By: Michael Bungay Stangier
Asking for feedback shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing, as it shows an employee is engaged and looking for constructive criticism. Unfortunately, many people struggle to really understand how to effectively give (and receive) feedback.
For many years, we’ve served (or been fed) the feedback sandwich whereby the giver offers up complimentary feedback first, then inserts the real issue needing to be addressed, then ends with another compliment. Voilà! The feedback sandwich.
The compliments are meant to soften the blow of the criticism and the hope is that the receiver will be less defensive, and therefore more receptive, and will still walk away feeling valuable. While the idea behind this seems like a good one, the leadership community has come to discover that this approach simply doesn’t work.
Why the Sandwich Approach Doesn’t Work
The feedback sandwich isn’t a secret tactic — we’ve all encountered it. So we tend to brace ourselves for the negative middle part of the conversation. Which means that when you’re the giver, your compliment may not help the receiver, since they are aware that the middle part is really the crux of the matter.
Or the opposite happens, your double compliments drown out the negative. It’s generally easiest to remember the beginning and the end of a conversation, and if those parts are positive, the criticism may become lost and the feedback, pointless.
I once had somebody on my team that wasn’t exactly doing a bad job, but she was slightly off track — she had started one degree off but as we went along, the gap between where I needed her to be and where she was was getting bigger and bigger. I really liked her though and I wasn’t sure how to give her proper feedback.
I am quick to talk and throw out ideas and info, and she was introverted and didn’t always process info as quickly as I was throwing it out, which would sometimes result in a crash of a conversation. She’d get quiet and then I’d talk too much.
I spent two weeks being anxious and trying to find the best way to give her feedback and then when I finally did it, it went horribly. I talked too much and she freaked out quietly.
If you’ve ever had a moment like this, you’ll likely agree that there must be a better way to give feedback — how can we spend less time worrying about giving feedback and then actually give it properly instead of crashing and burning like I did?
How Our Brains React to Feedback
You’ve probably heard that our brain is constantly scanning the environment around us to determine whether it is safe. Naturally, it likes safe. That’s when it operates the best, efficiently managing whatever situation we’re in. It’s easier to assume positive intent of those around us and to be engaged when we don’t feel fear.
However, when our brain senses danger, the infamous fight-or-flight response kicks in. We assume others are against us, and we become less open to the situation laid before us.
To put this all into context, if your employee feels like they are being attacked, they’ll get defensive. Therein lies the obvious challenge for you as a manager looking to provide them with feedback. You want your team to feel safe, not threatened — and you yourself need to feel the same way in order to stay engaged.
Help the Receiver (and Their Brain) Feel Safe
Four drivers impact how the brain reacts to a situation: tribe, expectation, rank and autonomy — TERA for short. When it comes to giving feedback, your main job is to increase the TERA quotient as much as possible.
You can increase the tribe-ness of any situation by helping your employee feel that you aren’t against them. If they feel that you’re not on their side, the TERA quotient will decrease.
Be clear on your expectations by explaining upfront what the employee can anticipate from the discussion. This reduces the danger of the situation for them and helps prevent them from going into fight-or-flight mode as their brain tries to figure out what is coming next.
It’s important to understand that your rank affects how your feedback is received. No matter your title or theirs, be careful with how power is placed in the room. If you diminish someone’s status by overemphasizing your authority, the room will feel less safe for them.
Nobody likes to feel that they have no say in a conversation — after all, that would make it a lecture rather than a two-way discussion. If you leave room for choice, and therefore autonomy, your employee is more likely to be engaged.
Now that you know how to increase the TERA quotient, consider these ideas when it comes to the actual feedback you want to give.
Feedback is all about self-awareness, preparation and delivery. Customize it. Vague and general feedback doesn’t help anyone. Really take the time to think about what feedback will be most useful for whom. Not only will this make the discussion more worthwhile, but it will help the recipient see that you care about their performance specifically.
Focus on one big point. It’s easy for both sides to get lost if you’re bringing up a bunch of little things. If you raise one point of discussion, the conversation will feel more constructive and be easier for the receiver to understand.
When it comes to receiving feedback, no matter from whom, try to assume positive intent. That is, when someone gives you feedback, assume it’s because they are trying to help and genuinely want to provide constructive suggestions that will improve your work.
Consider feedback as a gift. Your manager or coworker cares about your professional development and are offering ideas to help you succeed in your role. If you remember that, you’ll be happy to receive it, even when it’s a little critical.
About Michael Bungay Stanier
Author of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work.
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