Last year, I wrote about the mistakes that managers commonly make in giving feedback. I discussed how nuanced the process can be as we navigate the amount of directness, specificity, setting, and our own desired outcomes. I’m in a conversation about feedback nearly every day, trying to help people develop strategies to provide it to direct reports, peers, and even up the chain. No matter the level, we all struggle with how to give it. (And just when we think we have it figured out, someone comes along who tests our theories.)
For this post, I’d like to focus not on strategies, but on ourselves. Most of us simply hate giving feedback. Until we can get our heads around our own issues concerning feedback – many of them coming from a benevolent, albeit unhelpful, place – we will always struggle.
Here are some reasons why providing feedback can be so difficult. See what resonates for you.
1. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
By far, this is the #1 reason we resist giving feedback. Yes, being sensitive to employees’ feelings is a good thing, and it’s much better than the alternative. Yet all too often, we let regular constructive feedback go, in order to assuage our own feelings about conflict. Worse, the longer we put off providing constructive feedback, the hairier the issue can become until we have to deliver very tough news.
If this is you, here are two things to consider. First, while few people love negative feedback, they’d rather have it than not know. Consider yourself: wouldn’t you prefer to be made aware of an issue early when you can correct it? People are far sturdier than we treat them. Most people want constructive feedback. In fact, unhappy employees often cite lack of feedback as a reason they’re looking to leave their jobs.
Second, if we can get in the habit of providing regular, incremental feedback (both positive and negative), then it becomes much less of a big deal and more of a part of your team culture. We react most to what’s unusual. If you receive constructive feedback each week in your meetings with your boss, for example, you are prepared for it.
2. We’re concerned that the feedback might be taken the wrong way.
In our heads, we imagine that despite our best efforts, some people will inevitably take any feedback the wrong way. It can be difficult to tell if the recipient will digest the feedback as personal criticism, or if they will respond positively.
A way to manage this in the moment is to simply state your intention up front: “I’m telling you this because you have great skills and I don’t want this to get in your way.” It’s also helpful to ask the person to reflect back their thoughts and what they heard, which allows you to correct any misunderstandings promptly.
Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Business School, Robert C. Pozen, provides guidelines for giving not-so-fun feedback: “Of course, there are situations when a manager must provide negative feedback. On these occasions, don’t lose sight of your purpose for offering that feedback: to improve the employee’s performance going forward.”
3. We forget to give positive feedback.
It’s not only tough feedback that trips us up. Turns out, we’re not great at giving positive feedback either. We forget or don’t think people need it. But feedback, positive and constructive, provides a GPS to adapt our behavior in real time.
Positive feedback also helps keep the negative in perspective. People respond more strongly to negative interactions than positive ones. A 2005 study found that the “relationship between negative events and mood was approximately five times stronger than that between positive events and mood, even though positive events were reported three to five times more frequently than negative events.”
In other words, negative events stick out, even if they are more infrequent than positive ones.
4. We’re not sure what the effects of our feedback will be.
We may be concerned whether the feedback we’re providing will improve the behavior or worsen it. We don’t want to demotivate someone, or cause them to leave entirely.
The key here is to provide actionable feedback. Be specific with what you want the employee to achieve and set goals.
Equally important, be sure to keep a check on the person. Feedback isn’t a one-and-done situation. People process feedback – especially the critical kind. Keep in the conversation to ensure that the person is moving in a positive direction.
5. We don’t know how to approach it.
Finding the right approach to feedback can be what stops us from giving it – especially with so many other items on our plates. Having a model to guide you can be helpful. I like MIT’s simple, effective four-step model for giving feedback:
Provide context for the topic at hand. Be as specific and timely as possible.
Describe the behavior for them. Paint a picture as if you’re retelling a video recording but avoid drawing conclusions.
Explain the impact of their behavior. What were the results of the behavior, positive and negative?
Discuss clear next steps for how the behavior should be improved or altered. Explain the importance of changing the behavior and the positive results it will bring about.