Why are feedback conversations so difficult to initiate? And how can you shift your attitude around them? If you can learn to see feedback as a gift, you will increase your capacity to have conversations that need to be had, which will improve your relationships at work, your team’s performance, and the culture of your organization. The ripple effect continues in countless ways – both subtle and obvious.
Why People Avoid Difficult Conversations
Many people resist giving feedback or initiating a conversation that feels uncomfortable, because they fear there will be a negative impact on the relationship. They are not sure how the conversation will land with the other person, so they brace themselves for the worst-case scenario. This potential or imagined consequence is enough to avoid the conversation altogether. There is a popular perspective that’s been taught since childhood – that it is kinder to not say anything, if what you have to say isn’t “nice” on the surface – which does not encourage leaders to deliver productive feedback either.
The truth though, is that every kind of feedback, whether positive or negative, is a gift – and the inability to have a conversation that needs to be had is what will negatively impact the relationship. “Negative,” or constructive, feedback provides an opportunity for a blind spot to meet the light of day, exposing it and offering an opportunity to grow. If self-awareness is the foundation of strong leadership (and I firmly believe it is), any way to develop it should be welcome.
Try to focus on the positive impact to the relationship, rather than the negative consequence, and you can start by reframing feedback as a gift.
Feedback as a Gift
It is easy to miss the positive intention of feedback, but you must acknowledge it if you are to embrace a growth mindset. Feedback is not easy to deliver. Most people perceive feedback as uncomfortable, risky, and without guaranteed positive results. Therefore, the one who is generous enough to give you feedback went through a lot of discomfort to provide you with this opportunity to grow. The risk for them may have been greater than the reward. And yet, they gave you feedback anyway – so you can learn.
This is a gift.
As a leader, it is your job to set the norm in giving and receiving feedback. Give it generously and receive it with appreciation. Listen to it with an open mind and ear, practice curiosity to see where the feedback might be useful for you, and say “Thank you,” knowing that the feedback is a learning opportunity. When you treat feedback as a gift, this sets the expectation for your team.
As Brené Brown, research professor and social psychologist at the University of Houston and bestselling author, famously said, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Avoiding difficult conversations or sugarcoating feedback robs the other person of the clarity and opportunity to grow. Plus, it is dishonest and unkind. Withholding feedback – or delivering it in an ineffective way – can lead to unproductive behavior, decreased performance and results, and a breach of trust in the relationship.
The Role of Trust and Psychological Safety in Feedback Conversations
You need trust and psychological safety in order to ensure a smooth feedback conversation. Without it, the other person may not assume you have positive intentions.
At the same time, offering feedback is a way to build trust in your relationship. Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and Wharton professor, said, “Withholding feedback is choosing comfort over growth. Staying silent deprives people of the opportunity to learn. If you’re worried about hurting their feelings, it’s a sign that you haven’t earned their trust. In healthy relationships, honesty is an expression of care.” Asserting your willingness to initiate an uncomfortable conversation because you care about another person’s success is a sign of honesty, respect, and care – even if the feedback stings in the short term.
Ultimately, feedback is an investment in the relationship and person. If you deliver it candidly and compassionately, the relationship will wind up in a stronger place and the feedback will improve the other person in some way – because of the conversation you were brave enough to have. These are the fruits, and gifts, of feedback.
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