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Fear of feedback

The concept of the ‘feedback sandwich’ has very much reached the mainstream. On reality cooking program, My Kitchen Rules, two 2014 contestants, Carly and Tresne, became known for sandwiching negative comments about competitors’ dishes between two positive pieces of feedback. Senior consultant at Mt Eliza Executive Education, Clarence Da Gama Pinto calls this type of feedback “sh*t sandwiches”. “I’ve been served a few of those and I am still gagging,” he says.

Feedback in fundamental

Generational researcher Tamara Erickson told HRmonthly that Gen Ys really value this feedback and are looking for growth, which is why it is more important than ever to develop effective feedback skills – giving and receiving it. At the heart of the feedback challenge is the dread of having difficult conversations. Research shows that 48 per cent of managers would prefer to handball these conversations to HR, according to a 2013 survey by UK-based Learning Consultancy Partnership. “You need to know how to frame it,” says Deloitte’s national partner of people and performance, Alec Bashinsky. “A lot of leaders [are] wishy-washy and don’t really address the issue.”

Feedback causes neurological changes

Neuroscience coach and trainer Jane Strangward works with a range of senior managers, company directors and CEOs. She says that “many executives shut down any positives from feedback conversations.” This reluctance triggers internal changes in their neurology that leads to physiological changes, which she says, “effectively disables their higher-order thinking and rational executive brain neurology and puts them in a state of high alert and vigilance.” Professor Richard Badham of Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) uses role play to teach feedback skills (and interpersonal skills) to senior executives. In MGSM executive education sessions, managers try and act out “a really bad feedback session” with professional actors to assist the process. MGSM teaches seven main techniques for giving good feedback that include the value of preparation, follow up and understanding the difference between ‘know that’ and ‘know how’. Managers can feel really embarrassed about giving performance criticism. “This is not just a question of giving feedback on performance. It is a matter of you being a leader, developing your people and taking responsibility for helping to get them where they need to go,” says Badham.

Timeliness and frequency

At RedBalloon, the feedback ethos centres around time – timeliness and frequency of feedback. Each team member has either a weekly or fortnightly one-on-one meeting where feedback is given, as well as formal performance reviews every three months. “So there are no surprises,” says head of employee experience Megan Bromley. However, feedback doesn’t have to be scheduled. “I’ve seen too many managers in the past avoid tough conversations and it leads to bigger performance management issues further down the track.” The key to keeping the focus on specific behaviour rather than generalisations is noting specific instances that can be useful in feedback sessions so that the manager can be highly detailed and factual about events. Weak recall of essential work encounters can lead to ‘winging it’ in feedback sessions. For tough conversations, it pays to do your preparation. This will reduce what Da Gama Pinto calls “the white noise of the emotional context around feedback”.

Learning how to receive feedback

Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, authors of one of the latest tomes on feedback, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, attest that feedback remains crucial to driving performance, problem solving, coaching staff and other business basics. However, they argue that there is an over-emphasis on teaching the skills of giving feedback and not enough attention is paid to learning how to receive feedback. Heen and Stone write: “people need to stop treating feedback as something that must be pushed, and improve their ability to pull.” Feedback delivered insensitively – even if it is right or wrong – can have devastating effects. Heen and Stone, who have worked with clients, including the White House and Unilever, discuss “triggered responses” where the wrong type of feedback can trigger anxiety, create tension, defensiveness, counter-attacks, rejection and withdrawal – in other words, disaster.

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Jon Windust
Jon Windust

Emily, thanks for this great article. The right frequency for feedback is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. There’s been a bunch of new research published recently – both from SAP, and Kellogg that is all starting to point to a monthly frequency as the right interval for most employees (we did a write up here That said, I’m on the same page as Megan Bromley from RedBalloon – not all feedback should be scheduled. There’s real skill in delivering the important feedback quickly (but at the same time not flipping your employees from one critical development… Read more »

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