While remote work has its perks, including increased flexibility during such a turbulent time, L&D must ensure leaders have the tools they need to set their remote employees, and their organizations, up for success. We spoke with Sergey Gorbatov and Angela Lane, human performance thought leaders and co-authors of “Fair Talk: Three Steps to Powerful Feedback,” to learn more about giving feedback in a remote workplace.

Listen to learn more on:

      • How leaders can create psychological safety in the remote workplace.
      • The skills leaders need to effectively give feedback to remote employees.
      • The challenges leaders may face when giving feedback to remote employees and how to solve them.

Listen Now:

Complete the form below to view an animated video about this episode:

Additional Resources: 

The transcript for this episode follows: 

Speaker:

Welcome to the Business of Learning, the learning leader’s podcast from Training Industry.

Sarah Gallo:

Hello and welcome to the Business of Learning. I’m Sarah Gallo, an associate editor here at Training Industry.

Taryn Oesch DeLong:

And I’m Taryn Oesch DeLong, managing editor of digital content at Training Industry. Before we begin, this episode of the Business of Learning is sponsored by GP Strategies.

Speaker:

GP Strategies enables people and organizations to perform at their highest potential. Creating a world where business excellence makes possibilities achievable. Subscribe to the GP Strategies podcast Performance Matters where they interview industry experts and explore best practices and share innovative insights on topics like the one we’ll discuss today.

Sarah Gallo:

Many organizations, that are fortunate enough to do so, have gone remote in light of the coronavirus pandemic, where virtual meetings have the norm and employee collaboration and messaging tools have replaced traditional water cooler conversations back in the office. While remote work does have its perks like increased flexibility during such a turbulent time, L&D must ensure that leaders have the tools they need to set their remote employees and their organizations up for success. Today, we’re speaking with Sergey Gorbatov and Angela Lane, human performance thought leaders and co-authors of “Fair Talk: Three Steps To Powerful Feedback,” who also received a Training Industry editor’s award this year. We’ll be speaking about how leaders can effectively give feedback in their remote workplace. Angela, Sergey, thank you for joining us today.

Sergey Gorbatov:

It’s great to be here.

Taryn Oesch DeLong:

Let’s start with the basics. How does giving feedback virtually look different from giving feedback in person? Angela, would you like to start us off?

Angela Lane:

Thank you. Well, I would want to emphasize that some things don’t change. There are principles that are core to great feedback, regardless of the environment. It’s always important to tell the recipient why this feedback matters. It’s always critical to be fair, genuinely letting people know how they’re [performing] against your expectations. It’s always good to be developmental, what do you need people to learn to do differently? But there are some absolute watchouts that come from the current virtual environment. The first of those I’d say really touches on a point you mentioned, there isn’t that water cooler opportunity, so feedback is not going to happen organically. You really have to make sure it happens. Be proactive and purposeful [about giving feedback]. The second thing that’s different, of course, is when we give feedback in person, you get some [physical] cues from the receiver, you know whether or not your feedback has landed. Of course, that’s a little harder when we’re remote. So, [it’s] important that we’re checking in to make sure the feedback has landed, that it’s understood. The third thing we would say is absolutely unique, to this time is the circumstances that have caused us to go virtual … and you referenced them earlier, [but they] may the behind the reason that feedback needs to be given. If feedback needs to be given because [during COVID-19], somebody is not able to work as they used to; maybe they can’t deliver in the same way. It’s really important that those circumstances are taken into account.

Taryn Oesch DeLong:

And Sergey, do you have anything to add to that?

Sergey Gorbatov:

Maybe a point on proximity and a personal connection. Something that is very important in feedback delivery is the relationship between the feedback giver and receiver. And we know that establishing that relationship, establishing rapport, maintaining that communication with non-verbal [communication], the head shake, the movement of their eyes …. It’s easier to do [that] in person. Managers, as well as anyone else who wants to give feedback to others, need to take that into account and make sure that they compensate somehow for that potential loss of the relationship quality.

Sarah Gallo:

For sure. We know that soft skills are essential skills, and perhaps even more so during a global pandemic. What soft skills do leaders need to effectively give feedback to remote team members? Sergey, do you want to start us off with this one?

