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Deborah Cobb

ETS plc

Senior Business Psychologist

Read more from Deborah Cobb

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Training your way to a strong feedback culture


The idea of giving ‘difficult’ feedback or, worse still, being on the receiving end of it fills many of us with dread.

Fear of the ‘F word’ in the workplace is all too common. But it is entirely avoidable. To enable a stronger feedback culture, organisations must first educate and train employees.

There goes the fear

Receiving regular feedback about what you’re doing well and how you could be more effective can only be a good thing, right?

Sadly feedback is often feared and people struggle to see it as a positive thing or think it is cruel. We must get beyond this.

Of course, in order to do this, all feedback should be constructive, well intentioned and clear rather than just critical.

In a truly open and progressive feedback culture, this openness should be led from the top with senior executives going through things like 360-degree appraisals themselves and having an ‘open door’ policy to encourage feedback from all quarters.

Who should you train?

Feedback conversations should be encouraged at all levels as peer-to-peer and upwards feedback can be invaluable. But there’s no getting away from the fact that line managers are a particularly important group.

People are often promoted into management roles and it’s just assumed that they have the skills and confidence to ‘manage’ and have challenging conversations.

Often, they don’t. And this is a particularly big problem for managers as their effectiveness hinges on their ability to communicate well with their team, to encourage, challenge, coach and praise them.

Managers that aren’t confident or competent to do so will either avoid having feedback conversations or will handle them badly. Either way, the results for individuals and the business can be damaging.

What kind of training do you need?

For many, more hierarchical organisations, an open feedback culture takes time to instil and involves a wider focus on culture change. What I’ll look at here though is the practical side of what’s needed – the training and skills – in order to have more effective feedback conversations.

Providing basic feedback training will give people a grounding in having ‘difficult’ feedback conversations at work and should include:

  • Giving people a simple framework to use
  • Highlighting the right techniques and skills to use
  • Providing experience of ‘real life’ feedback scenarios.

It’s important too to come at it from both sides to ensure that everyone is comfortable with the idea of giving and receiving feedback as the reality is we all have to do both.

Common feedback challenges

I’ve looked at some of the most common feedback challenges people report to us – both from a feedback provider and recipient’s perspective – and have offered some advice on how to handle similar scenarios.

How should I initiate and start a ‘difficult’ conversation?

Begin by stating your intention for having the conversation. If this is missing, people tend to fill the void with a negative, meaning you get off on the wrong foot. Stating your intention should put the recipient more at ease. After doing this, gain their agreement to have the conversation.

Tailor the framing by thinking about how the subject you wish to discuss relates to what you know is important to the recipient. For example, if it is performance-related and you know the recipient is motivated by career progression, use this in your framing, referencing that you know they’re keen to advance and you have some advice that can help them.

What’s the most effective way to give upwards feedback (to my manager)?

Giving upwards feedback needn’t be approached any differently. Use your judgement and ensure you’re well prepared. The key is context and thinking about how you should adapt your approach to have the most constructive conversation with the person you’re giving feedback to.

Write down how you’ll frame the conversation, your stated intention for having it, how you’ll gain the recipient’s agreement and so on. By reading this through before having the conversation, you should be better prepared mentally on the structure enabling you to apply your natural feedback style.

What should I do if I don’t agree with the feedback I receive and feel it is wrong?

It’s quite possible that you’ll sometimes be given feedback that you feel is inaccurate. What’s important is how you respond to it. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what’s been said, there’s a misconception and there are some steps to follow to ensure you can respond in a way that’s constructive.

Firstly, acknowledge (not agree with) their feedback. And then explore, in an open way, with them why they have this perception, what it is they’ve observed and what is causing the difference of opinion between you. This could shed some light and open up dialogue.

What’s the best way to handle someone having a very extreme reaction to feedback I’ve given?

Having an emotional response to feedback is not uncommon. We relate it to our ‘think, feel do model’ whereby what you think about the feedback will determine how you feel about it, and in turn, what you do – your behaviour or reaction.

If someone reacts really badly to feedback you give, they’re stuck in that ‘feel’ state and can’t get beyond the ‘fight or flight’ mentality. Continuing the conversation is the worst thing you could do. End it there and agree to continue it at a later stage.

This gives you the chance to properly frame the conversation again and get the recipient in the right mind-set so that you can move past unhelpful emotional feelings and have a constructive conversation.

How should I deal effectively with a feedback conversation in an open-plan office?

This is a common challenge, particularly in industries like retail or manufacturing. There’s a perception among observers that, whenever someone is called away by their manager, they’re in trouble.

I’d suggest you start framing the conversation as you first approach the recipient – explaining, straight away what it is you’d like to talk about. This avoids gossiping and speculating from others in earshot. It also helps to head off any potential trepidation or feelings of unease in the recipient.

How should I give feedback to someone that’s come from a third party without it sounding as though I’m ‘passing the buck’?

As the person delivering the feedback, you must take a degree of ownership of it – even when it has been provided by someone else. Tempting thought it is to make the conversation less awkward by distancing yourself from the feedback, I wouldn’t recommend this.

So really, if you agree to deliver feedback, you must also agree with its sentiment. Try to get as much information as possible from those that have raised the issue to ensure you fully understand it and can provide details and instances.

How should I credibly give feedback to a direct report on an area I’m not an expert in?

The most important thing to do here, and to do early on, is to acknowledge that you aren’t a technical expert in this field.

You know that the recipient will be thinking this too so getting this message into your initial framing is the best policy as it means it won’t prevent the recipient from listening to the feedback that follows. Then, go on to state your intentions for having the conversation.

What can I do when faced with someone who just will not accept feedback of any nature?

Here, you need to give them the feedback about your perception of them being unwilling to accept any feedback. Convey to them the impact that this behaviour is having – both on the individual relationship and the wider team.

One Response

Author Profile Picture
Deborah Cobb

Senior Business Psychologist

Read more from Deborah Cobb

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