Giving and receiving feedback is essential for leaders. But how can we make sure that we understand and use it to maximum effect?
It’s a tricky old thing, feedback.
We live in a world where feedback is all around us. Whether as consumers, at work or simply as users of social media, it’s become the norm for us to give, receive and collect ‘follows’, ‘likes’, reviews and a whole host of tech-enabled views and opinions as a routine part of our everyday life.
For leaders, as we move away from command-and-control-style management to a more collaborative approach, carefully calibrated feedback designed to encourage positive performance and behaviours is – intuitively – simply part of the deal. There are plenty of surveys that suggest that people at work actively crave feedback, seeing it as an important part of how we learn and progress.
Fair enough. Well-delivered, thoughtful and timely workplace feedback can be invaluable in helping people to understand the contribution they’re making, to navigate their own learning and to improve. And these are important factors when considering motivation-boosting factors such as a sense of agency, meaning and purpose.
But alongside those feedback-hungry survey respondents, there are plenty of people who dread feedback, whether they’re giving or receiving it. How will it feel? How will the other person respond? Should I be nice or mean?
And how can we be so sure that feedback is all that it’s cracked up to be? Is it really, as leadership guru Ken Blanchard tells us, “The breakfast of champions”? Or is it more akin to Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall’s "fallacy", a con that has us barking up the wrong tree when we want to help our people to “thrive and excel”.
The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in the middle. The key phrase in all this is, of course, 'well-delivered'. The world of feedback is not always easy, but that doesn’t mean it has no place. Leaders need to understand why feedback matters, to be aware of its potential pitfalls and to find a way to use it effectively.
Feedback under scrutiny
The problem with feedback at work is that so many of the processes and models for delivering and receiving it can be a bit of a mixed bag. At a most basic level, feedback is an essential component of communication: in a two-way, interactive communication loop, it’s how we know our message has been received. But, like all communication, this feedback can only get through if the medium or channel used is appropriate and effective. The sheer range of barriers that can get in the way of even the simplest message might give us all pause for thought when it comes to the tricky business of delivering more nuanced feedback designed to praise or course correct.
Consider, for example, the growing case against annual performance reviews: poorly designed processes run inconsistently by badly trained managers; the almost impossible task of setting meaningful and measurable goals for a 12-month period; the very real possibility that annual reviews are used in isolation, leaving people feeling ignored for the rest of the year; the perennial challenge of rater bias in ratings-based systems. The list is long and far from enlightening.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve more recently seen real-time, tech-enabled solutions that seem to offer the promise of feedback that’s more in tune with the rhythms of today's fast-paced workplaces. Radical transparency, for example, offers instant, real-time feedback, championed by the likes of founder and ex-CEO of US-based hedge fund Bridgewater Associates Ray Dalio. For Dalio, success depends on complete openness between colleagues – to the extent of meetings being recorded and shared in a ‘transparency library’ for everyone to view, and staff being encouraged routinely to rate each other on a range of attributes, with ratings displayed on a personalised ‘baseball card’ for each of them.
We all want to work in organisations where we feel able to speak up and be heard, but maybe we can have too much of a good thing. The fact is that badly delivered feedback is badly delivered feedback, whether it’s delivered once a year, once a week or all the time.
Why 'well-delivered' matters
At work, almost all of us want to improve, learn and be better at what we do. To improve, we need to make adjustments and corrections, but it’s not always easy to see or make the right adjustments without external perspective. As models such as the Johari Window show us, we all have blind spots about ourselves that can be frustratingly elusive to us, but painfully obvious to our colleagues.
In this context, it’s easy to see that feedback – defined as any information we receive about ourselves or give to others – has an important role to play. It’s how we learn about ourselves from our experience and from other people.
The problem is that feedback is only as effective as the recipient’s willingness or ability to receive and absorb it. And that’s why it’s so important that it’s properly delivered.
Buckingham and Goodall highlight research from Gallup that asked a sample of US workers whether their managers paid most attention to their strengths, their weaknesses, or to neither, and followed up to measure how engaged each employee was. Unsurprisingly, the starkest disengagement was found among those employees largely ignored by their managers. Even where managers were focused on fixing their people’s weaknesses, the ratio of engaged to disengaged was two to one. But, for employees given mainly positive attention, that ratio jumped to 60 to one: 30 times more powerful than the negative attention.
Neuroscience is also a useful guide here. Research by organisational theorist Richard Boyatzis has shown that negative or poorly delivered feedback tends to stimulate our sympathetic nervous system, triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response which shuts down all but the most essential of the brain’s functions – hardly a fertile environment for any communication. By contrast, positive, well-delivered feedback activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and digest’ system associated with a sense of wellbeing and cognitive openness.
