Want to know why people get defensive when you give feedback and why they often don’t change their behavior? Because what you’re giving them isn’t actually feedback.
“You’re awesome to work with” isn’t feedback. Neither is “You did a great job.” “Your work isn’t thorough” isn’t either. Neither is, “You were inappropriate.”
Most of what we consider feedback isn’t feedback at all. It’s vague, unhelpful language that leaves people wondering what they need to do more, better, or differently.
There are only two reasons to give feedback – to encourage someone to either change or replicate a behavior. Unfortunately, most of the ‘information’ we give is too vague to help people do either.
When you coach or give feedback, you serve as someone’s GPS. Like the GPS on your phone, you need to be so specific the person knows precisely what to change or replicate. If you were driving and your GPS said, “Good job” or “I think you’re off track,” you’d throw the GPS out the window and get a map.
If you give someone what you consider feedback and he says, “I don’t know what you mean, can I have an example?” you’ll know you weren’t helpful.
Here are six tips for giving helpful feedback:
Giving feedback tip one: Write down what you plan to say, then strip out half the words. Shorter feedback with fewer words is better.
Giving feedback tip two: Practice what you plan to say out loud. Have you noticed that what you ‘practice’ in your head is typically not what comes out of your mouth?
Giving feedback tip three: Before having the ‘real’ conversations, give the feedback to an independent, third-party and ask her to tell you what she heard. Ensure who you talk with will maintain confidentiality. Your organization doesn’t need more gossip.
Giving feedback tip four: Tell someone else about the conversation you need to have, and ask him what he would say. Anyone not emotionally involved in the situation will do a better job than you will. Again, ensure confidentiality.
Giving feedback tip five: Ask the feedback recipient what he heard you say. Asking, “Does that make sense?” is an ineffective question. “Do you have any questions?” isn’t any better.
Giving feedback tip six: Give one to three examples of what the person did or didn’t do, during the conversation. If you don’t have an example, you’re not ready to provide feedback, and anything you say will evoke defensiveness rather than behavior change.
Giving feedback doesn’t have to be so hard. Be so specific that your feedback could be used as driving directions. The purpose of feedback is to be helpful.
The most frequent question I’m getting these days is how to manage business relationships (specifically employees) remotely. A future tip and blog are dedicated to this, but I’ll give you the short answer now – talk to people. Pick up the phone. You don’t need to have video calls if you don’t want to. Showering is a personal choice. You just need to talk to people.
People need human contact. We even need to connect with the people we don’t like – when we work for and with them. Text and email don’t replace talking to people.
We stopped talking to each other long before we all began
working from home. Email has been
overused for years. We email the people we sit next to at work. We exchange 20
emails on one topic rather than picking up the phone. We ask permission to call
our friends to catch up. Texting to ask, “Is it ok if I call tomorrow morning?”
is the norm. We’ll exchange 50 texts to determine where and when to meet for
Maybe people thinking email and texting is easier, less intrusive,
faster. Less intrusive, yes. Easier, sometimes. Faster, no.
Call the people you work with. Ask for the best time to call, if you like. Check-in on them. Ask how they’re doing. Yes, there may be a crying child or a barking dog in the background. It’s ok. Calls don’t have to be long. People just need contact. They need to know that you care and are ‘in it’ with them. And while you’re on the phone, get questions answered in five minutes rather than with 25 emails.
Many organizations spend more money than they have to on employee recognition gifts and appreciation programs that often involve bonuses, paid time off, contests, gifts, and other expensive forms of compensation. What employees want most is to know they’re doing a good job.
Giving feedback in the workplace is the cheapest, most effective, and often overlooked form of employee recognition. Employees want to know how they’re performing, and most employees get little to no positive or negative feedback at work. They may not want to hear negative feedback, but employees want to know if they aren’t meeting expectations.
In several of Candid Culture’s training programs, I give participants a box of questions to help coworkers set expectations and improve workplace communication. Some of the questions include:
Do you prefer to receive information via email, voicemail, or text message?
