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James Brooke

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Delivering feedback in a way that works


James and Simon Brooke are directors at Threshold, an international training and communications consultancy, and have just authored a book called Be Bulletproof, which aims to give employees the tools to protect themselves against the hazards of the workplace.

Most organisations operate on the assumption that their managers are giving good feedback to employees. But according to research that we carried out with YouGov amongst just under 1000 employees with a line manager, less than half (45 percent) felt that they received helpful feedback from their line manager on a regular enough basis and even less (44 percent) felt that this feedback helped them to do their job better.

As a manager, you are paid to communicate your feedback to others as effectively as possible. Many of us feel uncomfortable about doing this, particularly if the feedback is negative or critical. But in any system of progress or improvement, it is necessary for a manager to assess and constructively comment in order to help employees improve their performance. Different managers adopt different practices for doing this, for example, agreeing and setting standards or targets; or offering training to help with a specific requirement.

If line managers fail to ‘performance manage’ their staff, the lack of honest feedback delivered in an effective way, can endanger motivation. In the same research, a small group, representing 11 percent of the total sample, strongly agreed with the statement ‘I feel motivated to put exceptional effort into my job and do more than what’s asked of me’. On further examination of this group, there was a clear link between their motivation and the communication they enjoyed with their line manager, with 81 percent of them saying that their line manager was good at giving straight, honest feedback.

The message is clear and HR Managers and company directors need to pay attention. Unless organisations are investing in the training of their managers to have honest performance conversations, they are in danger of leaving staff feeling isolated, lacking in direction and demotivated. Constructive feedback generates clear messages and allows employees to address weaknesses and build on strengths.

In our workshops, we focus on six core messages that help managers to provide honest and effective feedback. Firstly, we have to deal with a common misconception – most managers rate themselves as above average at delivering honest performance conversations – the fact is that most of us actually shy away from straight-talking for fear of upsetting the other person, or ruining the rapport that we have with them. Try these tactics:

  • Give yourself permission to be straight and direct – Recognise that a brief break in rapport is harmless, and sometimes necessary. Accept that you will not always be popular, and give yourself permission to be direct, or ‘out of rapport’ for a while. You will be more effective in the conversation.
  • Set the context clearly – Don’t fall into the open question trap: ‘so how do you think it’s going?’. The likelihood is that the person won’t share your point of view and you have immediately lost control of the situation. Instead state the context and your positive intent to listen and do what you can to help. Praise generously where appropriate but make sure you are clear that there is a need to change. Of course there is a time and place for answering questions, but not when you are giving clear feedback
  • Describe the gap – Look at feedback in terms of describing a gap – what are you currently seeing and what would you like to see? Ask the other person whether they agree, and then discuss how you can work together to bridge the gap.
  • Preserve the other person’s self-esteem – It is your responsibility to point out the gap, but if you go beyond that you are likely to encounter defensiveness or even hostility. Reassure the person that the issue is not about them personally, but about the situation as you see it and the behaviour that is needed to fix the situation. Focus on the practical requirement – you want the project to succeed as much as them, you have a common interest.
  • Be clear what you are asking for – The person needs to feel confident that they are in control of the factors that are required to bring about an improvement. Be articulate about what change is required and describe it clearly. Focus on aspects of improvement that are within the other person’s sphere of control or influence and be clear about what you want to see so that you can both easily recognise the improvement when it happens.
  • Navigate the landmines and pitfalls – For honest feedback conversations preparation is vital, but it is still easy to get distracted. Acknowledge incidents but don’t dwell on them; present evidence but be prepared to say how you feel subjectively; agree to listen generously if the other person has feedback about you, but make it clear that it will have to be as part of a separate conversation; if you receive a defensive-aggressive reaction despite careful preparation, don’t worry, you have made your point. But you could finish the conversation by saying ‘Thank you for being good enough to hear me out and take it on the chin.’ On reflection the other person should identify positively with your description of the meeting and behave accordingly.

Providing feedback and setting clear standards and goals are crucial elements of performance management. Employees need to feel that they can address any issues and they will be supported and listened to, and equally, line managers have to identify weaknesses in order to get the best out of employees. If your company doesn’t already run a programme of performance monitoring, perhaps you could suggest this, remember, it can grow talent and improve individual performance standards.

One Response

  1. Candour is critical

    good, useful exposition guys. My mind always turns to Jack Welch in this context. He is the Candour Champion. Yes, it has always been a defining leadership quality and many words have been written and uttered in its cause by great contributors to the debate. Yours help. 


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