One of the conversational skills we are increasingly being asked to develop with our clients, is the ability of leaders and managers to give honest, tough feedback.
Whilst it sounds simple enough, the actual task of sharing what might be perceived as negative feedback, and doing it in a way that motivates change, can bring with it a degree of discomfort. Sometimes that discomfort is so strong that it becomes easier to avoid doing it and the most important message is never relayed.
Last week when I explored this topic with a couple of performance managers I was keen to get their perspective on what made giving tough feedback so challenging. Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: “What do you find most challenging about your performance management conversations?”
Manager: “I don’t want to give feedback that might offend them – they’re all such nice people. I recognise I need to do it but it’s hard.”
Me: “What’s the hard bit?”
Manager: “Telling them the bits I don’t like and criticising. They’re pretty good at what they do but there are probably instances where I could be a bit more honest.”
Me: “And if you could do it really skilfully, and all performance managers could do it, what would that give the business?”
Manager: “I think that would be the one thing that would really shake things up. Some people are probably thinking everything’s fine and it’s all going ok. It would bring everyone onto the same page in terms of stretching themselves, and that’s the only way companies’ progress.”
“Being able to give feedback as a performance manager is a core business skill. Being able to give feedback that helps people grow is a skill for life.”
We know being able to give honest, developmental feedback is a critical skill for performance managers to master. Whilst sharing feedback models and step by step processes to follow gives a sense of comfort that we have ‘fixed’ it, it doesn’t address the deeper emotional vulnerability that is often experienced when it comes to the actual moment of speaking the feedback. When we attach a potential level of risk to the conversation – whether it’s a subconscious thought that the individual might leave the organisation, they might not like me anymore, or they might not buy our services again – it’s a natural human response to self-protect and stay safe. It’s easier for me to avoid speaking the truth at all costs and just say the nice things.
Equipping performance managers to ‘be’ in a space of discomfort rather than ‘think’ in a space of discomfort means thinking creatively about how we design learning interventions to support this conversational skill. Here at TCS we often use the principles of drama and actors to help participants learn by doing. For example, we integrate forum theatre and individual practice to our sessions and invite participants to live and breathe what it’s like to give honest, tough feedback.