Over the past several years beginning with my work for my first book, Practical Lessons in Leadership, with my co-author, Rich Petro, I’ve made a professional hobby out of exploring the fascinating and very real fear that so many people have for delivering constructive feedback. And yes, the word constructive is a euphemism for negative. These are the difficult discussions that managers know they need to have but avoid with incredible effectiveness.

One of my favorite interviews for the book was with a retired CEO who when I posed the question on whether he had any regrets, without hesitating, responded: “I really regret that I never learned how to have the tough discussions with the people that worked for me.”  He quickly added, “To this day, I wonder how much money that I cost my companies.”

Don’t let this regret over not delivering constructive feedback be your epitaph on your career as a manager.

As I’ve moved several years beyond the work for the book, I continue to poll and survey various professional groups. And while my approach on this topic would not qualify as a formally designed study, I’m pretty comfortable extrapolating the results to the broader population. As of this update in 2017, my informal sample size is approaching 3,000 people from all types of organizations and at all levels of leadership.

The Feedback on Feedback:

  • A majority of respondents indicate never receiving any formal training on feedback.
  • A majority of experienced managers answering my anonymous surveys describe delivering negative feedback as one of their major weaknesses.
  • Most leaders are not evaluated on their feedback skills and effectiveness.
  • A majority of respondents indicate that they frequently delay delivering tough feedback. The exception is for situations where safety or security are involved.
  • A majority of respondents indicate that they feel better about delivering constructive feedback if they deliver praise at the same time.  (Note: this sugarcoating or sandwiching is one of my pet peeves.  For anyone interested, check out my most controversial post: “Why I Hate the Sandwich Technique for Delivering Feedback.”
  • And in a carry over from the earliest surveys on this topic, a gross majority of respondents indicate that they wish their managers were better at delivering feedback.

I’ve expanded my inquiries on feedback to the world of informal leaders (Project Managers in particular), and the feedback on feedback here is equally challenging.  These professionals are definitely not trained on feedback, and they clearly recognize the impact that their lack of comfort with this tool has on their ability to deal with troubled project teams.

And finally, with a keen eye and ear for the “F” issue inside organizations, when I am called upon to help struggling firms and teams with strategy or other performance issues, it is a safe bet that the feedback culture is unhealthy. Discussions may be collegial, but they don’t focus on the real performance issues of people and teams.

Why Do We Fear Delivering Constructive Feedback?

Marshall Goldsmith offers up a great perspective (I paraphrase): There’s only two things wrong with providing successful people with feedback. They don’t want to hear it from us and we don’t want to give it to them.

It’s a human thing.

We fear negative reactions.

We are overly concerned that people won’t like us if we criticize them.

My CEO example described earlier was worried that he would create a negative working environment, and he didn’t want to damage whatever team and one on one credibility existed in that environment.

The fears are all understandable. I suspect that everyone one of us can empathize with the source of those fears.  We just need to move beyond them.

Recognize the Performance Enhancing Power of Feedback:

Image of performance meterThere are no silver bullets in leadership, but feedback comes darned close. Used properly, this is the leader’s most powerful tool for promoting and strengthening positive behavior and for identifying and improving less than desirable behaviors.

High quality professionals…the type you want to surround yourself with, want and appreciate effective feedback.  For teams and individuals that perform at acceptable levels, feedback can help them move from good to great.

Feedback as Ken Blanchard says, “Is the Breakfast of Champions.”

Conquering the Fear and Cultivating Your Feedback Skills:

My own experience training hundreds on this topic has shown that once people understand the power of this leadership tool, mastering it includes:

  • Learning to construct complete, behaviorally-focused and business-oriented feedback messages.
  • Learning to deliver these messages in a frank, respectful and effective (concise, timely, brief) manner.
  • Understanding how to manage even the toughest of discussions.
  • Setting the stage for active coaching and more feedback on the behaviors in question.
  • Practicing using a “system” that incorporates all of the above. Practice, and more practice, and then some more.  Of course, the gross majority of the practice is in a live fire setting.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This most difficult of human interactions in the workplace is also one of the most important.  The fear, much like the fear of public speaking is mostly in our minds, and with some deliberate practice, all of us are capable of improving our skills, and as a result, improving our performance, the performance of our teams and of our organizations.

It’s time to move beyond the fear.

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Related: Overcoming Your Discomfort of Delivering Feedback (includes links to my series of articles on How to Deliver Feedback)

Leadership Books by Art Petty