Giving and getting feedback can be one of the most challenging tasks for leaders. Some leaders dread giving feedback and bottle up their thoughts for months and years, never telling an employee the crucial information that might make their work or communication style better. Other leaders obsess over feedback they receive and get derailed. In between these two extremes are the rest of us, those who muddle through--sometimes hurting others, sometimes feeling hurt, not sure how to make the process better.
After I wrote my article about how I use the teachings in author Kim Scott's book Radical Candor to be a better boss, I was asked a lot of questions about implementing the method. As I explained in the article, there are two parts to the radical candor process: caring personally and challenging directly. While most people are comfortable building caring relationships with employees, they are less confident about challenging directly.
So I asked Sheila Heen, author of the bestselling books Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback, what she would recommend I tell other leaders. In our conversation, Heen pointed out that Scott was absolutely right in her book: there is a serious need for good feedback in organizations--and leaders need to form good relationships in order to give and receive feedback.
Nevertheless, there are some pitfalls all leaders could learn to avoid when giving and receiving feedback.
Traps in giving feedback.
When giving feedback, many leaders fall into the trap of thinking their critique is a message to deliver. Heen explained that giving feedback is often treated as a one-way conversation where the leader tells an employee what she needs to learn.
For example, a leader might tell an employee he or she was too passive (or too aggressive). This feedback--while it may be true in certain situations when delivered as a sweeping generalization--allows no room for discussion. Moreover, characterizations of an employee's personality could result in them becoming defensive and deaf to suggestions.
Instead, Heen said giving feedback should be an invitation to dialogue. Perhaps the employee's passive (or aggressive) behavior happened in one meeting (or only in meetings). The leader might start such a conversation like this, "Joan. My sense was that you were quiet in the meeting, maybe holding back. Let's talk about that...."
From this approach, it's possible to start a conversation in which the feedback receiver might be open to the advice you are giving and use it to improve their skills or behaviors. Or even for the discussion to help you discover your assessment was inaccurate.
By approaching the situation with a mindset of "Help me understand why..." you take a more constructive approach.
Traps in receiving feedback.
Regardless of how much a leader cares personally about you, or even how well the leader delivers it, feedback can be hard to hear. We all have personal triggers that affect the way we handle the information.
Heen explained our triggers are based on three factors: the truth of the feedback, our relationship to the feedback giver, and our own identity. So when we hear feedback, we evaluate how true the feedback is on its face, how valid it is based on our relationship with the giver, and how we normally react to feedback based on our own identity (e.g., are we under-sensitive or over-sensitive to feedback).
There is no cure for painful feedback, Heen says. Pain, in fact, is part of the learning process. Rather, the key to learning how to receive feedback is to become aware of our conflicted relationship with feedback. On one hand, we all want to become better, and on the other, none of us wants to hear, "You aren't doing things well."
This is why it is important for leaders to not only model giving good feedback, but also how to receive feedback. By observing good leaders, we can all understand how feedback will trigger a reaction in us.
As Heen explained, when we hear feedback, our inner voice will always go through a predictable process. We'll think: what did I do right, who is at fault, why is that person at fault (and not us), and then we'll try to handle our emotions and our personal reactions to feedback based on our identity.
But the key to successfully handling feedback is to be aware of the process and our triggers so we can get to the learning part of feedback faster. And that's what we want after all--to learn, grow, and get better.