Why Giving Feedback is Hard

Why Giving Feedback is Hard

You probably know that the ability to give effective feedback (both positive and constructive) is one of two essential leadership skills

Despite knowing this, you, like a lot of leaders, might find it challenging to give feedback in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the relationship that you’ve been building with the person. You might opt to ignore certain behaviours, or offer feedback in a “beat around the bush” way that doesn’t effectively convey the urgency or importance of the message.

Feedback is naturally challenging to give, because we often worry that it will risk disconnecting us from the other person. 

That they might take it personally, or jump to assumptions about us, or generally not appreciate our observations and opinions.

Aside from the interpersonal aspect of feedback that contributes to making it tricky, oftentimes our team structures (or lack thereof) make it extra difficult.

The following three steps can help you set the stage for making feedback easier and more effective on your team.

Step 1: Build a BEAR (Behavioural Expectation, Accountability and Reinforcement) framework

  • Teams that don’t have clear expectations and accountabilities find it extra challenging to give feedback. In order for teammates to understand the feedback you have for them, and but it into the broader context of how it impacts the team or the organization, there needs to be some sort of agreement or framework on what is acceptable vs. unacceptable behaviour.
  • BEAR’s should be built by the team, not by leadership and handed down to the team as a set of rules. Consider them guidelines, not hard and fast rules to be policed.
  • They should help to operationalize important shared values (ie. collaboration or risk-taking). It’s not enough to identify the value, we need to be able to articulate what it looks like in practice.
  • This can often mean getting right down to the specifics of whether or not cell phones are OK to have on the table in your meeting, what to do when you’re running late, and how to respond to questions or concerns from a colleague.  

Step 2: Design the Structure 

It’s not enough to have a shared set of expectations and accountabilities. Your team needs a few key pieces of structure that will support the usefulness of the “BEAR” in their day to day operations. A few key places to consider building in some structure;

  • Supervision. Do your monthly 1:1 sessions include a conversation about behaviour, expectations and accountabilities?
  • Incentives. Are people incentivized to align with the BEAR? Are people rewarded strictly for “performance”, or also for behavioural congruence? When thinking about incentives, it’s helpful to think of the 5P’s… pay, promotions, special projects, perks and professional development.
  • Surveys & Appraisal systems.  We manage what we measure, and if we aren’t regularly measuring our team’s experience of giving and receiving feedback, we’ll quickly stop managing it and it’s likely that early efforts at culture shifting will fail. Consider embedding more formal employee engagement and experience surveys into the fabric of your team.

Step 3: Practice

Your feedback system needs to be open to feedback, or it will rigidify into something worse than useless…a mechanism for perpetuating the status quo.

Jeff’s aside: I once worked with a leadership team who, without fail, would regularly explain away tough or pinchy feedback from the annual employee survey. Asking for feedback and then dismissing it, failing to address it or acting on that feedback (even just being curious about it and exploring it deeper) is worse than not asking for feedback in the first place!

Practice as a leadership team, giving feedback to each other and debriefing feedback sessions from your team. 

And remember that feedback is an investment in relationship, and something that is well worth the effort of building into your team and organization.