Is Your Feedback Invisible?

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The reason for most feedback — both constructive and complimentary — is obvious. The conversations that your people managers need to be having are right there in the open.

Managers clearly see the need for constructive feedback when a teammate has poor time management or communication skills for instance, negatively affecting those around them. On the flipside, they notice those who are deserving of complimentary feedback, positively contributing to their team by showing up engaged and on time.

With all of the talk about managers needing to give more feedback, it’s worth asking the question: Is the problem a lack of feedback regarding these things, or is it something else?

What if the problem isn’t that employees aren’t getting enough feedback but that they’re getting too much? Or, said another way, that they’re hearing a lot of words that are intended to be feedback but aren’t actually effective at inciting change?

Consider this: If you ask your managers what the people on their team need to get better at — the time abusers, the non-responsive communicators, the passive aggressive commentators — don’t they recognize what’s happening already? Wouldn’t they also tell you that they’ve tried talking with those people about those things?

If you look more closely, you’ll see that usually people have gotten feedback, but they didn’t realize it was feedback they were getting.

If feedback doesn’t incite change, it’s just noise.

If you could be a fly on the wall and listen to your people managers give feedback, you’d hear some version of that seeming paradox — manager-speak intended as feedback but not being received that way.

Let’s imagine Molly Manager is talking with Eric Employee about missing an important deadline. You’d probably hear her say something like:

“Eric, do you have a minute? You seem to be running behind on some things. It’s really important that we stick to our deadlines, is there something I can do to help? Do you want me to sit in on this afternoon’s meeting?

Does she think she gave Eric feedback? Almost certainly she does. Infinitely more importantly, did Eric get — or think he got — feedback? What if the answer is no?

Let’s unpack how that might be. Here are three ways that Molly unintentionally took all of the juice out of her feedback, leaving Eric with, at best, a vague notion that he needed to change something, and more likely, a conversation that he forgot 30 seconds later.

  • She forgot to include the specific problem. Molly diffused her feedback by mentioning a general issue (running behind) instead of a specific action Eric took or didn’t take that she could point to and convey the importance of.

General rather than specific feedback makes it much harder for your colleague to self-reflect.

  • She made a conclusion instead of asking a question. Perhaps Eric was pulled into two other projects by Molly’s fellow managers without her knowledge and he didn’t feel safe to push back with them.

What makes feedback good isn’t its ability to solve a specific problem and cause the behavior to never happen again. That almost never happens. What typically does happen is that the first round of feedback uncovers a deeper theme or pattern. Great feedback is a diagnostic tool, not a corrective one. It’s not a gotcha moment, it’s a curiosity one. By helping your managers re-orient their feedback this way, to think about the goal differently, they’re far more likely to surface the types of deep issues that employees are understandably reluctant to talk about, but which can have enormous traction for your culture change project once out in the open.

  • She undermined the value of her feedback by taking the work on herself. Molly didn’t miss the deadline or forget to communicate the delay to her colleagues. But, like most of us, out of a desire to be liked or to avoid an awkward moment, that’s the message she unintentionally sent.

Disarming your feedback by making it a “we” thing or prematurely asking “how can I help?” is a subtle but powerful form of enabling, the exact opposite of what human beings need when they’re trying to move through a stuck place.

How should good feedback feel? What should it sound like? Every situation has its own unique characteristics, that’s the art of great people management, but here’s where it might start:

“Eric, I didn’t get the summary from you by the time we had agreed on. I know things come up, but it caused some frustration for me this morning as I had to scramble to fill in the gaps at the last minute. Will you spend a few minutes taking inventory of what happened and then we can reconnect later today to chat about it?

Our teams — our direct reports, our peers and our bosses — need a colleague who is willing to do the right thing even when it hurts a bit or makes them uncomfortable. More importantly, it’s who we want to be for ourselves. Leadership happens far more often in the small moments than in the big ones.

If you want to help your managers deliver better feedback, focus less on who said what and more on who owns what as a result. Look for the subtle but outcome-shaping way that your colleague is thinking they’ve given feedback but actually haven’t.

Reflect on this: What could your managers create if they spent half as much time giving feedback to their employees, because when they did, it sparked genuine change the first time?

Jonathan Raymond