Sergey Gorbatov:

It’s an interesting question, and it’s a difficult question to answer because there are so many skills that contributes to effective feedback, but if I were to group them into categories [like we do in]“Fair Talk: Three Steps To Powerful Feedback,” I would bucket them into three categories. One would be around performance mindset. The second would be around clear communication. And the third would be around empathy. Let me expand a little bit on those. The first one, performance mindset, has to deal with diagnosing the issue [and] giving feedback in order to help an employee perform. [It’s about] focusing on what matters [and] being very cognizant of the fact that feedback has a powerful and positive impact on performance. If you want the performance to improve, you need to let the employee know what they need to continue doing. And that is the positive feedback. Positive feedback is the message of encouragement, [whereas] negative feedback is my expectation for change. [It’s saying], “I expect you to change the way you are doing something.” It could be around what you’re doing [or] about the how [and] your behavior is a softer issue, but all of that [is part of giving negative feedback]. Remember that we are [giving feedback] in order for the employee to perform better and as a positive outcome of that, of course, to develop. The second bucket of skills that are relevant to delivering feedback are around communication. And I think that it goes without saying: In order to deliver powerful feedback, it needs to be like that bullet that goes straight into the bull’s eye. In our book, we talk about the traps of giving feedback. Very often people fall into those traps. One of them is specifically around feedback being baffling or bogus. There are so many instances, particularly for managers early in their career. They may want to give as much feedback as possible and on as many things as possible. And as a result, the message is convoluted, or the employee is overwhelmed and sometimes it comes down to the quality of communication. And the managers need to ensure great preparation so that the message is clear, [that] it’s not ambiguous or sugarcoated. And finally, the third bucket of skills is around empathy, [which is] very important today for the context in which we live in [amid the coronavirus pandemic]. It’s different for each team member and the managers need to know that they understand it’s an opportunity for every one of us to demonstrate our humanity, and it needs to be balanced with a performance mindset, right? Great managers are flexible in how work happens, but firm on the objectives and the outcomes. Those skills, that performance mindset, clear communication, and empathy [are key for giving effective feedback].

Sarah Gallo:

Great. And the Angela, do you have anything to add on to that?

Angela Lane:

No, I think that was great.

Taryn Oesch DeLong:

Perfect. Giving feedback can be difficult even in an in-person office, but what additional challenges might leaders face when they’re giving feedback in a remote work environment?

Angela Lane:

I’m going to stick with Sergey’s rule of threes, and offer three thoughts on that. I think the first one is diagnosing a performance issue. When you can’t see the work, when you can’t see the worker, diagnosis can be a little bit more challenging. That doesn’t mean the manager doesn’t do it. It does mean, though, [that you have to] work a little bit harder to truly understand what’s going on — and what’s getting in the way — of high-performance. [The] second thing that I think is important is [recognizing that] we may have biases that come into play when somebody is not physically working with us. Maybe my assumption is [that] if I can’t see them, they’re not working. Maybe my assumption is [that] because their virtual, they must be working really long and hard. Whatever that bias is, maybe it’s a bias around the fact that we may be working with our children at home. You really have to have a conscious effort to check your biases so that your feedback is fair. And finally, I would suggest that there’s a great opportunity for us to use the tools that are available, and that one of the challenges [with remote work] is [that] we’re sometimes not taking advantage [of those tools]. So I could give someone feedback over a phone call, or I could use them and really make it a little bit more personal. I could do it at the end of a long discussion, or I could be conscious of the fact that the technology can be tiring and keep it focused and short. Really [are the] three things that I think compound the challenge [of giving feedback in a remote workplace]: Getting the diagnosis right; checking for our biases and really leveraging technology to make it as positive an employee experience as possible.

Sarah Gallo:

That’s great advice, Angela. Especially, leaders right now are really becoming aware of biases and the importance of that. Do you have any advice for how we can actually identify our biases and how that may be affecting how we manage our remote teams?

