Giving feedback is an essential part of any leadership role. The act of providing feedback can be a strategic communications tool to build trust, motivate change and influence positive outcomes.
However, in my work as an advisor and coach to organizations and leaders, I have seen firsthand that the ability to give feedback effectively, especially tough feedback, continues to be a challenge for many managers and leaders. Judith Glaser, in her book Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, shares that the two key blind spots or traps leaders can fall into when providing feedback are a) the assumption that others see what they see, feel what they feel, and think what they think; and b) the failure to realize that fear, trust, and distrust changes how someone sees and interprets feedback.
We are all vulnerable to these. What makes it especially hard to give and receive difficult feedback is that it can trigger feelings of anxiousness and even threat. David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, has developed a model called SCARF based on five of our innate needs related to collaboration and trust: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. When you assess a feedback session through the SCARF lens, you can see how all the five needs can be potentially triggered into some level of threat when the feedback is not provided in an effective manner:
Status: This relates to the individual’s sense of worth. The perception of a reduction in status tends to generate a strong threat reaction.
Certainty: The feedback receiver often has little knowledge of what to expect as a result of the feedback. Example, is their job on the line? Will their role change significantly? There is a high degree of uncertainty, creating a state of threat.
Autonomy: This relates to our sense of control. Typically, the feedback receiver is given little input into the overall feedback process - when and how feedback will be collected, when will it be delivered etc. Therefore, it is natural that the receiver’s sense of autonomy is threatened in such situations.
Relatedness: This need is connected to our sense of belonging and how safe we feel with the other person. In the absence of trust and connection, feedback that is provided will most likely be disregarded and ignored.
Fairness: When feedback is either provided out of context, not shared transparently or is not part of a true dialogue, it can threaten the receiver’s sense of fairness.
When one or more of these fundamental needs are threatened, it can have an exponential negative effect. When a person feels threatened, it’s much more difficult to self-regulate and take in new information that can help with growth. Being in a threatened state causes the brain to favor using its automatic habit system, which makes it more difficult to change existing thoughts and behaviors.
Being mindful of what gets triggered in a person when getting feedback is important when leaders are called upon to handle difficult situations and give tough feedback. To improve the effectiveness and impact of the feedback, leaders and managers would be well served if they follow these best practices:
Give difficult feedback privately
Be direct and specific
Own the feedback
Highlight the positives with the negatives
Put yourself in the receiver’s shoes
Explain the behavior and the results of the behavior
Balance logical and emotional impact
Show up with open heart and mind
Stay curious, generous and humble
Commit to working collaboratively to identify a mutually desirable path forward
Honor expectations and commitments
And last but not the least, before giving feedback, check your own motives and intentions. Are you truly motivated to help this person grow and develop? If not, you need to pause, reflect and realign your true intention and purpose for providing feedback before moving forward. Giving feedback is a privilege and an honor. It is important to respect it and treat it with care.
What is the hardest part of giving tough feedback for you and what techniques have you tried to become better at it?
Check out Part 2 of this series on the Art of Feedback: Receiving Feedback Constructively!