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Feature: Feedback Culture – Avoiding the Blame Game


Reflections If you are training staff to give feedback but not how to receive it, you may be storing up more problems than you are solving, according to Clare Hollett, Managing Consultant at Blue Sky Consulting.

Feedback culture are business buzz words at the moment. Everyone wants it, some even say they’ve got it, but in reality very few companies have. Some companies are investing in empowering people to give feedback. These companies have often developed a ‘feedback giving’ model and ‘feedback giving’ language for effectiveness and consistency.

And the common word here? Giving. No companies I have worked with have been investing in how to receive feedback.

I find it strange that companies are training people to be good at giving feedback, but are not training them to be good at receiving feedback. If businesses are truly striving for a feedback culture, then receiving feedback makes up 50% of that culture.

Feedback can be a great tool but dangerous if poorly applied. It may be that there is far too much, it may be that it is always focused on the negative, it may be that the quality of feedback leaves a lot to be desired, but the person receiving it cannot control it, and it can be very damaging, for a person and for a company.

On a personal level, clumsy feedback, badly delivered can affect self-esteem, making people feel worthless, angry, and upset. On a company level, it can greatly affect performance.

I have been into organisations where receiving feedback has been such a traumatic experience the employee has been unable to work effectively for some time, even taking time off or leaving to get over the experience. This of course is not good for productivity or profitability.

We have little control over the feedback that comes our way. What we can control, and what we can empower our people to control, is how we receive feedback. On a personal level this can protect self-esteem and at a company level it means quality and productivity are not adversely affected.

We assume that people will automatically know how to deal with feedback in the work place but this is not the case. Past experiences influence how we give and receive feedback. As children we all receive lots of messages from our parents – some that serve us well in adult life, others not so well.

“What will other people think?” “If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all" etc. We’ve all heard phrases such as these from our parents over the years. People who grew up hearing them repeatedly can find receiving, as well as giving, feedback very challenging.

Certain ‘parental tapes’ may mean in adult life a person has a strong need to gain the approval of others. They can fall into the ‘approval trap’, meaning the harder they try to please others, the lower their self esteem becomes as they sense people are still not satisfied. Any negative feedback, however well delivered or intentioned, fuels this low self esteem.

A good part of our self-image is based on how other people view us. When we find out that another person does not think we are perfect it can be devastating.

Some people find receiving feedback takes them outside of their comfort zone. Whenever feedback comes their way they have emotional guards that protect them from it. By emotional guards, I mean things like anger, grief, apathy and pride. By getting very angry and shouting, or getting very upset and crying, they protect themselves.

But all of these responses can be unlearnt. I think one of the barriers to truly achieving a feedback culture in an organisation is that people only know how to respond to feedback as ‘feedback victims’. We need to learn how to take responsibility for receiving feedback as well as delivering it.

We do not always have to accept feedback, or the manner in which it is delivered. We all have the right to disregard feedback and to expect feedback to be given in a respectful, supportive manner. But even if it is badly delivered, we can choose our response.

We do not have to become devastated. We do not have to sink into despair. We do not have to get angry or cry. We could choose to ignore the fact it was badly delivered, and look for the learning, look for anything that would be helpful in our own development.

I used to be very reasonable when it came to feedback, which sounds like a positive thing. I would always find a reason for my actions. “ Ah, well the reason I did that was because…” It was not until a colleague said to me, “You are very reasonable aren’t you? Always got a reason for everything” that I realised I was trying to find explanations that dissolved any responsibility from myself. I have since found management groups are often a very “reasonable” lot!

You can choose to respond to feedback differently. You can listen without interrupting, accept the point of view without denial and be thoughtful, sincere and interested. There is no need to argue. You can actively listen and ask questions to truly understand the feedback and respond graciously rather than dramatically. All of these skills can be learnt and, whilst may be hard for some people, are not impossible.

There are so many models to follow when giving feedback. I have developed one to follow when receiving feedback. It is intended to put the receiver in control and avoid reacting like a ‘feedback victim’.

Going down the "no" route on this model can be the right thing to do. It may be perfectly valid to decide not to do anything about the feedback or to go back and challenge the feedback. On reflection you may discover the person giving the feedback was panicked or stressed themselves. The important thing is to make sure you explore why this it was given, removing the emotion and taking down the usual ‘filters’ we use to excuse ourselves.

That is not to say you can use these ideas as excuses for never taking on board feedback. If you receive the same piece of advice from several sources (and you are interested in self development) there is a case for exploring it. The point is that as the receiver, you can be in control and you can choose how you react.


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