Do you dread having to give difficult feedback to colleagues and staff? Do you dread your own appraisals and wish your boss was more skilful? Giving feedback on performance is an essential skill for every leader and manager, yet it’s cited as one of the most challenging leadership tasks. It’s also one of the most important leadership tasks, and it’s generally not done sufficiently well or sufficiently frequently to make a lasting or positive impact on the other person or the relationship.
The human brain is hardwired to continually scan for threats in the environment, and is like teflon for positive experiences and like velcro for negative ones, to quote Rick Hanson, a leading cognitive neuropsychologist. Leaders and their staff can both go into management or appraisal meetings with an increased level of amygdala activation and stress response, especially if there is any concern that there may be some negative feedback to be given or received for either party. This creates an increased risk of defensiveness rather than real learning which can be actioned upon.
Creating organisations which are ‘safe to fail’ where staff and teams are able to constantly give and receive high quality feedback is essential for the complex, ambiguous and volatile environment we are in, say Garvey Berger and Johnston in ‘Simple Habits for Complex Times’. This two way, high quality feedback which enables real learning within teams is so important to people and organisations that it is suggested as the first building block for any leader or manager to put in place.
Rather than see difficult conversations as ‘delivering a difficult message’, try starting to have two way ‘learning conversations’. Learning can only come from open and honest conversations – and this requires a level of skill in areas of:
- offering feedback effectively
- listening to others
- receiving feedback
- having a ‘growth mindset’ ie ‘what can I learn here?’.
Before you have your next ‘difficult conversation’, try seeing the situation in a different way, and think about what you yourself may be able to learn first. There are two key questions Garvey Berger and Johnston suggest: What if this person wasn’t a problem for me to solve, but a key knowledge holder for me to understand? What is it this person knows about the situation that could shift or change my mind and how might I find this out?
Giving and receiving feedback are skills which you can learn and are common topics in Career Development Coaching. Experiment with having ‘learning conversations’ with your teams – and with your own manager – as often as you can. Learn together how to effectively use feedback for your team’s growing success.