Angela Lane:

We would suggest a couple of things around bias in particular. One is we would encourage managers to get as many data points from as many sources as possible as they’re trying to formulate their diagnosis and formulate their feedback, having arrived at what they think is a fair point of view. We would encourage them to check that with others. To take their consolidated thinking back and calibrate it with colleagues and really use that as an opportunity to see whether or not your thinking is consistent with that of others. Sergey, what would you add?

Sergey Gorbatov:

I would start at the very beginning, and that is fostering this mindset that we are biased. Some of the best books on biases … I will share mine, and that is “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, who said that, “Hey, our brain is an amazing mechanism for decision-making, but it gets tired very quickly, so we are on autopilot most of the time.” And reading through that book and through the examples, through the research and science, you realize that we think of ourselves as rational, but in fact, we are irrational. I would like to quote another source and that’s Dan Ariely from Duke University who does a lot of research on biases and decision-making, and Dan says that we are predictably irrational. I think that should be your departure point, thinking, “Hey, when I want to [give] feedback [to] someone, my feedback is biased.” Full stop. So let me “de-bias” it. And then you go into those different tactics that Angela talked about, engaging stakeholders, doing the mental exercise and asking yourself, “Okay, where is it? Where, this feedback is purely my preference versus this feedback is objective and fair.”

Taryn Oesch DeLong:

That’s some great advice. Thank you. You’ve given some great advice for managers. What about how training can help managers overcome all three of those challenges, Angela, that you mentioned, how can training help address those challenges?

Sergey Gorbatov:

I’ll take this one. [When] thinking about training and feedback, we need to first come to an agreement or realization that giving feedback is difficult. It’s not an easy task, and there is an opinion that employees don’t like to receive it. I would like to contest [that], but [that’s] a topic for a different podcast … but I would definitely note that managers don’t like to deliver it. Therefore, you need to continuously hone the scale and in doing so, you need to realize that you’re working against nature. As human beings, we like to get along with others. We want to be liked. It is in our brain this assumption that if we say something about how people do things wrongly, they will like us less. In working against nature, you need to exert an extra effort and do a bit more. But interestingly, when we surveyed managers (and we ran the survey with over 200 senior leaders), they stated that they don’t give feedback because they don’t have [the] skills [they need to do it], which is funny because we talk about the importance of feedback and we talk about the skills, but think about it … at which level do we stop teaching feedback skills? Most organizations deliver those trainings at your supervisory maximum managerial level. When we get to the level of directors or vice presidents, we start talking about things like strategy and dealing with ambiguity and leading through complexity. And the feedback gets off the agenda because we assume that people are good at giving that. Well, I would like to challenge that assumption and say, “No. Feedback needs to be part of the curriculum.” And training is still only a part of the answer. Why is it thought of [as] the answer? Well, first, through a training you can ensure that managers understand why feedback matters to performance and development. And teaching managers how to diagnose what goes well and what could get better is an opportunity for performance improvement. In addition, you’re equipping managers with practical solutions to get the job done. Besides giving managers a usable approach, well, you are [also] equipping them with an effective habit. A training provides an opportunity to share methodology, some formula for constructing and delivering feedback messages, and also [the opportunity to] practice [that] in a safe environment through simulation scenarios or role plays. And finally, training should include those micro- skills that are specific to the new context that we operate in today. We talked about soft skills, like the performance mindset, clear communication [and] empathy. Well, they are critical to giving feedback virtually and you need to teach managers in those enabling skills, as well, and accounting for technical issues, the Zoom environment, difficulties in hearing, how to deal with all of that, learning to maintain rapport, being more precise, everything that we talked about. It sounds complex, but actually those are basic skills that are necessary not only for feedback, but also for effective communication in general.

Sarah Gallo:

Definitely. For sure. And next off, psychological safety, we know has become a bit of a buzzword — and rightly so — in the world of L&D and business more broadly. Do you have any tips for creating a psychologically safe remote work environment?