Are you a big picture or a detail-oriented person?
What are your pet peeves at work?
What type of work do you like to do the most? What type of work do you like to do the least?
What do you wish I would start, stop, and continue doing?
Participants use the questions during the training, and I am consistently amazed at how often training participants ask what their coworkers wish they would start, stop and continue doing. I assume employees will be hesitant to ask for feedback in front of a group of peers. But training participants consistently tell me that they get almost no feedback at work, and they’re desperate for the information.
Here’s How to Celebrate Valentine’s Day at Work Without Spending Money:
Give clear, specific, and timely positive and negative feedback. Employees want to know how they’re performing.
Ask what type of work employees really want to do, and let them do that work most of the time.
Ask what skills employees want to learn, and give them a chance to attain those skills.
Write handwritten notes of appreciation.
Employees at Candid Culture get their birthdays off paid. We often buy employees lunch, give bonuses, and have a generous time-off policy. Those perks are important and do help retain employees. But monetary rewards never replace or supersede the value of being aware of employees’ performance and caring enough to tell employees the truth.
Most of us grapple with whether or not we should give feedback when someone else does or says something frustrating.
Here are a few criteria to help you decide whether or not you should give feedback or say nothing:
Do you have a relationship with the person? Do you know each other well enough to share your opinion? Aka, have you earned the right?
Has the other person requested your opinion? Unsolicited feedback is not typically received well.
If the other person has not requested your opinion, does he appear open to hearing feedback?
Are you trying to make a difference for the other person or just make him look or feel bad?
Do you want to strengthen the relationship?
Before you give feedback, do something I call, ‘check your motives at the door.’ If your motives are pure – you want to strengthen the person or the relationship, and you have a good enough relationship that you’ve earned the right to speak up — then do it.
People are more open to feedback when they trust our motives. If we have a good relationship with the person and he knows we’re speaking up to make a difference for him or for the relationship, you’ll be able to say way more than if your motives are questionable – aka you want to be right.
Employees are often afraid of the most senior people in organizations, simply because of their titles. The better the title, the scarier people are. And if employees are scared of organizational leaders, they’re not going to give those leaders negative feedback. The most senior people in an organization get the least information of anyone.
No one likes to be told that he is wrong. Negative feedback tells the person he did something wrong. But there is more than one way to give feedback. Asking questions can be equally as effective as giving direct feedback.
If you want to give a senior person negative feedback, but you’re afraid of the consequences, manage up by asking more and saying less.
Here are some ways to manage up by asking questions:
Rather than saying, “I disagree, I think you’re wrong, or this is a mistake,” consider managing up by asking questions like:
We’ve chosen to invest a lot in this software. I wasn’t here when the software was chosen. What’s the history of this initiative?
What were the criteria for selection?
What are you concerned about?
What are you satisfied with?
What else have we tried?
What are your thoughts about…?
What if we tried…?
Asking questions gets the person involved in a discussion, during which you can eventually express your point of view. When you ask questions, you say very little, and definitely don’t call the person’s decision-making into question.
Human beings are wired for survival. Receiving negative feedback kicks the need to defend oneself into gear, hence why people become defensive when they receive negative feedback. Negative feedback calls survival into question. If you don’t want people to become defensive, don’t require them to defend themselves. A discussion, during which you ask questions, is much less threatening than overtly disagreeing with someone’s point of view.
Asking questions takes more time and more patience than giving direct feedback. But it also takes less courage, and the quality of your relationship doesn’t have to be as good. You need a pretty good relationship to give direct feedback. If you don’t have that relationship, manage up by asking questions instead of being so direct.
If you do choose to ask questions, watch your tone. If you can safely add the words “you dummy” to a question, you aren’t really asking a question, you’re giving feedback, which is likely to evoke the defensive response you’re seeking to avoid.
