I have a new speech that I’m working on called “The New Nice.” It’s the culmination of all my work on increasing productive conflict and getting comfortable being uncomfortable. One of the topics in the speech is how to give feedback. At a recent keynote, I was talking about the importance of getting in the right mindset before you give feedback. Being me, I decided to make the case strongly and said “if you can’t get into a constructive mindset where you’re giving feedback as an ally, you shouldn’t give it at all.”
That provoked the obvious question, “What if you have an adversarial relationship with someone, does that mean you shouldn’t give feedback to that person at all?”
The short answer is “not unless you can do something to change your mindset.”
If you can’t get into a constructive mindset before you give feedback, bite your tongue. Let’s step back for a minute.
What’s a constructive mindset?
You have a constructive mindset if…
- Your motive in giving feedback is to make the other person more successful. You have some information to make the person more self-aware and that information will allow him to change his behavior in a way that will help him be more effective. You are NOT in a constructive mindset if you want to punish him, embarrass him, put him in his place, or otherwise cause him harm.
- You have the courage to be candid with the person and to say something that might be uncomfortable for you. You are NOT in a constructive mindset if you are thinking of yourself as the one with the guts to be brutally honest. Brutalizing someone is not part of giving effective feedback.
- You take into account individual differences and styles before saying a word. Not everyone is like you and assuming that they want and need the same things as you is not a good starting point for giving feedback. Think about whether your feedback is about something that’s impacting the person’s effectiveness or whether it’s just a personal bugaboo for you. You are NOT in a constructive mindset if you’re irritated because of friction between personal styles.
- You’re giving feedback in the hopes of building trust and strengthening your relationship. Effective feedback is rare and incredibly valuable. If you have the courage to say something that will be difficult but important to hear, you are fostering your own credibility and investing in a strong relationship. You are NOT in the right mindset to give feedback if you think feedback destroys relationships.
Uh-oh, I’m in trouble
Ok, I know it’s a high bar. What if you really are feeling a titch vindictive? Maybe your motives are a little shy of pure. There are a few work arounds you can do to get in the right headspace to give feedback to someone you really can’t abide.
- Think about the customer. If you could care less about the person’s success and they don’t give a hoot about the negative impact they’re having on you, perhaps appealing to a higher power will work. Don’t focus your feedback around the impact of the person’s behavior on you, shift the focus to the customer. “When you committed to get the draft flyer to me on Wednesday and didn’t give it to me until Friday, it meant the customer had to review it over the weekend. How can we coordinate different in the future so the customer doesn’t get delayed?”
- Take one for the team. You might not like the person in question, but you might be the best positioned of anyone to give her some feedback that the team desperately needs her to hear. Sometimes it’s easier to be courageous when you’re doing it for someone else. “When you raise your voice like that, it shuts down the conversation. We need to get the different points of view on the table to be sure we’re creating the right plan.”
- Follow the process. When Craig is coaching people, he tells them that if something doesn’t come naturally, just do it procedurally…just stick to the process. Great feedback describes the situation, then really concretely describes the person’s behavior, then subjectively shares the impact of the behavior, and concludes with an open-ended question back to the person. You don’t’ have to feel it to say it.
- Minimize the blow back. If nothing else, make your feedback constructive because constructive feedback minimizes resistance, defensiveness, and general huffing and puffing that you might expect when giving feedback to someone with whom you have an adversarial relationship. Focus your feedback exclusively on making the person more effective, make it as concrete and objective as possible so there is less chance you’re going to get yelled at in return.
Ideally, you work with a group of people who are invested in one another’s success. In that case, you can think of feedback as a brief uncomfortable moment that leads to strong, trusting relationships where you can count on each other. If you must give feedback to someone you don’t trust, find another source of strength to keep the feedback constructive. If you can’t find one, keep your mouth shut. Giving feedback from a negative mindset will make it aversive (for you and for the person receiving it) and risk destroying the positive feedback culture on your team. That’s a price too high to pay just for a few glorious seconds of putting someone in his place.