Having worked with hundreds of managers and their staff to develop a coaching culture within organisations, we have come to the conclusion that you will have difficulty creating a productive and engaged coaching culture without having an equally active feedback culture.
In many cases, unless feedback becomes the norm there is a ‘coaching void’ i.e. staff don’t seek their manager in order to explore ways to improve their performance because they can’t always see what it is that would be useful for the to improve. Secondly there is a ‘trust-gap’ between manager and staff member as the manager hasn’t yet proved a real interest in developing the employee’s capability, often made worse by appraisal systems that appear to assess rather than develop which makes it better for employees to ‘hide their gaps’ to maintain a rating rather than have an open relationship with their manager founded on development and trust.
But feedback often flounders too, when culturally it hits roadblocks. Roadblocks such as the ‘upward-feedback stop sign’ when it’s not career safe to give feedback to anyone seen as more senior to you. Or ‘don’t rock the boat sideways no-go’ on which 360 systems falter in peer to peer feedback because nobody wants to say anything ‘bad’ about a colleague in case they reciprocate when it’s your turn or get upset that you said something that their manager/career panel will read.
And of course there’s the ‘what’s the point if nothing changes dead-end’ of feedback where people stop trying to give feedback sideways or upwards because they don’t think it is listened to. It’s this one we will address here.
The thing about feedback is that the giver needs to be clear about their expectations of giving it. We hope that people on our programmes give feedback as a gift, purely with a desire to help others improve, but I recognise that it’s more complicated than that as people, their biases and their emotions are also complicated.
So we suggest that givers of feedback consider their expectations in different levels as part of their planning of what, where, when and how to say it.
Level 1) It got it off my chest
Sometimes giving feedback is necessary because something happened that affected you and the other person needs to know that e.g. not meeting an agreed deadline meant that you had to work all weekend to meet yours, or the way they spoke to you/over you/about you in a public meeting was embarrassing to you. So yes, sometimes you need to get something off your chest and your expectations should really be no more than that i.e ‘I can forget it and move on now’.
Level 2) I don’t know if they know this
In some cases someone has a minor habit or tendency that isn’t serious or career or relationship threatening but it tends to get in their way now and again. This is a real ‘gift’ situation and you are telling them in case they really didn’t know. Whether they do anything or not doesn’t matter to you, you are just being supportive. So you go in with no great expectation and rightly so.
Level 3) This is a career blocker
In this case, whilst the feedback is still a gift, it’s something that will get in the way of their performance, promotion possibilities or relationships if it doesn’t change. The thing about this feedback is that in the givers mind this is something that really needs to change but the receiver might not see it that way. In fact, if this is the first time they have heard the feedback it may be that they write it off as irrelevant. In this case the feedback giver has to remember that their feedback is a gift not an instruction and accept that they have done their bit in the sprit of trying to help.
Level 4) They need to keep hearing this.
In my career as a coach I have heard many times the words ‘I’ve heard this so often that I really need to do something about it’. It’s often agonisingly late in their career and the damage has often been done with their reputation firmly fixed. This is where level 4 expectations comes in. You might have given this feedback before and nothing happened. Or your colleagues have with the same result. It’s all too easy to say ‘why should I bother?’. Well the thing about blind spots is that they are blind. They are not ‘just on the edge of sight’ spots or ‘ignoring it in the moment’ spots, they are something we just don’t see. They are often founded in our biases or our behaviours and that means the blindspot is natural to who we are i.e we don’t mean to do it, it’s just normal or even right for us. In this case it takes more than one instance of feedback to bring the blind spot into focus. People need to hear the same thing multiple times before they begin to question themselves. Often the first response is a simple ‘Really? No, can’t be true’, the second and the third is the same with sometimes even the fourth or fifth before they get ‘sick of hearing this’. After the sixth or seventh time the response might be ‘I wish they would just stop saying that’ and then, finally, after eight, nine or ten times it hits the ‘point of realisation’ that there ‘might be something in it’.
So the fourth level is where the empathetic feedback giver lives. Hanging in, giving the feedback gently and often couched as ‘ I know I’ve given you this feedback before, but in Xx situation at YY time, it happened again so I’m only telling you again to help you’.
Level 5) Opening up communication
When feedback has moved to the point that the receiver is getting frequent signals that the problem isn’t helping them it can be possible the giver of feedback can move beyond the re-signalling of the problem but be opening the possibility that they can help and are available to talk the problem through I.e. Moving into Coach or mentor mode. This great support approach also reinforces the connection between feedback and coaching culturally rather than feedback being a problem the individual needs to deal with on their own.
At this point the giver of feedback is doing so with a real expectation and understanding that something can change, so is really the first level where the giver should look for their feedback to make significant difference.
Level 6) Terminal
At this level the individual has done something so heinous that you are well within your rights to expect it never to happen again. And when you look at it that way, there can never be that many things that happen in the workplace that hit this level without being one step away from the kind of thing that you need to go to your HR professional about. This is hopefully abnormal in any work situation so in many ways sits outside the level of expectations ladder as a stage all on its own.
So this isn’t that someone changed your work, didn’t deliver on time, doesn’t understand you or some of the many things that I often hear are reasons to give up on giving feedback because ‘nothing changed’.
As a giver of feedback, try living in the world of it being a gift, an aid to developing a colleague and support for someone who for the most part does well, but has a foible because that’s where most feedback lives. If you are expecting more then you might want to look at those expectations, explore your own biases and behaviour first and see if you are just expecting someone to be like you or have strong ‘shouldness’ that expects a degree of perfection in the world or others that is perhaps unreasonable. After all, its up to the individual to change, we can’t change them, only ourselves.