Providing feedback is uncomfortable. People, including yourself, already have a relationship to giving and receiving feedback, be it positive or negative, and that relationship will dictate the experience you (and your recipient) have throughout the process.
Because providing feedback is generally required in any position of leadership, and because our relationship to feedback remains largely invisible to us, we can’t see any of this. Instead, like many people when it comes to their own leadership, we have a vested interest in our belief that we’re pretty good at it — and maybe just need to touch up a few areas.
Instead of coming to this article holding sacred the belief that you’re “pretty good at this”, do your best to bring a beginner’s mind. What if you know nothing about providing feedback, and there was the opportunity here to completely transform how this aspect of leadership goes for you?
The most effective way to provide feedback begins first by distinguishing what you yourself have in the way of doing so. You can do so through the following exercise:
Start, by writing down all of your beliefs about feedback (both positive and negative). Here are some prompts to spur your thinking:
– Feedback is…
– Getting feedback means…
– People giving feedback are…
– If you’re getting feedback, that means that…
– If you’re giving feedback, that means that…
Once you have a list of at least ten items, then you can begin writing down the actions you take as a result of these beliefs. Here are some prompts to support that:
– What do you do as a result of these beliefs about feedback?
– How do you manage these beliefs when you don’t have any choice but to give feedback?
– What do you do when you are receiving feedback, as a result of these beliefs?
– What do you do when you are giving feedback, as a result of these beliefs?
The combination of these two lists provides you with your current relationship to feedback. This won’t magically change that relationship — taking that on is deeper work better served inside the container of a coaching relationship. What this will provide you is some clarity for your own innate bias, and how you will get in the way of providing people feedback flatly.
Here are the steps to providing feedback flatly and artfully:
- Ask permission — in the moment
- Acknowledge who someone is, and ascribe positive intentions
- Speak to the impact they are having
- Check in to see if they’re present to this, and remind them they’ve done nothing wrong
- Invite them to take another swing
- Bring love
Asking permission to provide feedback does a few things. First, it gives the person about to receive feedback the reins of control. They get to say “Yes” or “No”. Your job at this point is to honour what they respond with. If they are a “No”, then follow-up with them after the fact.
Second, when we ask someone permission to provide feedback, they listen differently. We are priming them to listen in a particular way, and, because they have given their permission, they are better able to receive what we provide.
“Steve — I’m going to interrupt you for a moment. I have some feedback on your leadership. Would you like it?”
We want to ask permission to provide feedback in the moment. This is the best time to provide feedback. It will give people the opportunity to immediately address what is happening, and to ask any question they may have about it. Imagine a squash coach that was giving feedback to their player on their forehand swing, but only did so three days after the game. The player is going to improve far slower than if they were to get that feedback on the court, as it’s happening.
Acknowledge who someone is, and ascribe positive intentions
The relationship most of us have to receiving feedback is that it means we’re not good enough, and are doing something wrong. You want to be conscious of this listening before you speak, and adjust your own speaking accordingly. As a starting point, we want to honour what is going well, and the greatness of the person in front of us.
Feedback is most powerful when you can tie it back to who someone truly is as a leader (that is to say, their being underneath what they are doing) — this provides an opportunity for them to see the incongruity between what they’re doing, and who they are.
So, we begin feedback by acknowledging who this person is. We do so simply and cleanly. We don’t inflate it, and we don’t need to make it long, or overly-effusive in an attempt to “pad” what will follow. Be genuine in your acknowledgment, and let it be enough.
“Steve, I love your commitment to excellence, and how clear it is you want this project to be more than something we just shuffle together and shove off our desks. And, what I notice is that your commitment to doing things right here seems to have you cutting people off and trying to force things to go a certain way.”
Speak to the impact they are having
As leaders, our intentions matter, but especially important is the impact of how we are showing up. If my intention is that everyone feel loved and understand we’re on the same team, but my impact is that certain people feel ostracized and bullied, then it doesn’t much matter how well-intentioned I am — there’s something for me to take on.
By reflecting the impact someone is having, we take it out of the realm of arguing about their intention, and can allay some of the predictable defensiveness that shows up when we receive feedback.
