A few months ago, I found myself standing in line for hours at a BBQ food truck in Austin, waiting for brisket. With a load of time on my hands, in a city full of places to eat exceptional BBQ, I was just itching to tell them how to improve their operations (i.e., reduce their wait time!) and generate greater profit. As a customer, you might say I have the right to voice these opinions to management. The problem, though, is that this well-meaning advice would almost certainly have been interpreted as a complaint.
Why is it that some feedback is accepted, internalized, and acted upon, whereas other feedback is rejected?
Earning the Right to Give Feedback
A big consideration is whether the feedback giver has earned the right to provide their perspective. Some leaders may say, “Well, as this person’s formal manager, I have earned the right to give feedback based on my position in the hierarchy”. Sure, but with that line of thinking the recipient of your feedback has also earned the right (by their continued employment) to listen respectfully and then decide (consciously or unconsciously) to not do anything differently. Without a solid relationship between the giver and the receiver, your message is unlikely to make an impact on how that person approaches his or her work.
This reality creates a number of dilemmas for leaders who are seeking to impact their colleagues and employees with effective feedback. Leaders must be purposeful and proactive about building relationships before the need for feedback occurs. Additionally, you cannot simply earn this right in one instance or with one person and expect that to translate to other times, people, and circumstances.
The complicated interplay of interpersonal dynamics is real and ongoing. For feedback to be impactful enough to create real behavior change, you must have already been making enough deposits into your relationship bank account that you can stand to make a withdrawal without over-drafting. In other words, you need to have a solid relationship built before you can expect your feedback to hold weight.
To assist you in giving phenomenal feedback, we offer 4 things you can do today to earn the right to coach:
Those who consider feedback a 1-way conversation are immediately missing an opportunity. You may know what happened—the poor behavior that was exhibited, the impact on the organization, etc.—but without asking questions, you will inevitably be making assumptions about the why.
Knowing why someone behaved in a way that misaligns with the organization’s needs can help you to remove roadblocks and provide more targeted coaching and advice.
Additionally, ask questions about what matters to the feedback recipient. What motivates them? Where do they want to go in their career? What goals and/or struggles are currently top of mind? When you ask these questions, you get a more holistic picture of how to coach this specific individual. You also get to demonstrate your interest in them, which deepens that relationship and earns you the right to coach.
Steven Covey famously said in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Unless you work diligently to understand others’ perspective, you may see the situation very differently than they do. And without that sense of a common ground, it’s hard for your feedback to hold a lot of weight with the recipient.
Demonstrate that you are trying to understand their perspective. One way to do this is to reflect what you imagine their emotions to be. For example, “I imagine that X is frustrating for you”. This may seem like a risky technique—to guess how others are feeling. In reality, I find it to be very low risk, because most people are very willing to correct you (i.e., “Not frustrating, so much as scary! I’ve never done this before and I’m not sure if I’m on the right track!”), and appreciate your attempt to understand them.
Show your own vulnerability.
Balancing empathy and accountability is a difficult dance. Asking the right questions and demonstrating you understand others’ perspectives goes a long way toward building that relationship. Another way to almost immediately forge a connection with the person to whom you are providing feedback is to demonstrate your own vulnerability.
One technique I often use when providing assessment or psychometric feedback is the “I’m like you” technique. In this technique, I share my own personal leadership struggles with the feedback recipient. For example, “My profile is similar to yours. At times I can be perceived as impatient, but I know that it is only because I have so much passion and urgency for delivering against X goal. I’ve had to learn to manage the perception, however. Is this something you’ve experienced?”
Once you share specifically how you are not perfect, you break down barriers and show your authentic self, which makes others more willing to listen to what you have to say.
Make it personal.
Oftentimes, people who are uncomfortable providing feedback, or who have not had a lot of experience doing it, can dance around the issue and fail to get into specifics. As if leaving the recipient confused and unclear of how to proceed somehow makes it easier on you both!
Connect the problem or issue to (1) how it affects the team, (2) how it affects you, and (3) how it affects what is important to the recipient (which you should know if you followed tip #1 and asked good questions). This helps create clarity about why this behavior is an issue, or even why it is an opportunity for the person to make a greater impact.
What other techniques do you use to build relationships and earn the right to give feedback? When have you received feedback from someone who had not earned that right with you? When have you given feedback that fell flat, and what did you do about it? Sound off in the comments.
If you’re interested in building your skills as a coach, consider engaging in Leadership Assessment or Leadership Coaching. For solutions to improve your organization or team, we offer customized Leadership Development Programs and Workshops.
For additional thoughts on giving good feedback and effecting behavior change, see our other thought leadership linked below, or reach out to us to discuss.