How effective is your feedback?

There is rarely a topic on which leaders around the globe are likely to agree: Feedback is hugely important. Nevertheless, a lack of feedback is one of the most frequently cited reasons for dismissal. What is going wrong here? And what can you learn from it for your everyday life?

It is probably a bit far-fetched to focus this article on the fate of pitiable messengers who paid for bad news with their own lives. The survivors, on the other hand, learned to formulate news in a more positive way - and remained unscathed. They recognized that bearers of bad news were judged more negatively in terms of their personality than those who brought good news. This made it harder or easier for them to find acceptance and recognition in society. And this realization is at the heart of what still affects feedback processes today: Loss of belonging.

Take first, then give

I am an advocate of giving feedback bluntly, quickly and personally. A lot has already been published under the term “radical candor”. But honest openness only works in a suitably structured culture. For example, if employees do not trust each other or are not sure whether or how (negative) feedback will be interpreted, they will rephrase it, tone it down or generally hold back.

Help comes with a trick: If you give feedback to others in the hope of receiving feedback yourself, you will usually be disappointed. However, if you ask specific questions: “How did you understand my presentation of the latest sales figures?”, “How could I better summarize my recommendation on how to proceed with the consulting project?”, you show yourself to be vulnerable and take the first step. This makes it easier for the person you are talking to to enter into the discussion and subsequently ask for feedback. Your comment will be asked for voluntarily and you don’t need to impose it. However, this is only your first step. You should also pay attention to your words. I will go into this in the next chapter.

But first, I would like to draw your attention to a phenomenon that probably did me more harm than good in my early career - so-called “unsolicited advice”. The term seems self-explanatory and you may think it’s rude and condescending. You are right. And yet you will remember situations where you gave someone a tip even though they didn’t ask for it. When I became aware of this behavior, I felt first-hand the difference between good and well-intentioned. It would undoubtedly have helped me in the past if someone had pointed this out to me. But that would also have happened without being asked and would probably have irritated me rather than helped me.

Choose words appropriately

Stick to the motto of treating other people the way they want to be treated (and not the way you want to be treated). While a simple word like “inadequate” is a hint for some, for others it has an existentially threatening dimension. This has nothing to do with hypersensitivity. There are many explanations for this difference in perception. Even before we started talking about different types in management training and identifying these types using profiles (MBTI, DISG, Insights Discovery, Jaagou, …), we knew that we should approach employees differently.

There are also other reasons: There are cultural differences, for example. Many management teams today are made up of several nationalities with diverse cultural characteristics. If such teams have to overcome conflicts, tensions or challenges, the individuals can react very differently and influence the collaboration. This, in turn, can irritate others who do not understand what is happening or even make them believe that they cannot rely on their team colleagues.

And finally, different generations also work in teams. They have learned how to deal with feedback differently. My understanding of the content, process and roles is different. While feedback tends to be top-down for older people, younger people give feedback in all possible directions. And while some wait for the official feedback date at the end of the year, others are constantly sharing their observations. Draw a team map according to nations and generations (and all other dimensions that are important for you and/or in your company) and then locate your employees - this will help you to choose your words and the times for feedback better, reduce irritation and help everyone to improve more quickly and effectively.

Note: Coach training teaches you to encourage clients even in phases of disillusionment. The feedback “not enough” is harder to accept than “not quite as expected”. Make use of the positive power of “not yet” - this choice of words can move mountains and reveal new ways to reach a certain goal.

Structuring content in a helpful way

In her recent article in HBR, Erin Meyer (Professor at INSEAD) points out that feedback is particularly effective when:

“[…] feedback must be intended to assist. (It should always be provided with the genuine intention of helping your counterpart succeed and never be given just to get frustration off your chest.) […] it must be actionable. If it is not crystal clear from your input what your counterpart can do to improve, then keep it to yourself.”

Today, no one pays with their life if a message is not acceptable to the recipient. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the feedback giver to create the right cultural framework and to choose the right words. These are two of the main reasons why feedback is not received and/or does not have an impact. And then people and organizations stop. Conclusion: Your feedback is only effective if it can be contextualized by the other person - and you can and should make sure of that (even if you didn’t actually ask me about it…).

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