Employee feedback should be simple. Just speak with your employees, right? Not exactly. Most managers are afraid to communicate with employees and for good reason. Research shows that feedback interventions can often backfire and more than one-third of feedback conversations actually decrease performance.
As a manager, giving feedback is something you will probably do as the most frequent part of any continuous performance management process. Yet as coaches and trainers, we regularly hear from our manager clients how “difficult” they continue to find the feedback process and how much they dread having what they imagine will be another tough conversation.
Let’s take a typical scenario–someone on your team is struggling with a project or is experiencing conflict with a team member, and since you are their manager you need to “have a talk” with them. You want to do this not just to resolve the current issue, but also to motivate them to improve their work performance and employee engagement levels overall.
Perhaps this is not the first time you are having this talk, so you anticipate the conversation may get dicey given the prior history and failure to make a difference. You also want to come out of this making sure you get along well with them in the workplace. These are a lot of factors to navigate successfully!
So how do you make employee feedback work?
There is a ton of advice out there about how to give effective feedback. Some of what is still floating around is a variation of the “feedback sandwich” technique where you praise them a little, and then you give them the tougher feedback, and end with reassuring them what a great job they are doing overall.
Ok, not bad and there are clearly good intentions at play here. Unfortunately it doesn’t work very well. This method of feedback has been shown to be confusing to the receiver and possibly insincere on the part of the giver, since there are mixed messages at play within the same conversation that end up diluting what may need to be said more directly.
The next level is where you have been regularly offering praise and employee appreciation, and then you give tough, direct feedback. Ideally you share feedback with candor and show them you care, rather than just being brutal. You are specific in your details and direct in what you are really telling them, so you don’t dilute the message. Bonus points for talking about the impact they are having on the business or the team, so they don’t take it personally.
Kim Scott has a great framework on doing this called Radical Candor. Balance these intentions and practices well and the other person will leave the conversation going, “Ok, this is hard, but I know my manager really values me and I understand the feedback and what to do about it.”
Getting much better. Now you’re in the realm of giving more effective employee feedback. But wait, there is a whole other level still being missed here.
The truth is, employee feedback can be very personal and this can work in your favor if you approach it from a whole different orientation. This is the level we call Feedback Aikido. By Aikido we are not referring to the competitive version of the martial arts, but the kind that is more commonly practiced in Dojos across the planet as an exchange of energy between people.
Here is how it works: on the Aikido mat, both parties center and ground themselves and approach any conflict with each other from a position of mutual respect, care and openness. One person will inevitably throw the other person over in the process (the physical equivalent of giving some really difficult feedback) but it is never about winning or losing.
Aikido–and employee feedback–is about the giving, receiving and redirection of what is occurring between people so that both parties end feeling more trust, support and connection at the end of the process. This happens in part because they take turns taking the fall. Here’s the catch: doing this well goes beyond just having good form and technique.
What? Beyond technique? Then how do I do it?
Most managers when they are giving feedback, are tapping into how hard it might be personally to give this feedback. But if you think about it, it’s probably twice as hard on the other side, for the employee who is receiving feedback.
Their personal status, perceived standing within their team and perhaps even their job may feel like it is on the line. In short, they may see themselves as potentially taking a fall and may start to get into high “threat alert” mode and become defensive. Or they might not agree with what you told them, reject the feedback and have the work relationship be in a worse state.
You know this, and that’s why you don’t want to give the feedback. As humans, it is natural for us to move away from pain or discomfort and towards pleasure and ease. You anticipate a tough conversation and don’t want to deal with the potential awkwardness, stress, defensiveness, arguments, passive agreements (without actual changes) or any negative impact that may be the result.
Odds are, you may be bringing a combative nature or resistance yourself to what they have to say in the conversation because of your perceptions of them or their past history.
It’s why we so often see this sort of feedback can devolve into the verbal equivalent of a Jiu-jitsu match, where both sides start grappling each other to the ground and getting into an entanglement on who is right, saving face, or vigorously defending themselves. While that may be part of the equation in a tough conversation, there is a much better way.
We were working with one CEO who had a key executive on his team with whom he needed to have a feedback conversation. He had shared his input before on how she was mismanaging her team and treating her employees, but nothing was changing. In fact, it seemed to getting worse. He was frustrated and his patience was wearing thin. He wanted to show her the impact of all the things she was still doing wrong and express that if she didn’t shape up, her job could be on the line.
