Time to re-wrap the “gift” of feedback
12th November 2021
I vividly recall an experience I had many years ago when, in a meeting with several participants, a senior manager suddenly looked at me and said, “I want to give you some feedback”. I cannot remember what I said in response, but what is still with me is the memory of how uncomfortable I felt. Needless to say her feedback was critical. I had said something that she took objection to!
Admittedly, there were other people present which did not help the situation. It certainly added to the discomfort I felt. But I am not so sure this is the real reason I felt so uncomfortable. There is something else that I would like to explore that I think is still impacting the way so many people in our organisations experience feedback.
We must be honest. Very few organisations have managed to crack the feedback conundrum! Countless hours have been spent on management and leadership development programmes training participants on the best way to give feedback. We consultants have developed various models and invented acronyms to supposedly help us. We have been encouraged to position feedback as a “gift”, but as I said when introducing a webinar on the topic for one of our clients, if feedback is a gift, then why are our organisations so full of people who choose gifts that we do not want, like or find useful?
The fact is that feedback has become for many a dirty word.
I believe a core reason for this does not lie with the notion of feedback as a concept. After all, most people support the idea of improvement and development. They recognise that they contribute to people feeling more valued and engaged. Nor does it lie necessarily in a lack of skills, though it would be foolish to assume that there is nothing more we can do in this area. The problem is that feedback gets caught up with the notion of power and entitlement. In so many organisations it is intrinsically linked to hierarchy and status. Look at the language that predominates around feedback. It is something that managers are supposed to give. They are not only expected to give feedback, they are also entitled to do it. They are nearly always the ones who are trained to do it. There are processes too, like performance reviews for example, that in so many organisations still mandate it as part of their role.
Others receive feedback, usually people lower down the hierarchical pecking order. They are also generally not trained in feedback and, if they are, it is usually in how to receive it!
It's not surprising that it is problematic. It was this power dynamic that was at the heart of the experience I shared above. The manager, quite probably unintentionally, saw herself as subject and positioned me as object. I felt unsafe and powerless and those are feelings that none of us find pleasant.
It is my contention that as we take on board the learning from the pandemic and move forward towards the notion of a more employee-centric way of working, we will inevitably need to challenge more and more the predominance of hierarchies in so many of our organisations and in so much of our organisational thinking.
To do this, we need to re-think the role of managers too. We will need managers who eschew status and control, are far less directive in style and who truly value the growth of their people. Managers who delight in enabling others to bring their true selves to work and creating the conditions for people to contribute. When that happens, our concept of feedback and our approach to it will change. It will become something that flows much more naturally between people who see each other as equals, as subjects, wherever they work or whatever their role. It will become something that everyone values and does and everyone, not just managers, will be trained to do it well. Our language will change from giving to offering, from receiving to inviting and it will take place, adult to adult, in an environment of safety, trust and empathy rather than entitlement, judgment and evaluation.
Now that might just make it a gift worth having!