Why the word ‘feedback’ gives most people the creeps

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that we are humans. We have fears and feelings and all those things that get the best of us if we let them take over. This post is about why the culture of feedback is so important, as the need to talk about it should be attended.

In most corporate cultures, at some point, People & Culture departments look for a feedback culture. As soon as little teams start growing into structural elements of an organization, reporting lines are defined and working ethics need to find new common ground, human interaction becomes much more than ways of communication. People start learning from one another and also – mostly unconsciously – giving feedback in different situations. Giving feedback is not a skill that everybody masters as they navigate through professional life. Giving and receiving feedback is something people can learn to be able to be constructive and grow from the feedback they get.

Feedback is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “advice, criticism, or information about how good or useful something or someone’s work is.” but also “the unpleasant noise produced by electrical equipment such as an amplifier when some of the power returns to the system”. It is interesting how the first definition addresses an ambivalent emotional component (criticism/how good) while the second definition already includes the element of negative emotion “unpleasant”. These are both different definitions and contexts, but feedback is associated with both emotions and generally mostly with negative implications.

I was very nervous the first time I asked my first boss for feedback. I was nervous because I actually associated feedback with criticism and wasn’t sure how this would affect my job moving forward. I asked because as a beginner, I had no idea how I was performing and if this was meeting expectations. I was lucky. My boss at that time was a very human person and walked me through a set of examples to underline the feedback. This helped me to improve my daily tasks, such as writing nicer e-mails and paying more attention to detail. At the end of the day, my experience with feedback was very situation-conscious and had nothing to do with me as a person.

Years later, I faced a great challenge sitting on the other side of the table. Peers and people from different departments came to me to complain about the toxic attitude and underperformance of one of my team members. I was not shocked, to be honest. I had kind of, carefully, tried to, intended to, give some advice to this person as to how this perception might need to change. This huge hesitation on my part to actually get there and talk to this person prevented me from providing feedback that would have helped this person to grow much sooner. To make things worse, the problem was not only within the team – but it had become a general one, as more and more people in the organization were noticing and coming to me to correct the situation. To solve my dilemma on how to tell this person how this toxic behavior was affecting our work, I asked for help. My very experienced colleague in charge of HR gave a piece of advice that I will never forget: “You should never be afraid to call out behavior that is related to a work situation. It is about a specific behavior or action in a specific situation, not about the person.” WOW

Ok, so if I was to help this person improve perception and collaboration with others, I needed to get to them by bypassing the personal, emotional layer and get their attention by making this about the situation and not the person. Got that. It was all of a sudden an easy task. Why? Because the feedback was about actions and examples and not about the person itself. So there I went and talked to this person about the specific situations where the behavior was leading to discord and helplessness among others and I decided to give this person a framework of rules to communicate with others, making clear that certain behavior (being rude, making personal remarks or refusing work assignments) wouldn’t be tolerated. You might think this was harsh. But it was not. It stuck. Out of this situation, we discovered several things:

  • This person was not coping well with change. Things had been though the last couple of months in their life and she was having a lot of trouble getting along with other people at work. I realized, that I should have known this if I had asked more often and helped this person to ease into interaction with other departments.
  • I was not being very clear in my assignment and this gave room for this person to have the feeling that decisions around doing something or not were theirs. Learning for me: Better communicate my assignments and expectations. Give no room for uncertainty as to when results are expected.
  • This person had the feeling that after so many years in the company, there were no development opportunities and therefore it made no sense to keep trying to grow there.
  • I learned that I should have stepped in much earlier in the process and talked to this person to create a development plan and prevent the frustration that caused this behavior.

I learned a lot from that experience. I learned to frame feedback encompassing specific situations, making sure to improve the situation and not the person itself. And the one thing that I learned most, was that it was ok for me to step in and intervene to improve the situation. 

Feedback is about expressing your perception of certain things and interactions in specific situations. You are always allowed to express how things make you feel. It is never about how the other person is – no matter the situation – is about how this gets to you or others.

Being a team enabler or leader, you should create a culture of feedback. It is a great opportunity to grow for your team and yourself. 

Here is a framework on regular meetings and questions that you and your team members can use to empower one another in a culture of feedback and constant learning:

1:1 Meetings – some ideas

  • 1:1 should be scheduled at least bi-weekly and happen ad hoc if necessary.
  • At 1:1 we talk about the person and their work in the team, challenges, and blockers they are encountering.
  • You need to set up SMART goals and follow these through.
  • We need to document what we discuss and hold our commitments.
  • We find solutions instead of excuses.
  • Never finger-pointing! Constructive feedback is the key to successful collaboration.
  • Confidential information: decisions related to other staff, salary, contract contents, protocols from feedback discussions and other relevant information to your employee.

@Health & @Emotional Check

  • What’s going on with your life?
  • How is this affecting or driving your work?
  • Are you on your 100%, 80%, less?
  • Need encouragement?

Respect, motivation to learn, ability to auto-reflect and acceptance to try new things will make a feedback culture incredibly helpful, useful and inspiring. 

Please feel free to use this Trello board as a source for inspiration: https://trello.com/b/WDViZjVW/framework-11-and-feedback

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