It’s this need to create the right environment that makes feedback tools such as Pendleton’s Rules so powerful. The rules encourage us to focus both on achievement and on what could be done differently. The very act of focusing on the positive first helps to put the recipient at ease and make them much less likely to shut down, become angry or upset, and more likely to take on board any change or course correction that’s needed.
Pendleton’s Rules also remind us that well-delivered feedback requires two-way communication. We need to have feedback conversations where we’re actively inviting contributions from the other person (a judicious use of questioning can help here) and then listening to their point of view. We may not have all the information to hand before we embark on a feedback conversation, and it’s important to find out more before we rush to judgement.
Even when things have clearly gone wrong, we need to resist the temptation to step in and try to ‘fix’ people; mistake fixing might sometimes be necessary to prevent failure, but it does not, in itself, help people to develop. And feedback is not always about what’s gone less well, of course. It can also be an essential tool to acknowledge and build on positive performance.
Context matters too. Simple frameworks such as the SBI(O) (situation-behaviour-impact-(outcomes)) model can help us frame feedback conversations by asking us to explore with the recipient the situation in which that person found themselves; how that person behaved as a result; the impact of their behaviour and then possible alternative behaviours and outcomes. It’s a way to make sure we have clear, specific conversations and keep our focus on what needs to happen or change (or be built on) as a result. It also helps to depersonalise what we say, which will also help to take the sting out of it.
Taking a positive, contextualised approach to giving feedback does not mean that we can duck the difficult stuff; it helps no one to avoid tackling underperformance or behaviour that needs to be adjusted. And feedback that’s little more than meaningless praise is not really feedback at all. Instead, we need to see feedback as being about learning. The trick is to look for the learning opportunities in all situations and to understand that delivering feedback in a positive, future-focused way, and where the recipient is an active participant in the conversation, is much more likely to be received and acted upon.
So how can we master this tricky balancing act?
Kim Scott: towards radical candour
Years of working in top tech companies in Silicon Valley have given Kim Scott a keen insight into what makes a good boss. For Scott, the key to effective leadership is the ability to build relationships so that we can “guide a team to achieve results”.
She outlines three core responsibilities of a leader:
- To create a culture of guidance (feedback) that will keep people moving in the right direction
- To understand what motivates people to keep our teams cohesive
- To drive results collaboratively
These three factors combine to create a virtuous circle between our responsibilities and our relationships. We strengthen our relationships by learning how to get, give and encourage guidance, by putting the right people in the right roles and by harnessing the power of team working – and that means we can fulfil our responsibilities.
It’s a focus that places feedback at the centre of what managers do, full stop. Scott’s guidance is not about those feedback set pieces, such as formal annual appraisals, which may or may not have their place in company-wide performance management. Rather, it’s about regular, trust-building conversations that function as continuous course correction, what Scott calls performance development. It’s about creating cultures of guidance where feedback is simply a part of our everyday communications.
Scott is clear that building trust and relationships is not easy; after all, we’re dealing with individuals who will respond and react to us in different ways. But her Radical Candour framework is designed to help us “move in a positive direction”.
The framework is based on two key dimensions:
- Care personally (really care about the people we work with)
- Challenge directly (be prepared to deliver challenging feedback)
When we both care and challenge in tandem, we’re showing radical candour. For Scott, that’s how we build enough trust to have the conversations we need to build performance. People are much more inclined to trust us if we can show we care about them, making them much more open to accepting feedback, whether praise or criticism. It also makes them much more likely to give us feedback and to model the same behaviours with other team members.
The word 'radical' reminds us that we mustn’t avoid saying what we need to say. And candour is about being absolutely clear about the messages we’re delivering. (Scott later replaced the word ‘radical’ with ‘compassionate’ after unfortunate confusion with radical transparency; she is clear that radical transparency is not the same: it’s about challenge, true, but without enough care.)
The Radical Candour framework
Scott’s model offers us a useful response to the conundrum of how to deliver feedback that delivers the message it needs to deliver – but in a way that avoids triggering a flight or fight response and instead brings the recipient on board. It invites us to engage both the heart (care personally) and the mind (challenge directly) to achieve the outcome we want: the chance for us to learn and develop. It’s about creating psychologically safe environments when people are open about what they say – but considerate of how they say it.
The Radical (Compassionate) Candour framework helps us to see what might happen if we fail on one or both of Scott’s two dimensions.
