The gift of feedback

Dealing with feedback is an essential part of any learning process. Taking into account other people’s perceptions of what we do or say can be a very valuable insight into ways in which we can develop and improve our performance. However, knowing how to give feedback does not come naturally, and we can all gain from developing this skill.

In the workplace, feedback can be considered a gift when delivered with positive intent and empathy. It is a two-way process and everyone – supervisors and staff alike – can benefit from listening to feedback from others. Giving feedback effectively, however, can sometimes present a challenge, and it is certainly in everyone’s interest to invest in learning how to deliver honest and appropriate messages in the most constructive way possible. Feedback is often of a sensitive nature and it can backfire badly if it is delivered at the wrong time (e.g. too late) or in the wrong place (e.g. during team meetings as opposed to face-to-face situations), where it can be perceived as unspecific and unconstructive criticism, which inevitably leads to frustration or even anger.

Anna is John’s Group Leader. She is surprised when John asks to see her to complain about the recent appointment of another colleague to a project leadership role that he believes should have been assigned to him. He cannot understand this choice as he is clearly the most technically qualified in the team and the only explanation that he has managed to get from his Section Leader is that “the selection is made on the basis of a combination of factors”. He does not understand what these factors might be… all he sees is that once again the leadership role is given to someone else and he is left “doing all the work”.

When he complains that the new Project Leader is incapable of taking decisions without turning to him for information and advice, his Section Leader shouts at him, saying that it is high time that he stopped moaning and started behaving like a team player.

However difficult it may sometimes be to deliver what one fears to be unwelcome feedback, giving vague or no feedback at all is not an acceptable option for supervisors. If supervisees are left with no explanation as to why a decision has been taken, it should come as no surprise to discover that they feel demotivated; losing one’s temper and shouting at them only serves to aggravate the situation further.

Anna asks John to explain his frustrations and learns that this is not the first time that he feels that he has been unjustly denied a leadership role for which he genuinely believes himself to be the best candidate. She explains her vision of what the role requires and takes the time to give him a few concrete examples of why she believes that his competencies are better suited to the role of technical expert. She recommends that he focus on this aspect and suggests a couple of areas that he might explore in order to see how he might develop his competence further. John thanks her, and leaves feeling much more valued for his role as technical troubleshooter and specialist in the team.

With that, Anna could choose to consider the situation resolved but she does not stop there. She follows up this discussion by calling a meeting with John’s Section Leader, where she raises the question of his responsibilities as a manager – reminding him that he is accountable not only for the team results but also for the development and well-being of his staff. She stresses the fact that this includes the need to provide colleagues with appropriate feedback, and offers him her support, whether that be through formal training or any other means of his choice.

Everyone is entitled to honest feedback on how they are perceived – be they in supervisory or staff roles – but delivering such messages can sometimes prove to be a daunting prospect. Acknowledging the need to develop these skills and taking appropriate action are the first steps towards overcoming an initial reluctance to convey a difficult message. When feedback is specific and timely, however, and it is accompanied by a genuinely positive intention, it is much easier to overcome our defences and accept it for the gift that it brings.

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