+Scott Watson

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Why The Long Face? Feedback - It's Bound To Be Negative!

So many consultants, trainers and facilitators espouse the value of giving people open, honest feedback in the workplace. They sing from the hymn sheet 'Just do it, it'll be ok' or 'Don't worry, you're not doing a firewalk'. As if these kinds of statements, however well-intended, are really of any help or value!

What stops us from giving feedback?

In the workplace, if you want to give some candid feedback to your boss, how likely are you to actually do it? Well, if the relationship is one based on high-trust (there's that trust thing again) and the level of rapport is high and there's a track record of speaking openly with everyone's best interests at heart, chances are you will speak up and say what you feel needs to be said. On the other side of the coin, in such an authentic relationship, the recipient of your feedback, even if it is your immediate boss, is far more likely to be open enough and feel safe enough to listen to what you feel you want or have to say? By feeling safe enough, what I mean is, your communication will be private, specific, help them learn or become aware of something and....help your relationship to blossom rather than destroy it.

But what if the recipient of your intended feedback is your boss and you are not enjoying very much the low-trust relationship? You know, you're just tolerating each other because after all, you have to work together. Is it likely that you would speak up in the manner or spirit I mentioned above? Unlikely. Why?

Toxic Relationships and Self-Preservation

In a low-trust, low tolerance relationship, who wants to be the one to tell their boss that their approach to motivation matches that of David Brent of 'The Office' fame and that they are about as trustworthy as a pyromaniac with a box of matches? By the way, this comment was made by an employee to a manager in a heated argument in the workplace.

All too often in the workplace, the feedback that needs to be heard, and needs to be given, never materialises because the person wanting to provide feedback is subordinate, either in the organisation structure or informal hierarchy to the recipient. They fear being viewed as a trouble-maker or obstruction to the effective running and performance of the team. The 'It's better to keep quiet' approach rarely serves to improve matters so important as effective communication...but so many people continue to subscribe to this draining and toxic approach.

Can I have a word with you in my office?

Ouch, this sound pretty painful and the boss has only asked a question. But the impact of such a question can be quite frightening when it lacks any context - or our relationship with the person is not in a good place. I remember being asked this very question by a boss of mine nearly 20 years ago. We weren't getting on at all, we rarely agreed on anything (well, my ego wouldn't let me agree with her because we were scoring points against each other - a subject for another time). As I walked to her office which was only 30 yards away, I quickly started to recount all of the petty squabbling, arguments and 'spirited discussions' we had enjoyed during the previous 12 months. Oh, and there were many hum dingers! I was ready for a verbal slanging match, after all, I had reached the level of conscious competence at least as I had practiced so often with her. Sorry, conscious competence is my current justification for being 'rather stupid' at that point and it's not something I was proud of.

The rather unexpected surprise was that my boss had recommended me for a promotion and the Managing Director had approved her recommendation. I was to start my new role, with a new pay rise (and even my own parking space - result!) in 4 weeks time.

The ego had landed
What happened to my 'fighting my corner'?, well, it fell away. Apparently, when done properly, my boss actually appreciated my candid feedback. While my intention was to help, she stated that my impact was sometimes poor at best...and that was something I should work on improving in the future. What happened? I accepted her feedback BECAUSE she was in her own way, trying to help me - not beat or punish me. One major problem with giving and receiving feedback in the workplace is getting the ego out of the way. Switching off for a few minutes from the 'I'm right and you're wrong' and 'I'm the boss and you'll do as you're told' toxic rubbish that kills authentic, candid, well-intentioned dialogue. As Thomas Moore wrote 'We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like a simple, obvious suggestion but it involves courage and risk.'

May I speak with your manager for a moment please?

During a recent trip to the Kingdom of Bahrain I decided to visit a shopping mall which hosted an abundance of eateries for lunch. Each outlet had a female 'greeter' standing just inside and in view of passing shoppers. One person I notice immediately was a lady named Elisabeth. Her smile appeared genuine, her welcome was warm and she invited me to choose where I would like to 'enjoy lunch'. She subtly invited her colleague Mary to come to my table and take a drinks order. Again, smiling, both ladies just started guessing with each other which country I was from. This is right in front of me, within hearing distance. 'Oh no, he's not American, he's too skinny'. 'He can't be French, his skin is sooo pale'. All very strange but also very entertaining for me as a customer. They eventually guessed correctly and from this moment on, when they returned to my table, it was like a chat with friends rather than lunch with waiting staff. While 'enjoying' my lunch I noticed that a rather stern faced and official looking gentleman, who appeared to be their boss circled like a vulture around the restaurant, picking and picking at tiny bits of detail that his very low-paid and rather wonderful waiting staff needed to fix. When he appeared, there was a very quick and very noticeable shift in the emotional temperature of the waiting staff. So, me being me - I took this as a learning opportunity to share some feedback with the manager. Rather worryingly, when I asked Elisabeth if she would be so kind as to ask her manager to visit me she responded sharply 'Have I done something wrong sir?''No, just come back with him and Mary and we can have a chat.' I responded.

A few minutes later, the manager, straightening his already straight tie and smoothing down his already smooth suit approached my table. I was about to introduce myself and launch into my feedback but he beat me to it. 'Sir, I am sorry that you are not satisfied with your visit today. It is not acceptable that..(I interject) May I interrupt you, as Elisabeth and Mary are looking really worried behind you and I'd like you personally as manager to hear my feedback. Is this ok with you? Fear now began to grow in his face too. Is this the law of reciprocity returning to bite him on the behind?? 'Look, I want you to know that Elisabeth and Mary have done a wonderful job of first of all, getting me to visit your outlet and secondly, they have looked after me so well I wanted to let you, the manager know. (Now, his fear is disappearing but he's still a little/or a lot, confused). These two ladies are a real credit to you and your company. Please bring me two customer feedback forms and I will send them to your head office.' By this point he has offered me a complimentary drink, and given me his business card so that maybe I can mention him to his head office (not a chance).

So, when you wish to give someone feedback, get your intention right, focus on what is the outcome you wish to achieve - hopefully win-win to strengthen your relationship, and don't think automatically it will go badly wrong. Just as the manager of the restaurant seemed to expect a verbal slap from a customer, he wasn't open to achieving a very positive outcome. Make sure that you are!

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