All care and no challenge might lead to ruinous empathy. This can happen when we want to spare someone’s short-term feelings, so we don’t tell them something they need to know. It might involve praise that isn’t specific enough to help the person understand what was good, or criticism that is sugar-coated and unclear. Or even just silence. It may feel nice or safe, but it’s ultimately unhelpful and even damaging.
All challenge and no care takes us into Ray Dalio territory: obnoxious aggression. Also known as brutal honesty or 'front stabbing', it’s what happens when we challenge someone directly, but don’t show we care about them personally. It’s praise that doesn’t feel sincere or criticism and feedback that aren't delivered kindly.
Too little of either can come across as manipulative insincerity. Often manifesting itself as backstabbing, politicking or passive-aggression, this is praise that is insincere, flattery to a person’s face and harsh criticism behind their back.
When we balance the right amount of care with challenge, we hit the compassionate candour sweet spot.
In her book Radical Candor, Scott illustrates the difference between these four approaches with the simple example of how we might respond if we notice that a colleague’s flies are undone.
This might seem like a ridiculous example, but thinking about where our response would put us on the framework gives us an insight into our natural approach – and the information to adjust accordingly.
Getting and giving both praise and criticism
To build cultures of guidance, Scott suggests that we need to “get, give and encourage both praise and criticism”.
And the first stage is for leaders to walk the walk and be open to feedback themselves.
In a Harvard Business Review article, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman shared the results of their research into people’s attitudes towards feedback, both positive and what they call ‘corrective’. They found that, by a three-to-one margin, respondents believed that corrective feedback did more to improve their performance than positive feedback – as long as it was provided in a constructive manner (that well-delivered piece again).
They also measured how difficult managers found it to deliver corrective feedback. Managers who found it stressful to give negative feedback were also significantly less willing to receive it themselves. Conversely, those who rated their managers as effective at providing them with honest, straightforward feedback tended to score higher on their own preference for receiving corrective feedback.
If we’re going to create cultures of guidance, we need to be comfortable with receiving feedback ourselves. In fact, Kim Scott is clear that we need to actively solicit it. That shows that we’re open to challenge ourselves, that guidance really is a two-way street. It will almost certainly teach us something about ourselves, and will give us better insight into how others might feel to be on the receiving end. More than anything, it’s an important trust and relationship builder.
It’s hard, of course, to encourage people to take what they might see as the career-limiting step of challenging their boss’s actions or behaviours. That’s why we might need to go looking for feedback. Scott suggests some tips to guide us:
Have a go-to question
Think about specific questions that will help colleagues to open up, like “What could I do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?” or “What could I do to support you better?”
Embrace the discomfort
Even a 'go-to' question might make the other person feel uncomfortable, and we’ll probably be feeling pretty uncomfortable too. But we need to keep going and keep asking.
Listen to understand, not respond
Remember that this process is all about learning. It’s natural to feel defensive about any criticism, but we need to show that we’ve listened and taken on board what’s been said – and not take what often feels like the natural step of pushing back.
Reward criticism to get more of it
Follow up. If something needs to change as a result of the feedback, make sure it happens – and show that it’s happening. We may sometimes be on the receiving end of criticism that’s not justified. When that happens, we still need to listen fully, but we may then choose to schedule another time to explain fully our own, contrary point of view. But everything needs to be considered and discussed.
Gauge the guidance you get
Take it seriously. Look for trends or patterns.
It might help to talk to our teams about the Radical Candour framework so that we can establish a common vocabulary for guidance conversations.
Scott also offers us a route map for giving feedback in a compassionately candid way.
As we’ve seen, we may not have all the information or answers when we embark on a feedback conversation. This is where the SBI(O) framework can help us guard against coming across as either arrogant or patronising, or making snap judgements based on only part of the story.
Feedback is about learning. We need to find ways to help people clarify the challenges they’re facing. That means we need to be both clear and specific. Instead of saying “You’re always interrupting in meetings”, try “I noticed in our meeting yesterday that you interrupted Dave from Accounts a number of times” and build the conversation from there.
Being helpful might mean enlisting the support of others, perhaps a coach or mentor, or a colleague who can support the recipient to learn. Sometimes, the conversation will be enough in itself.
Give feedback immediately
It’s natural to put off what might be a tricky feedback conversation, but delay will only make it harder. Be timely. Guidance doesn’t have to be about scheduled, lengthy meetings. It can also be informal and impromptu. When we’re prioritising, it can help to allow time for guidance conversations, even if we won’t know precisely what they’ll be about.
Above all, don’t let things fester. If something needs to be dealt with, deal with it. If praise is due, don’t wait.