It’s important to be able to express your point-of-view at work. Staying in a job or organization in which you can’t speak up, doesn’t feel great and doesn’t leverage the best of what you have to offer. But if you’re concerned about giving direct feedback, manage up by asking questions. Say less. Ask more.
You’ve heard countless times that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. So when something not-so-positive happens – a customer is upset, you missed a deadline, or made an error – don’t let your boss find out about it from someone else. Manage your professional reputation and get there first to create the first impression of what happened.
Managers don’t like surprises. If your manager is going to get a call about something that isn’t positive, let her know before the call comes in. You will create her perception of the situation, and perceptions are hard to change. Don’t wait for the s*** to hit the fan. Get ahead of the problem by coming forward and giving your manager and other stakeholders a heads up.
It could sound something like this, “I just had a tough conversation with John in IT. You may get a call. Here’s what happened… I didn’t want you to be surprised.”
Or, “I told Brian at Intellitec that we’re raising our prices in the second quarter. He wasn’t happy. You may get a call.”
Or let’s say you’re going to work on a strained relationship. Tell your manager before you take action. It could sound something like this, “I want to work on my relationship with Julie. Our relationship has been strained since we worked together on the software project last year. I’d like to approach her, tell her that I know our relationship is strained, and that I’d like a good working relationship with her. Then I’d like to ask if she’s willing to have lunch with me, talk about what’s happened, and see if we can start again in a more positive way. What do you think of me doing that? Would you approach the conversation differently? I don’t know how it’s going to go, so I wanted you to know what I’m planning to do, just in case it backfires and you get a call.”
Manage your professional reputation assertively by taking responsibility for mistakes, working on damaged relationships, and telling your manager before someone else does!
No one likes to make mistakes. We want to do good work and have people think well of us.
The key to maintaining your relationships and reputation, when you make a mistake, is to take responsibility and make things right as soon as possible. Saying something wasn’t your fault or becoming defensive will only damage your reputation and relationships. As counterintuitive as it sounds, you will gain respect and credibility by admitting fault and correcting problems.
I often get asked if people lose credibility by being humble – asking for feedback and admitting to making mistakes. It takes strength to ask for and be open to feedback and to admit when you drop the ball. So while it may seem counterintuitive, the more you ask for and respond to feedback, and admit when you make mistakes, the stronger you will appear.
I made a mistake at work. Now what?
When you make a mistake say something like:
“I dropped the ball on that. I apologize. I’ll fix it and let you know when it’s been handled.”
Or, “Thank you for the feedback. This clearly didn’t go as planned. I’ll make those changes and let you know when they’re done.”
Also, let people know the steps you’ll take to avoid similar challenges in the future.
You could say something like:
“Thanks for letting me know that our process is causing your department challenges. We certainly want the process to be smooth. My team will fix this month’s report, so your team doesn’t have to invest more time. We’ll update the process for next month and walk you through the changes before the report is due.”
Don’t provide a bunch of reasons for breakdowns. No one cares. Telling people why something occurred can sound like excuse management. People just want to know things will be made right.
Asking for feedback, taking responsibility, and telling people how you will correct errors may not be your natural or first reaction. The more you can train yourself to do these things, the easier you will be to work with and the better your reputation and business relationships will be.
The people you work with want to do a good job. They want you to think well of them. Yes, even the people you think do little work. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume people are doing the best they know how to do. And when you don’t get what you want, make requests.
Version one: “You did this thing and here’s why it’s a problem.”
The other way is less direct. Rather than telling the person what went wrong, simply make a request.
Version two: “Will you…” Or, “It would be helpful to get this report on Mondays instead of Wednesday. Are you able to do that?”
It’s very difficult to give feedback directly without the other person feeling judged. Making a request is much more neutral than giving direct feedback, doesn’t evoke as much defensiveness, and achieves the same result. You still get what you want.
When I teach giving feedback, I often give the example of asking a waitstaff in a restaurant for ketchup. Let’s say your waiter comes to your table to ask how your food is and your table doesn’t have any ketchup.