A setup for more issues with her? Almost certainly. He braced himself for the showdown, clarified and prepared his arguments and pondered possible next steps if it didn’t go well. In short, this was competitive Jiu-jitsu waiting to happen and if he only did it “right”, the other side would finally “get it”, agree, and change their ways. There was however no way this was going to go well from our perspective given the setup and eroding trust between them.
So we talked more about it with him before he met with her, and he shared the following:
1) She was being controlling with her employees. We asked him if others ever experienced him being controlling at work. Turns out the answer was “Yes”.
2) He found her to be a bulldog. We asked if anyone ever experience him being a bulldog? “Yes” again.
3) He didn’t like the way she treated her employees. We asked if including feedback that suggested her job was on the line, would be somewhat equivalent to how she threatened employees? Once more, “Yes”.
Now we were getting somewhere because he could see that everything she was doing was something he was sometimes also doing (or had done in the past). So we asked him to share this with her.
“What?”, he asked. “Share where I haven’t been a good leader at times? Why is this about me? This is feedback for her!”
Not when we are putting ourselves on the line, which is what we recommend is needed here.
Ask yourself, What are you working on in your own personal and professional development that is challenging or holding you back?
Feeling the burn on this one? Now we are in Aikido territory where you are open, flexible, meeting the person where they are at and not being defensive.
Our observations for these circumstance is that most managers are still trying to save face or be right when they are leading. Since they are the managers, they imagine they are supposed to be strong, lead, have all the answers, etc… In short, they are still trying to “manage” the old way, rather than actually growing their talent by putting themselves on the line and modeling vulnerability.
This is where the practice of verbal Aikido comes in, because instead of being the “superhero” and giving effective employee feedback that will help the employee’s career, be the person who is willing to take the lead in sharing your own human fallibility and where you are growing.
As Amy Edmondson has shown in her research, it is fallibility and sharing on a human level that creates psychological safety for others in their challenges. By modeling these behaviors, a deeper level of trust, belonging, and dedication to one’s work can start to come online. This fallibility invites vulnerability on both sides and this is what allows genuine trust to grow. This trust is the bedrock for effective feedback conversations.
As an employee you will fight harder, work the extra hours, and do whatever it takes for a leader who will show you his or her soft underbelly and put his or her own neck on the line first.
So back to our example. This is what happened to the CEO we were working with—he got vulnerable first and shared with the senior leader all the places he was working on in his own personal and professional development and his ongoing struggles with it.
And then he gave her the direct feedback. He shared the impact of her actions on him and the company and his support and challenge for her to come through in the current situation. The results were astounding.
They had a deep conversation—in this case, shared some tears as the conversation went on —and she started to get vulnerable herself and open up. She had a lot going on in her life, including life transitions in the midst of a messy divorce that was affecting her performance, though she was trying to hide it. No doubt it was affecting her own management tendencies.
Now he knew, and could be there as a support for her. Before, it looked like she was just messing things up and needed to step it up. But now they found themselves on a shared journey, and had each other’s backs with the tasks at hand. This vulnerability made them stronger as a team and increased their trust for each other. A few weeks later, he started to notice significant differences in her work as a manager on the project – the feedback was sticking.
As a manager, you want to create a rock solid team, and doing this is not about being perfect or just learning the techniques on how to give tough feedback. Let people see your vulnerability and reveal your own fallibility and where you are learning and growing yourself.
Lead them from this place of vulnerability to create psychological safety and build trust. Remember, none of this means you lose your own center or guidance as a leader—you practice Feedback Aikido and are willing to take the fall as much as they do. At the same time you remain centered and balanced in yourself, and have the courage of your convictions to lead your team in the right direction.
Praveen Mantena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Managing Partner at Burst Forward, a professional services firm dedicated to helping business culture transform. He is passionate about creating healthy, vibrant cultures within organizations and facilitating the conditions for cultural change through the domain of effective leadership.
Jim Donovan is a Leadership Trainer and Managing Partner of Burst Forward. Jim is passionate about helping create cultures where the best is brought out in people, which he does by measuring leadership and then helping leaders upgrade their capacity for peak performance.
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