Feedback in the Time of Now

The Time of Now

Praise is normally easy to give and accept. Feedback, especially corrective feedback, is not always easy to accept. It is also not always easy to give–especially now and in the months to come. As a colleague, a manager, and a leader, you have a special responsibility now to be deliberate about the feedback you give if you want it to have a positive impact.

This is not a complete guide to feedback. There are some excellent books and videos about giving feedback. This is a primer in how we deliver effective feedback right now.

A word about “The Time of Now.” Six hundred thousand people have died from COVID and 14.6 million people have tested positive. Millions of people are protesting for racial equity all around the world, especially in the United States where we are not controlling the spread of COVID and have not addressed our systemic racism. As we live through the next few months, things will get worse. Sorry. We are seeing 100,000 small businesses close monthly, and we are about to see less stimulus and support from the Federal government. 140,000 people in the United States have died from COVID, with more to come. We are seeing leaders at all levels (federal, state, county, city) in-fighting rather than working together.

We have to realize that people are dealing with much more right now than usual, at least compared to the “before times.” Small things like going to the market are no longer no-brainers. Bigger things like kids returning to school in a month or two is no longer a given. Even bigger things like everyone likely knows someone who has lost their job due to closures, layoffs, or other reasons. Many people have lost loved ones to COVID and are unable to mourn as we traditionally do. Many are still sick with their own illnesses and are facing changes or limited access for their care. Legitimately, we are heading into the most consequential elections of any of our lifetimes. There is a lot going on right now.

Even if someone is not experiencing loss or financial distress, many parents are looking forward to schools being online again in fall. So we are getting ready to be full-time employees, parents, teachers, cooks, cleaners, tutors, and front-line COVID defenders…again.

In short, everyone is going through something, and those somethings are probably bigger and more impactful than before. And fewer people are sharing those somethings with people at work. The risks of losing a job right now are simply too high for most people. So they stay quiet and do their best to do their jobs.

If you think the feedback you have is important enough to add it to that level of burden your team members are carrying, then the least you can do is be thoughtful and deliver it deliberately. Here are some suggestions to do both.

Planning Your Feedback

Many of us are getting familiar with the concept of “intent vs. impact.” The intent is what you hope to achieve with your feedback. The impact is what the other person actually experiences with your feedback. In the before times, intent was really the part that mattered most. We knew each other, we knew what each other meant, we had the capacity to make sense of the words in the context of the overall relationship and we were generous with the person providing the feedback.

Today, we are tired. We have diminished capacity. We have more demands on us than ever before. So we are less focused on intent and more focused on impact. People are less concerned with what you say and what you mean, and more on what they hear and what that means to them.

As you are planning your feedback, you can start with your intent. Then work the other side of that equation. What are they likely to hear? What impact will that have on them? What will they do after receiving that feedback? Is that what I want for them?

At the very least, start with what you want them to know, believe, and do after the feedback conversation. Then structure the conversation to achieve that outcome. The outcome should be something where they feel more confident to take on the challenge and do it in a better way. That makes this a constructive conversation.

Having the Conversation – The 4 Cs

Once you’ve planned the key elements, starting with the impact you want to have, and you’ve outlined how the conversation is likely to go to achieve that result, here are some tactics.

Be curious. Be constructive. Be clear. Be caring. If you cannot be ALL of those, then perhaps be quiet.

1. Be curious. Start with questions. The best place to start is to ask permission to give feedback. “I want to give you some feedback about that last meeting, is now a good time?” Once the permission is granted (or timing negotiated) then get curious about their perspective. Ask short questions such as: What was your take on the situation? How do you think that went? What impact do you think you created? How would you do that better next time? These questions let you gauge how much feedback you need to give. Are they already beating themselves up over it, or are they walking Dunning-Kruger’s? Knowing that directly affects how you show up.

2. Be constructive. The idea is to make them better for the next go around. Focus your attention on how to do things better next time. Stop reviewing the failure and start planning for success. Build on what they did well, what they should repeat. If they already told you in response to your questions the feedback points you were going to offer, then bank the win, validate what they said, and offer some encouragement or help. If they still missed a few things, then offer the 1-2 suggestions you had in mind.

3. Be clear. Clarity creates speed. When you are rambling, meandering, evasive, uncomfortable, indirect, or opaque, it is painful for all parties involved. Be clear. Describe what happened. Describe what you would do differently next time. Pinpoint the behaviors and the actions. The more wishy-washy you are, the less valuable your feedback.

4. Be caring. Remember you are dealing with a whole person. If the performance was not up to their usual standards, then start with that. “That was not like you. You usually crush it in meetings like that. Is everything OK?” Simply remembering that employees are more than tools or resources to accomplish tasks will let you start the feedback conversation with a little empathy, and that goes a long way right now.

If you cannot muster the four Cs above, then really consider whether you should say something at all. Kim Scott in Radical Candor said that if they know you don’t care, then they won’t really take your feedback anyway. So the feedback is a waste of your breath and both of your time. If you cannot be clear and constructive, then they will walk away confused and less confident to take on the next iteration of the challenge. If you cannot be curious, then you don’t know what they are already thinking or if they are even in a space to hear you at all. Again, don’t bother wasting your time.

We hope that things will get better. Science will (hopefully) find a way for us to live with COVID as we learn more, develop therapeutics, and perhaps a vaccine. Public and private organizations will (hopefully) work to address the inequity in our systems and societies. In the meantime, please get a whole lot more deliberate about how, when, and why you are giving feedback right now. That will help make a world of difference to the people who work for you.


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