Fear Of Giving Feedback

Ted, a manager at a large baked goods company in Ontario, had a most delicate staffing problem on his hands.

The problem wasn’t the employee’s work performance or anything else about his conduct. In fact, Stan was competent and pleasant.

It was far more personal. Stan had body odour so offensive that other staff had spoken to Ted about it, pleading with him to talk to Stan.

Ted was afraid of embarrassing, hurting or humiliating his subordinate so he delayed speaking to Stan. But the problem worsened. More staff not only complained, they began to avoid Stan. Ted soon realized he had to deal with the problem.

Reluctantly, he scheduled a meeting with Stan and started to think about what he would say and how he would say it.

Giving good feedback, whether it’s about work performance, interpersonal conduct or, perhaps the hardest of all, personal matters, can be one of the most challenging of all tasks for managers.

The difficulty lies in how people view feedback. Many consider it criticism. Yet ironically, most workers report a feedback shortage in their workplaces. They actually want to know, “How am I doing?”

Unfortunately, instead of good feedback, staff often receive nothing. Others receive feedback during an annual performance review but it’s composed largely of generalities that do little to help them improve and develop their career.

Given the feedback shortage in many workplaces, it is important to learn how to think about doling it out effectively. Here are some tips:

– Caring versus Avoiding.

Feedback, when understood as a caring, respectful gesture is easier to give than when it is seen as intrusive, critical or potentially destructive. Ted was not being considerate of Stan or his fellow workers by delaying a conversation about personal hygiene that would ultimately help the employee.

When Ted started to view the potential conversation as motivated by caring about his new employee, he was more prepared to give it a go.

– Be Transparent Versus Hiding Concerns.

When broaching a difficult topic, it is best to acknowledge any discomfort you or the employee are likely feeling. Ted told Stan that he had to have a heart to heart with him and he was finding it difficult because of the personal nature of the conservation. Stan’s curiosity was piqued and he told Ted that he wanted to hear what he had to say.

– Dancing Around the Problem Versus Getting To The Point.

Indirect feedback, couching comments in euphemisms, talking around a topic or filling a preamble with unrelated positives all serve to obscure the message. At the same time, many staff feel insulted when they believe they are not being leveled with. Many difficult feedback occasions are about interpersonal problems such as personal conduct (e.g., harassing behaviours, racism), hygiene, clothing (e.g., wearing clothes inappropriate to the workplace culture), attitude or approach to work.

So, instead of trotting out a list of good points about Stan’s on-the-job effectiveness, Ted got right to the point: had Stan ever noticed people avoiding him at work? Stan said yes. Ted asked Stan why he thought it was happening. Stan said he thought people didn’t know him yet and were slow warming up to a new employee. Ted told him he thought it was different from that. “I believe,” he said honestly, “It’s because you have had body odour lately and I wondered if you had noticed it too.” Stan replied that he had noticed but he didn’t think it was that bad.

– Explore The Issue Versus Dropping A Bomb.

Focus the feedback on how the problem being discussed affects the employee, their career, their effectiveness or their relationships with other workers. Instead of just identifying a problem and letting it go at that, work during the feedback conversation to understand the issue better and generate solutions.

Ted noted that Stan’s hygiene issue was making it difficult for others to work alongside him. People were less likely to approach him with work matters and he was feeling sidelined. Stan felt both embarrassed and relieved after Ted leveled with him. He told Ted that he thought the problem worsened as the day wore on and that whenever his anxiety level increased, he sweated more. The two were able to generate ways Stan could alleviate his stress and take measures to deal with his hygiene problems immediately.

– Frequent Feedback Versus Infrequent Comments.

Set up a routine where you provide, in-person, regularly scheduled feedback. Don’t forget to include frequent between-meeting feedback as the need arises. Telling staff how a project went, how a worker is being perceived, how well everyone contributed to an initiative and what was appreciated overall, develops people in their roles and satisfies people’s need for an analysis of their performance.

Feedback is best given in person, you can use memos or emails to provide a summary of your comments and expectations for next steps after the meeting.

Ted decided to book time with his subordinates once per month to review their goals and give feedback about their performance.

By grappling with his tendency to avoid giving feedback by talking to Stan and then scheduling regular feedback meetings into his week, Ted made giving feedback a priority. Stan found that taking steps to reduce his stress helped him. He thanked Ted in the end. Both had learned something about feedback.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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