Angela Lane:

I think that’s a great question because it’s actually psychological safety that’s at the heart of why this is such a challenging area for leaders. And if you think about psychological safety as me being able to be myself without the fear of negative consequences to my self-image or how I see myself, if psychological safety is about being accepted, you can understand the dilemma, because feedback then gets in the way of how I see myself. So it puts at risk our psychological safety, [which is] really core to this topic. Does keeping the environment psychologically safe mean we don’t give feedback? Absolutely not. What it means, though, is managers have to craft feedback in a way that doesn’t damage somebody’s self-image while concurrently being honest about people’s performance — and that’s really, really important. No wonder leaders feel like it’s a hard balancing act to get right. But here’s the challenge: My self-image, my authentic self, may not be my best performing self. It really is a problem managers have to get over, because if my authentic self is behaving like a jerk in the office, and if the company culture won’t tolerate that, how disastrous would it be if somebody doesn’t tell me that so I can course-correct. So the answer is not in avoiding giving feedback. It’s about [determining] how to craft it in a way that preserves somebody’s self-image, preserves my ego and treats me with respect.

Angela Lane:

Sergey, I don’t know what you would add to that.

Sergey Gorbatov:

Only the fact that to be safe, feedback needs to be fair. I remember when we talked about biases, we said that feedback needs to be given on issues of substance, not personal preferences or something similar. For this reason, we always guide leaders to invest in confirming their impressions, either with others or just through having a thoughtful, deliberate approach to forming their own evaluations. And if you are giving insight to someone on what can make a positive difference, and doing so in the interest of them being a better performer, you’re already on safer ground. And Angela, we discussed this in our thiree-part formula, [but] it actually could promote psychological safety [as well], right?

Angela Lane:

Yeah, absolutely. The formula that Sergey referred to starts with giving people context for the feedback, so giving them a sense of the importance of their work as the context for why feedback matters. And of course, whenever we reconfirm that my work is important, I’m already feeling in a more secure place. Our formula also always has feedback that is future-focused, development-focused on giving you this important piece of information, but in the spirit of “here is what you need to learn.” And so it’s a lot less intimidating for me when my leader is having a conversation with me about what I need to do to learn, be effective and be a higher performer.

Taryn Oesch DeLong:

Really great points there, both of you. Thank you. Sergey, I loved what you said about [the idea that] to be safe, feedback needs to be fair. It’s a great point. I’m going to take a step back and talk about how pandemic has impacted the way leaders approach giving feedback. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Sergey Gorbatov:

Yes. Well, and just to start, those who did not give feedback [before the pandemic] continued doing just that, not giving feedback [during the pandemic]. And referring back to the study that we did, actually, the problem is more severe than you might think. In our research, we found that one-third of leaders do not give feedback at all, for a variety of reasons. We wrote about it; we talked about it. The reasons can be different. It doesn’t change the outcome. Their feedback was not given, coronavirus or not. But in the crisis, there were also those who saw opportunities. We heard stories about leaders who [had to] step up and use feedback as an extra chance to connect [with] and support their teams. In the times of crisis, the leaders are the dealers in hope. The leaders are the dealers in meaning. When it’s turbulence and ambiguity and it’s a sandstorm, the forces are much stronger than you. You don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know when it’s going to stop. Well, somebody needs to make sense for you. And there were leaders who really took that opportunity [after COVID-19 hit] and engaged in performance and development conversations with their people [while] also giving feedback to them. If you look at our model of feedback message, it starts with the why. So the first step of feedback is, “Tell me why it matters.” Provide the context. Explain to me under which conditions we’re operating, make it relevant to me; paint the bigger picture. [What’s] so important in the times of crisis is that emotional support that so many of us needed and in the midst of the pandemic. Having said so, those stories of leaders who used the opportunity to engage their employees in those development and performance conversations [are few and far between]. In general, we see that managers are giving less feedback to their employees working virtually for a number of reasons. It could be because they struggled to find time, or maybe they chose not to find time. And they were finding excuses for not giving feedback. Some of them might be postponing it until we get back to normal. Even though we would argue that you need to give feedback sooner rather than later, timing is of essence. Because if you don’t tell employees where they need to change and where they need to improve, no improvement happens. Finally, some managers don’t know what to give feedback on because they lack [the] skills [needed] to manage the performance of virtual workers. Virtual work is specific because you can’t see it. You can’t see the work. You can’t see the worker. Therefore, managers need to learn new skills on managing knowledge workers when they’re not in the office where they’re not to be seen and their work is also invisible. It’s knowledge work. And definitely that is a capability that we need to continue building.

