Deborah Nixon Headshot

Are You Afraid to Give Feedback?

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I've been thinking about feedback lately. I'm assessing the senior leaders at an international company and, as part of my process, I talk to these leaders about their interactions with their team and others in the organization. We talk about high points and low points, their challenges and struggles and what they are passionate about. I ask them about relationships and how they handle working with people with diverse personalities.

Then we talk about how they give and receive feedback. As long as the feedback is positive, leaders are open to providing it. The difficulty is the delivery of negative feedback. When leaders find themselves in this situation, they become uncomfortable. Communication becomes strained as they struggle to find the balance between the professional and the personal. Most leaders tend to default towards keeping things rational and distant, eschewing anything more than a cursory discussion. At other times, they avoid the discussion entirely. This does a disservice to both the leader and the person who needs the feedback.

What is behind the reluctance to provide negative feedback? Often, leaders worry about the other person's reaction to the feedback. They don't want people to bring their emotional selves to work. They are not confident about their ability to deal with the emotional side of the business relationship. In fact, some of them think that emotions have no place in the workplace. Others believe that if you provide negative feedback, you then have to offer a solution. If they don't know the solution, they will not provide the feedback. As Karen May of Google says, "If you don't know the answer, you might not want the conversation."

There is a downside to avoiding giving feedback. The person to whom you direct the feedback has a right to honesty and to the truth. One of the ways that trust is built is through honesty and transparency. Every time you avoid providing hard but true feedback, you are chipping away at trust. How do I know when I ask for your opinion that I am getting your truth? High trust relationships require honest communication; the good, the bad and the ugly. Secondly, the person can't begin to fix their problem if they don't know it exists. You may be holding them back from advancing in their careers because you aren't supporting their efforts to improve and grow.

In my coaching and assessment work, I have found that people can handle the hard truth. While it isn't easy to hear, people are grateful for the feedback because they can do something about it. I have had situations where I have had to deliver harsh feedback and I have not looked forward to doing so. Yet, I'm always surprised at how well the person has received it. They usually already know what they're dealing with; it's often a long-standing unresolved issue, which continues to challenge them. They know that by my willingness to honestly tell them how I see and experience them, that they can trust me when I work with them on solutions. It's always about them; never about you.

Those leaders who believe that there is no place for emotions in the workplace are not recognizing that their own emotions are driving this point of view. Often these leaders are reserved individuals who prefer to contain their feelings and remain in control. Emotional displays represent a loss of control to them, something that they fear. In order to reduce the risk of uncertainty, they place boundaries around themselves. The consequence is a distancing from others and containment of information.

So what can you do if this is you?

1. Understand the role of emotions in decision-making. Emotions help, not hinder, you in making good decisions. If you want to take your leadership to the next level, embrace your emotions.

2. Take a step out of your comfort zone. None of us can grow unless we're willing to take a risk. Start small, with somebody you trust and with whom you have a secure relationship. Offer them some truthful feedback and pay attention to your feelings as you do so. Ask them to give you feedback on your delivery.

3. Learn the skills of active listening. It takes patience and a new perspective to recognizes the value of different approaches to building high trust relationships.

4. Understand that feedback is a growth opportunity for the other person. You aren't required to provide the answers. In fact, an important part of the process is to allow the person to reflect on the feedback and find his or her own way to resolution. Provide them with support and encouragement, not solutions.