“Do you have a few minutes? I have some comments for you.”
The mere fact of typing that sentence causes me an immediate physical reaction. A pang in my stomach, a wide-eyed, hunched-shoulder posture that immediately puts me on the defensive. Because I know it’s critical to professional development, I regularly ask for feedback. But I also shudder at the thought of receiving it, and even more, implementing it.
Wearing my manager hat, I also don’t jump at the opportunity to give constructive feedback. Public praise? I have it in spades. But when it comes to giving critical one-on-one feedback to a direct report, I tend to be reluctant. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to sugarcoat or downplay comments, or worse, keep looking for the “right” opportunity to share comments to the point where the root cause is a distant memory.
Combine this with annual performance reviews going out of style in favor of continuous feedback in a distributed workforce post-pandemic, and you have a recipe for disengaged and frustrated staff. I work in management consultancy where we want to prevent our biggest assets from walking out the door (virtual or real), by making staff engagement and retention a top priority in a stubbornly persistent and tight job market.
It makes me think of the time when my husband was coaching our youth lacrosse team of twin 9-year-old boys. Instead of deploying referees to throw players into the penalty area for offenses they may or may not understand, the coaches were on the pitch, blowing the whistle on the spot and explaining what went wrong…and what’s more important, what to do differently next time. .
With that in mind, I began to think about how that approach would work in my own work environment. How do I build a culture of continuous feedback? How do I feel more comfortable taking it? receive it?
For that I turned to Shaara Roman, founder-CEO of The Silverene Group, a cultural workplace consulting firm, and author of The Conscious Workplace.
“Both are quite difficult,” replied Roman, in response to the question: which is more difficult, receiving or giving feedback? “Giving feedback is a bit more difficult because people don’t want to hurt their feelings or illicit strong feelings like tears or anger, or worse, litigation.
Roman’s consulting and coaching practices are often used to address challenges in teams and organizations where trust is low, feedback is ineffective, and staff are disengaged. Roman said: “I call it the ‘nice culture.’ They’re all nice, but beneath the surface there’s a lot of bubbling stuff that people don’t want to deal with. It generates distrust. It often leaves women and people of color out of the equation, and perhaps further behind, because they don’t get the feedback they need to develop.”
How do you feel most comfortable giving feedback?
Roman assured me that the more you provide feedback, the more comfortable you’ll become with the process. He explained that it becomes second nature, a component of his communication style. Like telling a friend or colleague that they have spinach in their teeth, Roman implores us to be honest and kind. “The more often you do this, the easier it gets,” added Roman. Be direct, considerate and specific.
How do you feel most comfortable receiving it?
Roman suggests “being in a cycle of asking for” specific feedback. Instead of asking “How am I doing?” instead, get granular with questions like, “How do you think my presentation landed when I shared next quarter’s fiscal projections?” This approach lowers waterlines, increases confidence, and begins to build momentum in a feedback loop.
How do you build a culture of trust?
According to Roman, normalized feedback can only happen in an organization with a culture of trust. When you become more of a part of your daily conversations, feedback is no longer a big thing that weighs us down. This is how your organization operates.
I once worked in an organization where even top managers were regularly fired without notice. Honestly, I thought I would get fired every day, so I kept my head down and looked for a way out. While this experience left me with a certain amount of professional PTSD and my aforementioned reluctance to provide direct feedback, I have since vowed to work to create a climate of trust and support.
I recently had a situation where a member of my team fell short of my expectations on a project. I took a deep breath, looked him in the eye, and said, “You’ll know I’ve stopped caring about you and your career when I stop giving feedback. Let’s have an open conversation about what I expected, what they interpreted, what they delivered, and how we can do better next time.” We then calmly and positively talk about the whole situation with even a few laughs. He thanked me for the comments. I felt confident in how I handled it. And he hit the next deliverable out of the park.
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