Sarah Gallo:

We know effective communication is critical, but also more difficult in the virtual work environment. When giving feedback to remote employees, how can leaders make sure that nothing is lost in translation?

Angela Lane:

I would jokingly say [that] they could ask. But seriously, some of these thoughts we’ve shared, [but] they’re worth restating. Preparation [is key]. If I [am] really focused, if I’ve got my messages clear, that’s going to be a great help to the employee. Taking account of the mitigating circumstances, we’re all working under conflicting conditions right about now, [so leaders must be] selective about what is the right topic to give feedback on. We’ve already talked about this idea that we need to check those biases and make sure that we’re not rounding down or rounding up because we can’t see the work. Sergey, you mentioned seeing the work and the worker. I think that means investing a little more time up front, being sensitive around language, considering what aspects might be open to misinterpretation. We also talked about using technology wisely, but there are two things I think would be most helpful to leaders. Firstly, when you’ve completed giving your feedback [and] you’ve shared your thoughts and talked about your expectations and what you’d like to see developed in the future, ask the employee to restate it. Ask them to confirm what they heard. In other words, check for understanding. It would be a shame to have gone through the effort of giving the feedback only to find that, in the virtual setting, it didn’t come across the way you intended. The second thing I think is super important, is how do you follow up? Because what typically happens us a leader gives feedback. We know it can be a little awkward, but then we’ll run into each other in the corridor, at a meeting, in the canteen, whatever, and that normalizes our relationships and things get back to a typical dialogue. That doesn’t happen anymore. If don’t think about, “How am I going to follow up? How am I going to get us through the awkward next meeting after this feedback conversation?” It can mean that people feel this sense of being left hanging. I got some feedback and now I haven’t heard [from my manager]. So be planful. Make sure that you know when you’ll be checking in with them next and no matter what that checking is about, you’re going to use that to get things back to how they were, get the relationship back [on good terms] make sure you’re checking in with one another.

Sarah Gallo:

Sergey and Angela, thank you so much for all of the great advice that you’ve given us today. Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to leave our listeners with?

Sergey Gorbatov:

To reiterate that feedback is a really powerful tool that every manager has at their disposal. Whenever there is a performance issue, a good manager would get that feedback arrow from that quiver and boom — it would go straight into the heart of the matter because feedback creates awareness. And we are largely self-unaware. Therefore, we would welcome that information that tells us where we can improve what we could do better. And managers just need to learn how to give feedback that is effective, developmental and that moves the needle. There is more. A feedback conversation helps your employee focus on the future. And that’s particularly important in the times of a crisis because these developmental conversations help us rise from the hustle and bustle of everyday routines, rise from the uncertainty of an epidemic like COVID-19. It’s always an opportunity to discuss goals, to have a development conversation, to have career guidance where feedback is also important. Remember that it’s not only performance feedback, but it could be around development, it could be around your own career, it could be a feedback on a decision that you’re considering. So, dear managers, please fall in love with feedback.

Angela Lane:

And I completely agree. I just think what [changing times] that we’re in, and if you’re in a leadership role, you possess a most amazing ability to help create meaning and purpose for the people that work for you. They will know that their work matters when you invest time telling them how they can do it to an even higher standard, how they can perform even more impactfully. Don’t let them warm and pass. Never let a good crisis go to waste.

Taryn Oesch DeLong:

And on that encouraging and optimistic note, that wraps up this episode of the Business of Learning. Angela and Sergey, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Angela Lane:

Thank you so much.

Sergey Gorbatov:

Thank you.

Sarah Gallo:

To learn more about giving feedback and other key leadership skills, check out the show notes for this episode at trainingindustry.com/training-industry-podcast.

Taryn Oesch DeLong:

We’ll also be linking to some of Angela and Sergey’s great articles for trainingindustry.com. And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review us on your favorite podcast app. Until next time.

Speaker 1:

If you have feedback about this episode or would like to suggest a topic for a future program, email us at info@trainingindustry.com or use the Contact Us page at trainingindustry.com.

Speaker 1:

Thanks for listening to the Training Industry podcast.

Share