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How Great Bosses Give Great Feedback

The giving and receiving of effective feedback is a core competency of high-performing teams and high-achieving leaders. Teams that routinely exchange quality feedback have better relationships, happier employees, and do better work faster.


And yet... feedback remains sorely misunderstood. Low quality feedback is a ubiquitous problem across organizations, as even the best people leaders struggle to routinely deliver effective feedback. To get to the heart of the problem, I will focus on the four most common root causes of bad feedback:


1: You don't understand what feedback is.

2: You don't understand how feedback gets delivered.

3: You choose comfort instead.

4: You don't know what you really want.


1: You don't understand what feedback is.


The simple root of all feedback problems: understanding what feedback is. Feedback is information about the result or impact of a person's behavior, which can be used as the basis of growth and development. At the core of feedback is improvement.


But when people leaders discuss feedback, they tend to focus on a negative or selfish side of feedback: how to deliver a harsh message, how to motivate employees, how to gain respect, how to be well-liked, etc. The best at feedback focus instead on the power of the feedback receivers: the natural desire, creativity, and intelligence inherent in all human beings. The possibility of growth.


Practice: when you give feedback, make it positive. Making it "positive" does not mean overlooking negative behavior, it means (1) believing in growth, and (2) telling people what you want them to do, rather than what you want them to not do. Feedback should be delivered as "I'd like you to start..." Rather than "I'd like you to stop..."


2: You don't understand how feedback gets delivered.


We covered what feedback is, and the next question is: "how does it work?" Obviously: feedback works via communication between a giver and a receiver. But when you focus too much on the communication itself, you miss the larger conduit through which feedback is delivered: the entire relationship between giver and receiver.


To worsen the delivery problem: there's a tendency to hyper-focus on the problem-solving component of feedback. You associate the problem with the person, and think that you, the feedback giver, need to fix the problem by fixing the person. Good for your ego, bad for the relationship, and terrible for feedback.


A better, more effective orientation: feedback is both giver and receiver against an external challenge. The leverage that effective leaders insert into this system is primarily by giving energy to the relationship between giver and receiver.


How do good managers give energy to relationships?

(1) Respect. Humans have acute respect radars, and if you lack respect for others, your brilliant feedback will all end up in the trash bin. If you're having trouble with respect, an effective temporary substitute is curiosity.

(2) Honesty. Many workplace relationships are held back because people do not feel safe fully expressing themselves. Even the most insightful feedback will fail to yield results if both parties aren't being honest about what we really want.

(3) Positivity. Positivity is fertilizer for growth. Improvement is very difficult without hope, optimism, and encouragement.


Practice: A master recipe for building trust in any relationship: (1) take a genuine interest in their life by asking questions. (2) show respect by listening without interruption. (3) give appreciation for who they are and what they do. (4) seek our their opinions by asking for advice and feedback; (5) keep them involved.


Note: When power in a relationship is formally allocated, so too is responsibility. In work environments, it is the responsibility of the manager to develop the feedback relationship. This is part of your job.


3: You choose comfort instead.


We can know a lot about feedback in theory, and yet, in practice: most of us avoid feedback habitually. At work, we embed the practice into a cyclical performance review process that allows us to avoid constant exposure. Why is this?


Feedback, i.e. real growth and development, is complex and uncertain. It's hard. A life without good feedback is a life of comfort, and we choose comfort. But this comfort comes at a real cost. When we choose comfort, we sacrifice empowering alternatives to comfort:


(1) When receiving feedback, we choose defensiveness over learning.

This mode of avoidance applies to receiving feedback, and in relationships where trust is not extremely high, it is ubiquitous. When we receive feedback, we don't listen for how we can learn and grow; we listen for what is wrong with us, or what is wrong with the feedback giver. We get hurt, we get defensive, and we learn nothing.


(2) When we want to be liked, we choose accommodation over honesty.

This problem pops up most often with superiors and those we have social relationships with. We are more comfortable with accommodation than honesty, and it is somehow more comfortable to bend over backwards than to stand up straight. In these relationships, feedback is avoided entirely or is indirect and dishonest.


(3) When conflict arises, we choose judgment over respect

In almost all relationships, when conflict arises, we resort to judgment. When we judge others, we put them in a box defined by limitation and wrongdoing; we avoid real observations and fall back on generalizations and labels. In such a box, feedback says more about us, the giver, and our own lack of imagination, than it does about the receiver. Choosing respect means taking others out of their boxes and granting the power and responsibility of choice.



Practice: think back to your last feedback conversation, or, better yet, have a new feedback conversation so it is fresher in your mind. For each of the three choices above, ask yourself whether you made the comfortable choice or the productive choice. How does that choice make you feel? In any area where you made a comfortable choice, ask what the productive choice would look like.


4: You don't know what you really want.


The last and the most disruptive obstacle to effective feedback. Oftentimes, our feedback is not effective because others don't know how to interpret it; they don't know how to interpret it because it is vague and ambiguous; and it is vague and ambiguous because we have no clue what we really want.


When we don't know what we really want, our feedback comes out as trite generalizations: "You should be more confident," "I need you to step it up," "You need to say "no" more," etc. Left unstated in all of this feedback is what, exactly, you're looking for.


The Practice: Be more specific. The next time you give someone feedback, ask yourself what it is you really want and how exactly the other person can help you get it. If you're unclear on this, have some conversations to help you get more specific before giving the feedback.

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