Comment: Feedback isn't just hard to receive

Therese Huston, founding director of the Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University, explores why managers find it so hard to give honest feedback.

A national study in the US found that more than one-third of managers find it stressful or difficult to give their employees critical feedback, and managers I’ve interviewed think that this number is grossly under-reported. Yet a common misconception about feedback is that it’s only stressful for the person receiving it. 

When I lead workshops on how to give feedback, I often ask, ‘True or false? The person being evaluated typically finds the experience more stressful than the person doing the evaluation.’ Nearly everyone shouts, ‘True.’ We can immediately feel what it’s like to be the recipient: you feel scrutinised, that your past mistakes are going to be paraded in front of you, and you feel a pressure to defend your choices. 

Yet when researchers ask employees to rate how stressful their organisation’s evaluation process is, employees who give feedback report significantly higher stress levels than those receiving it. Giving critical feedback face to face is so hard, in fact, some of us simply don’t do it. One in five managers admits they avoid negative feedback conversations with their employees altogether. 

In many ways, it feels as if it should be easier to give feedback today than it was 10 years ago. We’ve become a society that offers feedback everywhere we go. We leave reviews of restaurants we loved and Airbnb apartments we hated. In an emergency room, you can review your doctor. Many airports ask passengers to rate the dreaded security lines with the press of a button: on a good day, reward them with a smiling face, and on a bad day, with a frown.

Despite all the practice we have giving feedback publicly, when it’s time to give feedback privately, human to human, we find ourselves ill-equipped. There is no magic button.

An obvious part of the problem is that giving feedback to people on your team is personal. You know nothing about the executive chef behind your meal or the security guard behind the scanner, but you do know Emily. You hired her. You know she has a daughter and is finishing a degree. You also know she’s easily discouraged. You can’t find the heart to tell her she’s woefully underperforming. 

But managers also face obstacles that are less obvious but just as vexing. First, most of us haven’t been formally trained to give effective feedback. You’re not sure where to begin or what to do if the other person becomes upset. You might be concerned your feedback will backfire. Your employees may not love you, but at least they don’t hate you, and if you told José he could be more strategic or Megan she could be more concise, you might alienate two people you count on. No manager is eager to do something badly, and most of us would rather make the mistake of saying nothing than saying the wrong thing. 

Managers are also reluctant to give feedback because it creates a lot of work. As one mid-level manager at a tech company explained, ‘I’ve read books about giving feedback. If I’m going to do this right, I have to identify something I can measure. Then I need to develop measurable goals with you. Then I need to take the time to assess whether you have improved or not; then I need to close the loop and discuss it with you all over again.’ So we cross our fingers and hope annoying problems will just fix themselves. 

But there’s a better way. We need to build our feedback skills. As managers, we need to show up to these conversations ready to help employees and teams improve.

This article was first published in Courier issue 39, February/March 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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