Once in conversation with a young lady whose career I had watched grow she narrated challenges she was going through with her immediate supervisor. On enquiring what initiatives she had at play to help in her circumstances she went over an array of really great ideas that in my mind would have helped build a more positive and enabling relationship with her supervisor.
The truth though was their relationship was not any better despite her efforts.
The crux of the particular story really boiled down to feedback – how little of it she was getting from her supervisor and the subsequent missed opportunities to work on the areas of concern. It was clear though that there was no way that my delightful young lady was going to address the gaps because her supervisor did not offer the opportunities for development by sharing constructive feedback. Interestingly the lass noted, her supervisor did share dissatisfaction complaints with others at her place of work, just not with the person concerned.
The distress that the scenario was causing on the young lady was palpable.
Needless to say, this story is not unique, it is actually commonplace. I have had similar experiences in my career journey, as I am sure many of you have, where feedback that could help is not offered to you rather it’s generously shared with others, which makes for a very toxic cesspool of malicious Chinese whispers and leaves a disenabling vibe in the department or organisation.
How is it that we are unable to share feedback with our subordinates or peers in a manner that helps make the situation better? Is it that we are too afraid to speak truth? Is it because our commitment to maintain a peaceful outlook is greater than our commitment to truthfulness?
Or is it that we are so averse to the backlash that feedback may bring? Or maybe it has something to do with sadly, a wish not to develop those that work in our teams out of fear that they might outshine us?
As eyebrow raising as some of the questions I have posed maybe, the reality in most of our organisations demonstrates that we could do a better job at offering feedback and do a whole lot less of the corridor chatter to others, as not only is it demeaning, disrespectful and denting to the self-esteem of colleagues, it is utterly useless in developing the organisational capability required to deal with the challenges of the business environment that we confront.
The creation of great organisations is deeply correlated to people’s ability to learn and evolve. Learning agility requires constant constructive feedback. We mustn’t shy away from this important cog in the learning loop. We must engage with it however uncomfortable it may be from both the giving end and the receiving end of the continuum.
Here are some useful tips to help in giving and receiving feedback;
1. As team or enterprise leaders, we must endeavor to find appropriate language to package our message. This does not mean we sugar coat, but the language must be enabling and not demeaning.
2. The feedback conversation must be hinged on facts. Not gossip or hearsays. This is the only way to gain trust of the staff member and to ensure that the feedback has credibility
3. The information shared must pass the test of usefulness or relevance. It must have a clear link to developing a skill or competence in the staff we direct our constructive criticism towards.
4. When we do receive feedback we should focus on listening – to understand and advance our thinking as opposed to listening to respond.
5. Watch out for the affirmation bias, which says, “I already know what you are going to say, because I am so self-aware or so knowledgeable”. It maybe counterintuitive but it is worth fighting the bias to allow the feedback to sink in and become useful.
6. By all means, ask questions, clarify the messages we are receiving or giving, make it a positive discussion, with potential to be illuminating.
7. Growing an assumption of good intentions on both ends of the feedback loop makes the process so much easier. If your supervisor is giving feedback, they must be taking an interest in you and that means that there is an underlying unspoken wish for your growth and improvement.
Whichever end you find yourself in next time, in the words of Fred Kofman – Don’t Get Mad, Get Curious!
The columnist is a senior manager in the Human Resources Department, East Africa Aga Khan University