Wes Adams is the CEO of SV Advisory Group and an expert on meaningful work, wellbeing, and high-performing teams.
The return to the office is in full swing and with it has come a return to face-to-face interactions. For many of us who have become familiar with our screen-mediated, sporty leisure and often asynchronous interactions, this has been accompanied by severe anxiety. Both corporate and coaching clients say that one of the biggest stressful situations is telling someone in person that things are not going well.
Giving feedback has always been a challenge, especially when it comes to something that went wrong. While challenging to give and often just as challenging to receive, feedback is critical to growth and drives performance. In more than 50 years of research into goal setting and achievement in organizations, legendary organizational scientists Locke and Latham have identified feedback as a critical element of success. And the more often the feedback, the better the results. Like highway signage, feedback provides critical data about the journey to our goals: how far we’ve come, how many miles we have to go, and when we might want to turn and take a different route.
a 2021 study of Gallup found that employees who received meaningful feedback in the past week were nearly four times more likely to report being engaged than those who hadn’t. Those who received daily feedback were almost four times more motivated to do an excellent job than those who only received feedback at annual performance reviews.
So now that we’re back in the office and having to look each other in the eye when we’re having difficult conversations, how can we use feedback as a tool to improve relationships rather than burden them? Here are a few tips:
1. Give it systematically.
One of the concerns with feedback is that we often deliver it to people who may not expect it. Surprise can lead to defensive behavior, something we’d all like to avoid. One of the reasons feedback can be difficult to provide is that it is so rare. If there is only discussion after something crucial has gone wrong, people will not want to talk and participate. Building feedback sessions into the agenda prepares people to receive them and also makes it a normal part of working together rather than a rare and nerve-wracking event. 15Five, a company that provides performance management software designed around fact-based practices, encourages managers to create an environment of continuous feedback. If there is a regular conversation about how things are going, small adjustments are made every day that keep everyone on track.
2. Give it specificity.
There’s nothing more likely to raise someone’s defense than starting feedback with superlatives, such as “You always…” or “You never do…” When you focus on a perceived trend, feedback feels like a review of someone’s character. Instead of being told they’ve done something wrong, people hear that they to be wrong. Likewise, superlatives often creep into our assessment of the impact of someone’s mistake. Using phrases like “Everyone thought…” or “The customer will never…” usually exaggerate the true reality and destroy the credibility of the feedback, making it ineffective and even counterproductive. Using a model, such as: Situation-Behavior-Impact, helps to keep feedback focused on a specific situation and the verifiable impact it had. There’s no guarantee this will stop someone from getting defensive, but it’s less likely to happen and the recipient is more likely to take the feedback.
3. Give it fast.
The shelf life of feedback is short. Telling a colleague about a mistake in the presentation they gave last month doesn’t help anyone. Hopefully you have developed a system to provide regular feedback. If there is no structure yet, be sure to provide timely feedback. Research suggests that the sooner people get feedback, the more effective it is for their learning.
4. Give it supportive.
Feedback should be given with the intent of helping someone learn and improve. Following up on your feedback with an offer of support minimizes defense and sends the message that your intentions are positive. Effective feedback can actually build trust on both sides. It can be an opportunity to deepen the relationship when both parties are committed to working out a solution together.
While it can cause anxiety, returning to the office and face-to-face interactions can actually make feedback easier. Ultimately, feedback is the fertilizer for growth and the foundation of authentic relationships.