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Constructive feedback: Understanding the factors that influence if feedback is listened to or not

Updated: May 24, 2019

It is often that I hear either employees or managers complaining about the fact that the constructive feedback that they are providing to others is neither actively listened to or acted upon. It serves as a high source of frustration which can sometimes also contribute towards the erosion of a relationship. However, this frustration can often stem from not considering 2 important factors which influence providing feedback.

1. Respect of individual choice: Constructive feedback with the intention of sincerely helping someone grow and develop is a gift, and not a means of trying to exert control over another. Going in with the mindset that it is a gift that you are offering someone and whether they choose to consider it or not is entirely up to them, may be a healthier more productive way of ensuring good intentions do not turn foul. It also ensures that you as the feedback giver do not spend an excessive amount of time, which can be invested in something more productive, obsessing about why your feedback was not acted upon.

2. The source of feedback needs to be trusted and respected: As Brene Brown rightly said in Dare to Lead, "The problem is, when we stop caring what people think and stop feeling hurt by cruelty, we lose our ability to connect. But when we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives."

With everyone having an opinion on everything and everyone else these days, we have every right to be selective about the feedback we choose to listen to or not. And the factor which most commonly determines whether we listen to someone’s feedback or not is if we trust that the feedback giver truly has our best interests and development at heart and whether we respect their expertise.

Consider the following two scenarios which highlight this point.

Thomas is a 25-year-old business graduate who has just started his first job and role as a sales executive. He has been working with Christopher, his line manager for the last 6 months. Within those 6 months, Thomas barely received acknowledgement of his contributions and achievements within that time and on the few occasions where he did receive positive feedback, it felt insincere as it was not specific enough and felt more like it was done out of having to than wanting to. Christopher also has the reputation of being a perfectionist and on occasions when Thomas had made an error, Christopher spent more time highlighting Thomas´s large list of errors and less time listening to understand and then discuss how to improve things going forward. He also barely knows Christopher having had limited discussions with him over the last 6 months. As a result, Thomas also does not really believe that his line manager has a clear understanding of his strengths, goals, areas of work he truly enjoys and skills he would like to further develop. Thomas acknowledges that he could have taken the initiative and actively shared these things with his line manager, but the truth is that he did not feel comfortable enough with him to do so. He has difficulty trusting Christopher and is often entering feedback discussions with him feeling defensive.

Jean is a 30-year-old Head of Development, who is leading a team of ten and has been working with her line manager, Allison for the last year. Allison´s feedback style is ongoing and regular. If she sees great work, she is the first to acknowledge it and provide the feedback to the individual concerned. She is also known as the first to point out when there is room for improvement. But she is known to not do this on every single issue that arises but rather known for highlighting that which she believes will most help someone grown and develop. When she provides feedback, it is a suggestion not a command and she is always specific, has proposals or ideas on how to improve and always asks the recipient for their perspective. Allison often gives the impression of someone who cares more about what is right than who is right and has been known to openly admit when she is wrong. As a result of this, Allison barely needs to approach Jean to provide her with feedback as Jean is often actively seeking her out for her feedback and perspective.

While both these examples may seem very extreme, they are based on real situations to highlight some key factors to consider when providing constructive feedback.

Here are a few basic guidelines to increase the likelihood that feedback you provide is reflected upon, creates self- awareness and inspires development.

Trust: It’s extremely helpful to remind the individual of their talents/strengths, so they know that you already believe in them. Invest just as much time in highlighting someone's strengths as you would on areas to develop by also providing specific instances where these behaviours were displayed.

Be Specific: Give 2 or more granular examples and break the message into concrete, specific behaviors with the following formula:

  • Situation – the specific occasion where you’ve observed the behaviour

  • Behavior – what the person did that you observed

  • Impact – the impact on the team, the company and also for themselves. In cases where there is room for improvement, how things would look different if they made some changes. They need to understand the WHY or value of making a change or developing a skill.

WHY: a few concrete specific examples help the individual to place feedback into context and to gain perspective.

Feedback should be a dialogue: It is important that after you provide someone with feedback to ask the individual for their perspective on feedback provided to them. It is also an opportunity for the individual to raise questions to improve their understanding. Be open to the fact that you as the feedback giver may be wrong or misperceived the situation, hence seek to listen and understand.

Be Constructive: Always transition the conversation from critical feedback to describe the goal, the skill development you think may most help the individual and the impact or benefit it would have on them and their team and work.

Check the other’s understanding and stop short of telling the person what to do unless you want to “police" the changes.

After the person accepts the goal, start asking questions to lead the person toward self-discovery and improvement.

Avoid use of the word BUT: When mentioning an individual's strengths, the worst thing to follow up with is a BUT. Example: You are a really good project manager who is extremely structured and organized BUT…..

Doing this takes away from your objective of acknowledging someone's strengths.

A better way to deal with this is to acknowledge someone's strengths. Then end this part of the conversation and tell them you will now move onto areas of development.

And as a final word: Offer the feedback to someone and then LET IT GO. If and what the recipient chooses to do with the feedback is entirely up to them. It is often our desire to control the situation and others that ends up backfiring on us. Most individuals who are open to growing and developing themselves are more inclined to listen and act upon feedback if they really believe it will serve them, it is delivered with their best interest at heart by someone they trust and respect and they know they have the freedom to choose what to do with it.

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