Why is it that feedback conversations are so hard to have?

The minute we mention feedback, it often feels like the wall comes up, the receiver of the feedback braces themselves for what’s about to come next, and they instantly go into defensive mode. The person providing the feedback tries to deliver the feedback, trying to soften the message so as not to hurt the feelings of the feedback receiver; sometimes confusing them and coming across as vague because they end up diluting the message. When we talk about feedback in the workplace, people often associate feedback with being negative, that feedback is about having done something wrong. Or we talk about good and bad or positive and negative feedback when really, feedback is just feedback.

Without feedback, we can’t have growth, development or improvement. How do we get better at something, hone our skills, and become the best versions of ourselves if people aren’t willing to give us feedback along the way?

When we were kids and we were learning to tie our shoelaces or learning to ride a bike, we were given lots of feedback on how to do it, how to get better at doing it and we didn’t have a problem with receiving that feedback because we wanted to get better at tying our shoelaces or riding our bike. Yet, sometimes it feels like as we’ve entered adulthood and the workforce, our openness and receptiveness to feedback has disappeared.

Being able to give and receive feedback is critical for success if we are going to be effective team members. Our teams need to be able to give and receive feedback from each other if we have any chance of being a high-performing team. And no, feedback is not simply the manager’s job to give. Our team’s effectiveness in being able to have feedback conversations directly impacts the culture of the team and can make or break a team. If we have a team that for whatever reason can’t give each other feedback we end up with a toxic culture; people start to bitch about team members to other team members, cliquey groups appear and we don’t have honest and genuine conversations.

In my experience, from the teams I have led and the clients I have worked with, the key reasons people don’t want to provide another team member with feedback are:

  • They don’t want to upset / offend / hurt the person they are providing the feedback to; they want to keep the peace and/or harmony, or;
  • They don’t think the person will receive the feedback well; either the receiver will be dismissive of it or will retaliate, and the person providing the feedback wants to avoid confrontation and conflict.

There have been many times when I have wimped out of having a feedback conversation for fear of the above reasons. Sometimes I’ve thought I simply can’t be bothered having that feedback conversation because I can’t be bothered putting up with the silent treatment or the sulking of the person I have delivered the feedback to. And every time I have wimped out, the situation has come back to bite me because it is so much harder to have that feedback conversation after you have allowed the behaviour or performance to occur over a period of time.

Sometimes I think that people think because you are a manager it’s your job to deliver all the feedback and that it’s easy for you. Or that because of your personality or behavioural style that you find it easy to deliver feedback. I can honestly say that after all my years in leading and managing teams, some feedback conversations are still difficult to have and I still get nervous about having them. Practice helps, and the more I have these conversations the more I learn from them and what to do differently next time.

My 5 top tips for having feedback conversations – which I’ve mostly learnt from stuffing them up are:

  • The conversation goes much better when I have planned it rather than winging it, even though I’m more of a wing-it type person than a planner. Invest the time to plan the conversation.
  • Consider and choose your words carefully; how you deliver the message can impact the response. Consider the words you use, the tone of how you say them and your body language. Impact vs Intent.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of delivering feedback to someone on behalf of someone else because they don’t want to or won’t do it. Every time I have been sucked into doing this it backfires. Instead, focus your energies on coaching, mentoring and supporting that team member on how to have the conversation.
  • In the majority of cases, the conversation actually goes better than the scenarios I have concocted up in my mind about what might play out. There is planning but there is also procrastinating. Plan, but don’t procrastinate on having the conversation. The longer I procrastinate the greater the chance of chickening out, and feedback is better in the moment – definitely not months later at an annual review.
  • The hardest bit; take the emotion out of it. It’s not personal, it’s not about being good or bad feedback or how much you like the person or about trying not to offend them. You are providing this team member with an opportunity; an opportunity to grow. If they choose not to hear the feedback, that’s on them, not you (assuming you have appropriately delivered the feedback).

Earlier this year our Inspire HQ team held a strategy session, which was facilitated by Jason Cunningham from The Practice, where we revisited our Why, Mission and Values and focused on our culture. One of the outcomes was that we created 3 Habits that we are going to live by at Inspire HQ. Habit 3 is Feedback. With values like No Bullshit and Being Great together, being able to have feedback conversations in our team is pretty important to us. However, we are just like every other team and struggle to do this at times. Jason took us through three questions to ask ourselves when it comes to having a feedback conversation – kind of like a mini checklist:

  1. Can I back it up (evidence)?
  2. Do I mean it?
  3. Is it coming from a good place?

When we can tick off each of these questions, we know we are well-positioned to have the feedback conversation.

Given that feedback is such a hot topic and so many workplaces struggle with it, I’d love to hear your approach and what has worked (as well as what hasn’t worked) in your workplace to foster a culture of feedback.

About The Author
Ange Connor

Ange is the Founder and Director of Inspire HQ, one of regional Victoria’s leading recruitment, human resource (HR) and careers agencies. Ange is an ‘ideas’ person and a ‘big picture’ thinker. She loves to challenge the status quo – in fact, that’s how Inspire HQ began.

Ange has supported hundreds of businesses across Ballarat and regional Victoria to attract, engage, motivate, develop and retain their greatest assets; their people. Ange’s unyielding passion and invaluable knowledge of the recruitment and HR industry ensures she delivers the best solutions for her clients.

Ange has held various board positions and regularly volunteers her time to share her industry and market knowledge. She was recently a Councillor for the Victoria and Tasmania region of the Recruitment Consulting and Staffing Association (RCSA) of Australia and New Zealand, and she is a current Board Director of the Committee for Ballarat.

For more useful information, follow Ange on LinkedIn.

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