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The art & science of constructive, bi-directional feedback as a leadership tool

Ron Magen | Dec. 15, 2022

In the working world, there’s no such thing as end-to-end perfection. Even when initial results are exemplary, there’s always room for improvement; faster development, fewer mistakes, more sales, larger profit margins, and more returning customers. That said, creating an environment that fosters constant learning and improvement is easier said than done.

When it comes to providing feedback, there’s an art and a science to getting it right, and it’s important to differentiate between feedback that builds, and criticism that breaks down morale and makes people feel “lesser-than”. In a nutshell, feedback is an important growth tool, and using it is a critical life skill that is indispensable - at work, and in one’s personal life. As such, it is important to never fear feedback, and to learn how to properly give it to others (and receive it yourself).

While research shows that both positive and negative feedback are critical in helping managers encourage employees to optimize their performance and results, feedback comes in many shapes and forms; not all of which are as effective as one might suppose. What’s more, studies find that feedback is most effective as a leadership tool when it’s bi-directional in nature. Namely, managers and employees must be open and receptive to giving and receiving feedback, if they wish to truly create harmony in the workplace. So, what does success-inducing, bi-directional feedback look like? What measures can you take to integrate feedback as part of your regular business practices and truly leverage this excellent tool for executives (and employees)?

Good feedback taps into each person’s strengths

When an employee provides feedback to a manager - or vice versa - the goal should be to boost their confidence and motivation to learn and achieve, not to relentlessly break down their weaknesses. Exclusively focusing on the latter can create negative reactions and associations, leading to defensive walls being erected, and a fight or flight response preventing growth and improved results from being attained. Instead, applying a “sandwich approach” to providing feedback, in which points for improvement are “sandwiched” between successes, is a surefire way to empower the person on the other side of the conversation to pick themselves up and try to do better.

A good feedback process also includes asking questions. Rather than telling someone what they’re doing wrong and how they can improve, inquire about how they feel about their processes and performance. Ask them questions that motivate introspection, so that together, you can come up with multiple potential solutions and A/B test them to obtain an optimal result.

Good feedback applies empathy to tough topics

Executives who avoid harnessing feedback as a leadership tool run the risk of causing real and irreversible damage. This is true, even if their intentions step from a place of empathy, i.e. not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. For example, a manager at a known company feared offending his employee by sitting down to talk about performance. Instead, he sent out a department-wide memo, listing all the successes and failures from the past quarter, and bulleting potential solutions for the upcoming three months. The employee in question had no idea that the failures were attributable to them, felt demoralized that their efforts were not producing the desired results, and almost ended up tanking the company’s product in development.

Essentially, it’s not so much about what you do or don’t say, but about how you say it. Here, soft skills and emotional intelligence are key. A manager who approaches a feedback session with empathy is far more likely to transmit their message to an employee who is open and willing to make necessary changes. Leaders across seniority levels can and should provide feedback while taking steps to understand the other person’s point of view and what they might need, moving forward. This includes what the other person’s life beyond the workday might include. That said, good feedback should also come from a place of emotional self-control, so as to prevent constructive communication from derailing into judgment-clouding, heated, and defensive debates. For those employees and managers who do not innately possess these soft skills, periodic team development sessions can provide significant springboards for personal and professional growth.

Feedback: it affects us all

When employees and managers fear feedback and its potentially adverse effects, those fears tend to snowball out of proportion; the higher up the corporate ladder you are, the less feedback you find yourself obtaining, out of fear of retribution. However, when all parties involved remember that feedback isn’t about who you (or they) are as a person, but rather about how you (or they) can better conduct your/themselves on the job, it can become an instrument for significant growth. The science behind successful feedback situations is how to provide regular opportunities for open, honest, empathetic, and bi-directional communication; the art - of translating potential attacks into actionable insights.

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