At a recent executive retreat, I asked, “Who has inspired you as a leader, and why?” In the past, when I have posed that question, I received a variety of answers. This time, the responses clustered around one theme: feedback:
- “A boss who paid attention to me”
- “Someone who understood me”
- “A vice president who wanted me to develop by providing feedback, especially the stuff that was hard to hear”
Few would argue that feedback brings a critical element to organizational and professional growth. While customer feedback keeps you in touch with what really sells, feedback from co-workers lets you know whether you are being effective in your role. Feedback can inform, motivate and create vital connections with others.
Given the benefits of feedback, you’d think everyone would sign on to provide it. Unfortunately, that is far from true. Last year, I directed a room of 80 human resource professionals to role-play a scene in which an HR director has to convince an executive to submit overdue team performance evaluations. The audience groaned at this all-too-familiar situation.
Why is this a problem? First, to write an evaluation, the executive must undergo the arduous process of finding the right words to describe an employee’s behavior. With the help of a couple of examples, talking about late assignments is easy. However, the stuff of career progression – communicating clearly, proactively involving others and conducting difficult conversations – requires identifying more nuanced behaviors that are harder to crystallize.
Second, once you land on what words to say, then you have to deliver them. Therein lies the problem. You never know how your message will be received. The employee might yell, cry, leave the room, or say you are wrong – and be right.
In other words, offering feedback can lead to conflict. For many, that means discomfort. Excuses abound: “It takes too much time,” “Her self-evaluation threw me for a loop” or, “I have bigger fish to fry.” However, when confronted for failing to deliver, out comes the truth: “I dread the reaction I’ll get.” In other words, leaders don’t want to deal with conflict.
Conflict avoidance appears throughout the work world. At its core lies discomfort with not knowing, much less being able to control, how a person will react to your message. Nevertheless, without entering into a potentially uncomfortable conversation, you cannot develop a plan for improvement. Worse, avoiding conflict causes organizational ripple effects. Operational issues remain unsolved, underperformance continues and conflict-avoiding executives waste time doing the work of the people to whom they failed to give feedback.
One of the top reasons employees leave jobs is lack of feedback. Feedback raises the level of performance, develops talent and increases retention. Therefore, an organization is well-advised to help its executives work through their discomfort around giving feedback. Here are four steps that will help them.
1. Acknowledge Discomfort.
In the work world, we often confuse appearing confident with being effective. Human behavior is an inexact science, and describing to another how his or her behavior isn’t working opens the floor to debate. Discomfort with unpredictable reactions is normal and healthy. It means you recognize that humans are messy. However, entering into a potentially awkward conversation where the outcome is unknown, and you are anything but confident, can surface important revelations for both parties.
2. Know What You Want to Win.
Knowing what you want from an employee will enable you to stand firmly on your feet in challenging situations. Identify the behaviors you want to see, the results you need and how the employee can contribute. Many people enter difficult conversations hoping to be liked rather than achieving their business objectives. While being liked is nice, you can end up making compromises that fail to advance the organization.
3. Understand Your Relationship With Conflict.
Understanding the influence of your personal history with conflict will improve your ability to manage it in your business life. For example, your conflict avoidance may come from growing up in a combative home where opposing viewpoints were ridiculed and dismissed. As a result, in your adult life, you struggle with your old feelings of fear and shame when you want to express a contrary opinion. Learning to separate the past from the present is important to view the present situation for what it is, not for the history it evokes.
4. Learn About the Other Person.
Everyone travels with fears, motivators and life experiences. To connect with and get the best from your employees, start by walking around in their shoes. Before evaluating an employee, spend time learning about him or her based on your observations and the observations of others. This process will build empathy and improve your conversations with that person.
Giving honest, helpful feedback can be hard, but working through your discomfort to provide feedback is a gift to your employee, your organization and you.