Would you like some feedback?

Would you like some feedback?

Thought not. And if you got some, would you listen?

Giving feedback is an occupational hazard. It’s usually subjective – based on managers own preferred ways of working. And it often falls on deaf ears.

When feedback happens infrequently and formally, it activates psychological triggers in our brain that mean we quickly revert to defend and protect mode. The receiver becomes preoccupied with concerns about whether the feedback is accurate, how they are being perceived professionally, and how the feedback undermines their sense of themselves.

Building a ‘feedback friendly culture’ that encourages giving feedback in this way is not only wasted managerial effort, it’s also dangerous. It can actually damage performance 33% of the time. If 33% of feedback is having an unintended negative consequence, then more feedback is definitely not better. On top of that, feedback had no effect at all a further 15% of the time. That’s a lot of time invested in something with a failure rate of almost half.

The good news is there’s a solution to the feedback minefield. And it’s simple. Our emotional reaction is triggered not by the content of the feedback itself but by the delivery and implications. So for all of us – as leaders, business partners, and conscientious colleagues, it’s time to focus on a new skill: paying attention.

If we strip out the subjective and evaluative aspects of what we’re saying and instead stick just to the facts, we could share the most useful information for the other person without running the risk of losing the meaning or triggering a negative response.

First, notice what’s going on in the moment.

We can’t change what we don’t notice. If we want to change the way others behave, we need to start noticing what they’re doing well, what they’re doing that could be improved, and helping them to see this for themselves.

When managers pay attention to their team’s work rather than what their judgement of it is, their feedback will be more descriptive, informed, and fact-based. We go from imprecise, evaluative praise like “you’re so great at including others” to specific, descriptive observations: “I noticed that you asked a couple of the newer and quieter members of the team for their opinions. I found what they said useful.”

Saying what you see without evaluating it has more impact on performance and runs less risk of being badly received. To do this you need to observe your team as much as possible.

Second, understand their world.

Leaders who pay attention and notice more about their employees’ worlds have teams that perform better and are more committed to their work. These managers have a better understanding of their employees’ needs, and so can support them more effectively. They are more present when interacting and more successful in creating a sense of fairness.

Being well-informed encourages high performance by showing you know what people are working on without them having to tell you. Your team will believe you care what they’re doing and will notice their outputs.

Leaders who ensure their employees stand out as individuals increase accountability and a feeling of appreciation, and decrease negative behaviours and attitudes.

There are several surprising spin-off benefits to paying more attention to your employees too. The Journal of Mindfulness found that employees with managers who are attentive and observed without judgement are:

  • More likely to be happy with their work-life balance
  • Less absent from work
  • Less likely to suffer exhaustion or work fatigue

Suddenly the 50% failure rate for feedback seems curable after all. More feedback isn’t necessarily a good thing, but a little of the right kind changes everything.

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