Obstacles to Giving Feedback
Feedback was invented to get more out of employees and thereby to lift the productivity and the profitability of the company. But it’s difficult for a number of reasons.
Fear of the Employer
As an employee, it’s easy to feel that employers are being mean or cruel if they point to a problem. The employee typically is not privy to the range of anxieties and pressures that are going on off-stage. The employer is frantic because the business is facing a very tough year and the employees are making a hash of some major projects. So the person giving the feedback is themselves under pressure. They can’t necessarily be the ideal parent and be endlessly forgiving, generous and patient.
It’s often extremely hard for us to accept negative information about ourselves; to hear that we haven’t met expectations, that there’s a problem with what we’re doing or that we need to change in some way. We easily slip between hearing a local point (about the delivery of a report, the handling of a negotiation) and a global point (about one’s whole life and character). So we readily feel persecuted, upset and deeply hurt by what should really be understood as specific details. Our sensitivity and touchiness is not something that can be overcome by abrasive assertion.
It still isn’t normal
Ritual and what is taken for granted helps us cope with tricky things. If it is entirely expected – and a time honoured tradition – that at a certain point people say what they think is wrong with one another, the personal sting of feedback is lessened. It doesn’t feel weird or indecently hostile and frankly scary if someone (at the sanctioned time) says: OK, so there are five things wrong with you… And you know that this happens to everyone: it’s going on in the boardroom as well. But, at present, feedback still has the power to feel persecutory and arbitrary.
There isn’t enough training
The human brain is such a complicated, strange entity. Trying to adjust a person’s outlook or habits is a little like attempting to perform surgery. Except around surgery the difficulties have long been acknowledged. Removing a cataract, say, is reserved for highly trained experts, working in very carefully designed environments. However, the average company assigns feedback, which is a no less delicate and important task – the task of attempting to sort out someone’s thoughts in their head and reform their character – to an executive who has read a couple of journal articles and, at best, attended a one day seminar in a hotel outside the city.
There’s, astonishingly, still not much training. The company doesn’t really take the task of overcoming psychological obstacles seriously – the senior people don’t spend a lot of time talking to each other about how to improve feedback and how highly they regard anyone who is good at it.
We’ve broadly accepted the idea that work is a place where you acquire skills. But we’re still only just getting round to the notion that one of the skills – and maybe the most important – is that work is, and has to be, an agent of emotional education, a creator of maturity.
Work tests all of us hard: not simply in our technical capacity, but in our ability to face psychological difficulties with some degree of confidence, to accept failure, to be generous to the needs of others, to know our limits and be canny about our strengths. These are not simply assets in the work place. These are the psychological building blocks of good partners in a relationship, of good parents and of mature citizens. Work reveals our psychological flaws and – ideally – educates us to overcome them.
Businesses will always contain a lot of people who are very sceptical of anything that isn’t immediately about selling more of the products or cutting costs. There’s an idea of what it is to be serious about business which militates against a psychological approach and that, in the name of rigour and financial maturity, refuses to recognise psychological training as legitimate.
Dealing well with the psychological obstacles requires a move beyond recognising their symptoms. It requires a map of the real nature of the problems and of their causes. The solution isn’t going to be about presenting a true large insight on one grand occasion (the yearly review), and expecting transformation. That’s because the problems have the character of habits, and changing habits is a different kind of undertaking. The corporate atmosphere will need to be calm, unafraid and very patient.
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