Option one: Give direct feedback. “Our table doesn’t have any ketchup.”
Option two: Make a request. “Can we get some ketchup?”
Both methods achieve the desired result. Option one overtly tells the waiter, “You’re not doing your job.” Option two still tells the waiter he isn’t doing his job, but the method is more subtle and thus is less likely to put him on the defensive.
You are always dealing with people’s egos. And when egos get bruised, defenses rise. When defenses rise, it’s hard to have a productive conversation. People stop listening and start defending themselves. Defending oneself is a normal and natural reaction to negative feedback. It’s a survival instinct.
You’re more likely to get what you want from others when they don’t feel attacked and don’t feel the need to defend themselves. Consider simply asking for what you want rather than telling people what they’re doing wrong, and see what happens.
I will admit, asking for what you want in a neutral and non-judgmental way when you’re frustrated is very hard to do. The antidote is to anticipate your needs and ask for what you want at the onset of anything new. And when things go awry, wait until you’re not upset to make a request. If you are critical, apologize and promise to do better next time. It’s all trial and error.
Concerned about something happening in your workplace? Don’t just tell someone about the problem, propose a solution. It’s fine to raise challenges. It’s better to raise challenges you’re willing to do something about. If you think two departments don’t talk to each other, bring them together. If you think a process is inefficient, propose a different way to get the work done. If you’re dissatisfied with software you’re using, offer to source three potential vendors and set up a demo. You’re doing the legwork and asking for a small investment of time.
When we ask for something at work, our request often requires time, money, or both. Thus when an employee asks for something, it’s easier for a manager to say no than it is to say yes. “No” requires no work and no financial outlay. A “yes” may require both.
You make it easy to say yes to requests when you’re acting as a change agent:
Propose a solution to a problem.
Offer to do the work to solve the problem.
Ask for small things that are easy to approve.
If you’re overwhelmed and want to hire an additional person, but your boss isn’t convinced you need the headcount, ask for a temp for a finite number of hours. It’s much easier for a manager to say yes to a small and known investment amount than to the long-term commitment of hiring someone new. The point is to ask for something that is easy for your manager to approve.
The word “pilot” is your friend. If you want to make a major change, pilot a scaled down version of your proposed solution in one or two locations, rather than in your organization’s 10 locations. Again, asking for something small makes it more likely that you’ll be told yes.
The bottom line is to be part of the solution – as trite and overused as that phrase is. Don’t be the person who says, “That’s broken” without also saying, “and here’s how we can fix it. Can I give it a try?”
Vague communication is unhelpful. Being vague instills doubt in the people around you and reduces your credibility.
When a customer service agent answers my questions with words like, “That sounds right, I think so, or that should work,” I hang up and call back, hoping to get someone who can give me an affirmative answer. People do this to you, too…they just don’t tell you about it.
Watch your language. If the answer is yes, say “Yes.” If the answer is no, say “No.” “I think so,” says neither yes nor no. Saying, “I think so” tells people you don’t really know.
A few phrases to avoid and what to say instead:
Avoid: “That should be done by Friday.”
Instead, be specific and give a final date. “That will be complete by Friday. If I can’t get it done by Friday, I’ll call you to let you know by 5:00 pm on Thursday.”
Avoid: “Sounds right.”
Instead, be specific and say, “That’s correct.”
Avoid: “We should be able to do that.”
Instead, be specific and say, “We can do that.”
Avoid: “I guess.”
Instead, be specific and say, “Yes” or “No.”
When I teach feedback training, the biggest thing training participants struggle with is specificity. “You’re difficult to work with.” “Your clothing is inappropriate.” “I just find you to be negative.” “You did a good job on that.” “It’s a pleasure to have you on the team.” All of this is vague and thus unhelpful to the feedback recipient. And the same is true when answering questions and making promises.
Tell people exactly what to expect. Be specific. Even if they don’t like your answer, they’ll be happy to have a clear answer.