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Stuart Duff

Pearn Kandola

Partner and Head of Development

Read more from Stuart Duff

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Feedback: the gift that keeps on giving


Many people feel uncomfortable giving feedback, but establishing a strong feedback culture is essential for a healthy work culture and, ultimately, for business success. 

Feedback - it’s a hot topic across all industries and it's key for a business to progress and for employees to act effectively and develop.

There are many ways to give feedback, using the 'compliment sandwich', for example, or the SBI model.

We’re always happy to talk about feedback and discuss the best forms of delivery.

Discussing something and actually doing it successfully, however, are two very different things. If you struggle to give clear, constructive, honest feedback to others, you are not alone.

At Pearn Kandola, our leadership programme is a long standing one – it has been utilised to develop more than 500 leaders in senior positions.

Naturally, this programme focuses on improving leadership capabilities and performance. What we’ve found during this improvement process is that most leaders struggle with handling conversations which involve feedback.

Delivering feedback in a calm, constructive and solution focused way has proved difficult for most.

What is it about feedback that we find so uncomfortable?

More than half of the leaders we’ve come across would prefer to avoid having difficult conversations and would understate their position in an effort to do so.

Worse yet, roughly a fifth would take a much more controlling and aggressive approach in order to deliver a message and move on from the situation quickly.  

When we remove ourselves from the actual situation and think about delivering feedback critically, it is easy to see that both passive and aggressive behaviours will not have a positive outcome in the workplace.

So why do leaders automatically employ these strategies when they’re feeling pressured?

This is not to say that there are not plenty of honest feedback conversations which take place. In day to day life, we are perfectly capable of having open and honest conversations with our peers.

This is because the conversations take place in our heads. We know what we want to say and we rehearse it. Things go wrong when we get to the point of actually giving feedback in a formal setting – we find some way not to deliver it.

What are the underlying micro-behaviours that cause this discomfort?

This all boils down to critical moments and 'micro-behaviours'. We take cues from what’s going on around us and the way people react to us – and it’s only afterwards that we think about it.

We try to make eye contact, but we only notice this behaviour when eye contact is broken. We understand people’s anger, disappointment or sadness through the signs they give us via their body language.

We read facial expressions, and understand the emotions of another. In those fleeting moments, we react and predict what the person we’re addressing is going to do.

More than half of the leaders we’ve come across would prefer to avoid having difficult conversations and would understate their position in an effort to do so.

This is an impulsive and natural reaction, however it can strongly determine our ability to give feedback.

This response is one that we make in order to protect ourselves. We don’t like to have uncomfortable discussions or alienate and upset our colleagues.

No-one likes to work in an unpleasant environment, but often our assumptions about giving feedback are wrong.

People rarely react negatively to feedback. In fact, usually people want to hear if they are not doing what they’re supposed to, or if there are ways they can improve their performance.

How do we overcome our instinctual responses and deliver successful feedback?

In order to overcome our assumptions and give positive feedback, there are three major actions we can practice to make a positive impact on the process:

  1. Become attuned to our personal reactions: we must remember that although they are natural, they are unnecessary in a professional context whilst giving feedback at work. When our reactions stop us from having reasonable and positive discussions, they become unhelpful and this is something we must work to recognise.
  2. Reflect on our personal beliefs when we encounter difficult scenarios: we should not simply say 'I gave them feedback and they seemed tense, so I abandoned the conversation'. We should strive to ask ourselves why we walked away. Ask yourself, 'what did I believe would occur if I carried on?'
  3. Go back to basics by reflecting on the purpose of feedback: this simple method is something that’s easy to forget. If we go into a conversation to give criticism, this will be reflected in our tone and behaviour. If we go into a conversation instead to give support and solutions, this too will be reflected in our behaviour and received more positively.

Sometimes, organisations or fragments of them end up establishing strong feedback cultures in which leaders propagate the idea that the value of feedback far outweighs the discomfort that the process causes.

The more we give feedback, the more we reinforce this belief. We surpass our initial discomfort and recognise that our reaction and thoughts are the source of the problem rather than the responses of the other person.

Interested in this topic? Read How to boost a feedback culture based on praise.

Author Profile Picture
Stuart Duff

Partner and Head of Development

Read more from Stuart Duff

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