“While I know this isn’t your intention, Steve, I notice the impact in the room is that some people that are shutting down, and most people are just nodding their heads and going along with you at this point.”
*Check-in to see if they’re aware, and remind them they’ve done nothing wrong*
Our impact tends to hide in our blindspots, and consequently, we have judgment about it, and ourselves, as it is made apparent to us. This is the point where you want to check to see if the person you are giving feedback to is present to their impact, and to remind them that they’ve done nothing wrong.
Good feedback comes from a neutral, clean way of being — if we are piling on our own judgment and making the person wrong, that will add to the judgment they are already dumping on themselves. Your job as leader is first to do your own work, with your own coach or leader, so that you can release any right/wrong energy you may have, prior to giving this kind of feedback.
“Steve, are you able to see what I’m pointing to? Are you present to that impact?”/
“… Yes, kind of. Like, I notice people feel less engaged, and it’s making me frustrated and then I’m trying to push us harder.”
“Great! Nice noticing. So, first, you’re not doing anything wrong here. That reaction makes complete sense. And, it seems like that isn’t the impact you want to be having. So, take a breath, and give yourself and your team a bit of space.”
If you check to see if the person present is aware of their impact, and they are not, or argue with you, you can also draw in the rest of the room in support of them.
Throughout this process, it is important to remember that you are not trying to prove a point. You are trying to serve the person for which you are providing this feedback (by helping them grow their leadership). You do not seek feedback from the room to make them wrong, or prove yourself right. You seek it so that the person you are supporting can start to see their blindspots.
“Steve are you present to this impact?”
“I really don’t see it.”
“Okay, great, I totally get that. Let’s check in with the room, so you can see what I’m pointing to.”
“Who would be willing to share about the impact of Steve’s being right now — please speak to me when you do so, rather than to Steve.”
“Great, Sheila, what’s the impact?”
“Well, I volunteered a suggestion, but then Steve kind of… moved past it quickly, and almost in a clipped manner. So then I figured… what’s the point? Why bother sharing if we’re just going to get through this.”
“Great, thank you Sheila. Steve — can you get that that is part of the impact you’re having?”
“Yes, totally… but it’s not what I want to be creating.”
“Of course not! It’s clear that what you want to create here is team and commitment. Your impact is out of alignment with your intention. So no harm, no foul. This is actually a beautiful opportunity to realign yourself and your leadership. You’re doing great work here, Steve.”
Invite Them to Take Another Swing
Once someone is present to their impact, there is an opportunity to have another go. Remember that your job as leader is not to have them do it perfectly after they get your feedback — it is simply to have them making adjustments and taking the next step forward towards their leadership and breakthroughs.
So, offer the person receiving feedback the opportunity to take a breath, remind themselves they’re doing great (just by virtue of the fact that they are hanging out with you in this conversation, they really are!), and then invite them to take another swing.
“Okay, Steve — clear on the impact you’re having, and don’t want to create?”
“Great. You’re doing really great work here. Thank you for modelling leadership for all of us. So, will you take a breath, maybe shake yourself out, and then take another swing?”
“Okay. Thanks everyone for sharing how that was landing. Let’s try again. I really do want to hear your ideas, and, I’m a little nervous about our timeline. I really want us to make this happen, and I think that’s having me rush through this. So, let me slow down, and let’s hear what you’ve got.”
This last aspect of providing feedback is not really “last”, sequentially speaking. This is a reminder that both giving and receiving feedback are acts of courage. They are operating in the face of our fear and our need to perform. This is why we tend to procrastinate, delay, and avoid giving feedback in the moment (when it is most effective). Remember to bring lots and lots of love to this process as you walk through it.
Bringing a lot of love does not mean you heap praise filled with superlatives on top of someone, or that you spend fifteen minutes telling someone how awesome they are, before giving them the feedback that really matters. Love is most effective when you trust it, and yourself, rather than trying to aggrandize it. It is often our efforts to go “above and beyond” sharing how much we appreciate someone, that leaves them feeling like you’re fluffing them, rather than genuinely acknowledging them for their greatness.