You’ll be way ahead of me in understanding the outcomes of this:
- The last-mentioned grouping, Objective Comment . . . contained the fewest (three or four) comments.
- All other lists were very long.
- They reported a similar paucity of really constructive feedback in their workplaces.
- They all found that feedback given to them as Objective Comment on Specific Behaviours Observed helps consideration of the speakers’ views; and that all other categories contribute to making feedback difficult to hear but easy to react to negatively or defensively.
If you recognise some of your own tendencies in this story or if you want to take stock of your skills, take the interpersonal communication Self Appraisal. You’ll find simple concepts and strategies that can be applied immediately and guidelines for longer-term development of constructive interpersonal practices.
My Hear and Be Heard programme deals comprehensively with this topic and provides a practical guide to giving feedback on workplace performance: why, when, how, how much and in which order. The principles and guidelines are applicable to all workplace relationships and to many elsewhere.
Read 13 Ways to Encourage the Heart to learn how to give more positive, appreciatory feedback.