In person (if possible)
Scott reminds us that the clarity of our guidance “gets measured at the other person’s ear, not at our mouth”. We need not just to speak, but to be heard. Giving feedback in person means that we can also observe the other person’s non-verbal cues, making it easier to gauge their response. A video call is the next best option.
Praise in public; criticise in private
Criticising someone in public is much more likely to trigger a defensive reaction. And be aware that some people dislike being praised in public too.
Be as objective as possible. Say “That’s wrong” rather than “You’re wrong”. Beware of the fundamental attribution error, our tendency to attribute all sorts of personal characteristics to explain a person’s behaviour when that behaviour is just as likely to be down to the situation or context they found themselves in.
We’ve seen that one reason leaders might want to solicit feedback is to understand how it feels to receive it. Being open to feedback is not easy, especially when someone is telling us that we’ve not performed as well as we might or that we need to change. In their book Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen suggest that receiving feedback “sits at the intersection of two needs – our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance”.
Even in the most compassionately candid environments, that’s a tricky intersection to navigate. If we already have – or are building – trusting relationships with our colleagues, it’s going to be a whole lot easier.
Just as we need to learn how to lead good feedback conversations, we also need to learn how to engage in feedback conversations when we’re the recipient, managing our emotional triggers, taking part fully and making thoughtful choices about how we can use and learn from the information we receive. Stone and Heen go as far as to say that “nothing affects the learning culture of an organisation more than the skill with which its executive team receives feedback”.
And, when we’re giving feedback, we also need to consider how the receiver might feel. Feedback conversations can be hard because they involve uncertainty: it’s impossible for either party to know or control how the conversation will play out. What might be welcomed by one of our colleagues will seem like a crushing blow to another. The best we can do is to be as prepared as possible and think about how the other person might react. For some feedback conversations, scripting the conversation in advance can help us focus on outcomes and what we absolutely must say, as can scenario planning for possible responses. We also need to listen and respond as the conversation progresses.
Thinking about how our receiver might feel is not an excuse to revert to Scott’s ruinous empathy, but it will help us anticipate and plan. The feedback model based on the acronym SARAH can also help us both to manage how we might react to feedback and to consider the stages others might go through when faced with the need to up their game or change their behaviours.
S is for shock
Most people are surprised or shocked to hear that their work is not as good as it should be. Once we’ve delivered the message, we need to give them time to absorb and process what we’ve said.
A is for anger
Once the initial surprise or shock has worn off, people might feel upset or angry that they are being criticised.
R is for rejection
It’s hard to believe something negative about ourselves, so we have protective mechanisms that spring into action when we feel defensive. We reject the idea that we’re doing something wrong. We come up with reasons why it’s not our fault.
It’s common for people to get stuck at this stage. That’s when we need to provide clear facts and information to support what we’re saying and reiterate our goal of working together to improve the situation.
A is for acceptance
After it has sunk in that there is truly an issue, and one that can and should be corrected, most people move past rejection and into acceptance. This is where we can start to plan how to move forward.
H is for help
Once people reach the acceptance phase, it’s much easier to accept or even ask for help. That’s when we can all start to learn from the feedback.
Bill Gates cut to the heart of the matter when he said: “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” And, as Kim Scott reminds us, it’s up to us leaders to be the people who both solicit feedback to boost our own performance and give the guidance that people need to develop their own. Many of the feedback tools and processes that are under attack – including the annual appraisal – are not, in and of themselves, the disasters we believe. But they will continue to disappoint if used in isolation, haphazardly or in the wrong context. What really matters is that we master the art of giving regular, forward-facing feedback to help people learn and grow, and that feedback becomes central to how we communicate every day. When we show that we care, but are also prepared to challenge, we’re not just giving guidance; we’re also building the trust and relationships that really will drive performance and results.
Test your understanding
- Explain why following Pendleton’s “positives first” approach might help us to give better feedback.
- Outline what the acronym SBI(O) stands for.
- Describe the two dimensions of Kim Scott's Radical (Compassionate) Candour model.
- Identify what the second 'A' in the SARAH model stands for.
What does it mean for you?
- Consider the feedback tools and processes you use at work. Do you have annual appraisals? What more do/could you do to develop a more regular 'culture of guidance'?
- Think of a situation where one of your colleagues seems unable or unwilling to accept or act on some feedback you’ve given them. How might Kim Scott's Radical (Compassionate) Candour model improve your ability to land your message? Or might thinking of their reaction in terms of SARAH help you find a route beyond this rejection phase?
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