I’ve long said that if there was one skill I could build in every single organization it would be the ABILITY to give and receive feedback. Recently I’ve modified that to include the WILLINGNESS to give and receive it – even if the process feels awkward (because it probably will). And oh by the way, the very word “feedback” has become so loaded and skewed negative it’s hardly any wonder most people avoid it.
At my firm we include 360 feedback interviews with peers and direct reports at the outset of every executive coaching engagement. The interviews are designed such that we invite commentary first on our client’s strengths, and then on their areas of opportunity or development need, with the intent of ensuring that the insights are growth and improvement focused so they can grow into the best leader possible. Since we don’t do (as one leader described it) “reclamation projects,” we are always building from strength and fine-tuning. And our 360 process ensures that we are soliciting and delivering balanced messages about what IS working and appreciated as well as what’s working less well. Because “feedback” should be “information about the effectiveness and impact of actions.” NOT criticism, negativity or judgment (because who learns well from any of that?).
We also meet with the coachee’s manager at the start of the engagement to ensure we are working on the right things, and the intention is that the up front alignment meeting is the manager’s opportunity to deliver their messages to the coachee.
Most of the time the manager – usually the C-level leader or equivalent – is clear about both the individual’s strengths and about the areas where our coaching efforts need to focus. Most of the time.
I recently had an experience where I apparently wasn’t clear about what I expected in the up front meeting because afterwards the manager asked to be included in the 360 interviews. When I explained that my expectation was that we would have covered the manager’s inputs to our process in the up front meeting, the manager’s response was, “Well that would be exceedingly awkward.”
Sure, it might be.
The fact is that the ability to give constructive, developmentally oriented feedback is a SKILL. It’s difficult to look someone in the eye and tell them that they’re falling short of expectations, or not leading effectively. We’re worried about hurting feelings, or demotivating a key player.
Oddly it’s often almost as difficult to look someone in the eye and tell them what they’re doing well. We’re great at the non-specific “great job” but less adept at specifically calling out actions that have a concrete positive impact.
But what happens if we avoid the process altogether?
What’s most obvious is that the individual won’t be equipped with the information they need in order to commit to making changes. Sure, we’ll give them the insights we gather from their peers and direct reports, but clear messages from their boss are always going to outweigh whatever else they receive from other respondents.
Interestingly the reluctance to have a direct conversation means that the individual is also not hearing what they are doing well. Most senior executives live in a feedback vacuum, so any chance to reinforce what they’re doing well is going to increase the chances they keep on doing whatever it is, not to mention ensuring they feel valued.
When you’re feeling uncomfortable about delivering feedback, check in with your intention. If you are really trying to help the person do more of what works and less of what doesn’t, your authenticity will probably overshadow any awkwardness you’re feeling. And speak from your own experience – how the person’s behaviours, actions and choices have landed for you – rather than attempting to represent the experiences of others.
So yes, you should give feedback. Even better, make a point of learning HOW to give high quality, well-intentioned, developmentally oriented feedback.
One of the best books I’ve read on this topic is Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. And for guidance about how to create organizations that are both safe and that use constructive conflict and feedback well, check out The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety by Timothy R. Clark and The Good Fight by Liane Davey.