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Giving Feedback Without Damaging Employee Relations

The problem with giving feedback

No matter how sophisticated and far from our primeval origins we get, our reptilian brains still kick in from time to time.

We all know about fight or flight in the face of threat, and that’s very useful if someone is burgling your house or intimidating your family, But, a surprising trigger for the same stress reaction is ‘feedback’.

It seems odd that such a small thing can get adrenalin pumping, but our brains are still wired to continually monitor our ‘status’ for signs of attack. This can even include other people’s reactions to our work. You might have experienced it first hand, perhaps your heart starts pumping whenever you are invited to discuss your performance at work. This ‘stress’ reaction makes it incredibly difficult to deliver effective, ‘constructive’ feedback, whether positive or negative.

To compound this further, the phrase ‘feedback’ even when coupled with ‘constructive’ isn’t particularly helpful. You can hear discussion around this on the brilliant Radical Candor podcast. The creators of this resource have helpfully identified that just using this phrase makes people feel defensive.

So why bother giving feedback at all?

With this much at stake, is it work giving feedback at all? Well, yes. Feedback is an important part of keeping a business running well. This is because it’s only when we reflect on an experience that we learn from it. Good feedback will help to facilitate learning from past activity, and reflecting on the things that went well or badly can feed into improving future projects. There is much documented about how we learn more from failure than success.

People who are considered ‘good’ employees tend to be the ones who will actively seek feedback and use it to proactively improve on what they are delivering, they may be carrying out routine reflective practice where they reflect and review on experiences and look for ways to do things differently next time. They might even look for opportunities for giving feedback to you in return, so it makes sense to role model doing it in a positive way!

A framework for giving feedback well

Here are our recommendations for giving feedback in a positive way, that will support the growth of your employee, and your business.

  • Don’t call it ‘feedback’. Instead of triggering a defensive response to a ‘constructive feedback’ session Ask your colleague to meet with you to have a ‘review’ of what has happened, or develop your own internal shorthand for feedback. One of our local schools advises children of how well they are doing by using the phrases: ‘Tickled Pink’ or ‘Green for Growth’ when marking homework. Perhaps something along these lines (but a bit more grown up) could work for you too.
  • Make your feedback specific and actionable. Ban yourself from using phrases such as ‘It is really good.’ Or ‘I don’t like it.’. Unless you add context such as: what made it really good, or which bits you specifically did or didn’t like. Anything as vague as a verbal high five is just condescending and doesn’t help to drive things forward.
  • If you really do need to provide some negative feedback be prepared for an emotional response. Nobody enjoys being criticised and if you touch a nerve, you could see anger, or tears coming back at you. If you’ve delivered your message properly, one of these responses is highly likely. Try to respond with kindness and compassion, and don’t go into an about face by taking back or toning down the criticism, you need to stick to your guns if you want to see improvement.
  • Provide a balanced opinion by tempering negative feedback with positive points too.
  • Do whatever it takes for you to handle the situation at your best. Prepare in advance. Discuss with your own boss or an appropriate peer. Get an early night. Eat properly before the meeting.
  • Encourage reflective practice, so that giving and receiving feedback is standard practice after every project is completed. The CIPD website has a great article about the cycle of reflection that you can base this on.

If you need more help with feeding back to staff, we can coach you through doing this, or help you build a culture of handling this well within your business. Why not try us out by signing up for a free no-obligation taster session of our Sounding Board Service.

The taster session is carried out by phone, it’s a 30-minute mini-audit of your current HR strategy or our instant advice on an HR issue that you need help with. Find out more here.

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