We often talk about the importance of sharing feedback in the workplace in order to help people develop professionally. It goes without saying that if people never receive any feedback, it’s difficult for them to know how they’re progressing. For HR this causes one more headache: how can you determine how people are performing if no-one ever shares feedback?
At the same time, we know that one of the reasons people don’t regularly share feedback is because they are afraid of the consequences, and don’t know how to initiate what they perceive as a “difficult conversation”. If you want people to start sharing more feedback, or develop a culture of feedback within your organization, you can help them by getting them to work on their conversation skills.
What are the barriers to exchanging feedback?
If you want to initiate a program for people to share more feedback with one another, it helps to understand why they are hesitant to do so in the first place. There are 2 primary barriers to giving feedback. The first one is the psychological factors tied to receiving feedback, and our negativity bias: i.e. we immediately assume it’s not going to be positive. This, in turn, triggers the fight or flight response in our brains.
The second is the difficulty to initiate these conversations that are sometimes emotionally charged: after all, we often tie our skills and competencies closely to our identity. These could be considered the “sociological factors” tied to our fear of feedback.
Impraiser Jolijn talks you through these points in less than 2 minutes!
The consequences of having difficult conversations
While these conversations may seem daunting to many, a useful way to gain perspective is by weighing the advantages and disadvantages of having them.
As psychologist and leadership coach Sarah Rozenthuler explains, sometimes it could very well be that the impact of not having the conversation is much greater than the impact of having one. For example: the situation doesn’t change, or you end up harbouring a frustration for longer than necessary.
The consequences for the person who has something to say - but also for the person on the receiving end, turn out to be negative. For example they may feel frustrated or unhappy, not be able to speak to their co-worker at all, or perhaps they even start to dread coming to work. The emotional weight becomes taxing, and doesn’t contribute to a positive work environment.
Of course this isn’t always the case, but it’s certainly worth thinking about and deciding whether or not it’s worth having that big conversation.
How to develop conversation skills
Having meaningful conversations in the workplace has many benefits, and that includes ones about feedback. Not only can it make people more creative, it also serves to develop trust and build relationships. As Sarah Rozenthuler says:
First, people should learn how to attend to the emotional aspect of these conversations. It’s important to recognize the fear of feedback triggered in the other, the anxiety the giver may be feeling, as well as a whole myriad of other emotions such as anger, sorrow, self-doubt, and perhaps even betrayal.
Just by being aware of - and acknowledging - the emotional dimension, it helps us be better prepared for these types of conversations. If someone has an emotional outburst, we are less likely to be thrown off our guard. The acknowledgment also helps make the emotional reaction more acceptable, rather than something we should be ashamed of or try to hide.
Second, help people focus work on developing more empathy: our ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, or understand where they’re coming from when they explain the reasons behind a specific situation.
Third, focus on developing active listening skills. This allows people to be even more attuned to what’s happening during the conversation itself, by paying attention to the finer details such as body language, or what is not being openly said but is implied.
By working on these aspects you can help people build their confidence, in turn allowing them to deliver more effective feedback and handle the conversations better overall.
Going beyond conversation skills
Individuals need to work on their conversation skills, but you also need to foster the right environment at work. That means creating the psychological safety for people to feel able to speak openly and honestly with each other.
There needs to be enough trust in place to know that people are sharing feedback with each other with honest intentions, and that people are not trying out-do each other (i.e. unhealthy competition).
As Sarah Rozenthuler says, “psychological safety is vital to a breakthrough conversation”. Once the fear and anticipation is taken out of feedback conversations, employees will feel more able to have other important and sometimes difficult conversations that may lead them to openly disagree or challenge one another. But out of these moments great ideas can be born as creativity is sparked, and people can feel more energized and engaged than when they are stuck in the status quo.