Why do leaders and employees struggle to give feedback?

Talk to my employees? I don’t have time for that!’… There are leaders who feel that their jobs would be great, were it not for the management of their people, says Wirral transformational coach, Alison Blackler of 2minds

Business, office, meeting
Both managers and their staff often find feedback sessions awkward and difficult


Within companies and organisations people are often promoted into more senior positions due to perceived successes in terms of results and productivity – ‘he or she gets the job done’ is often what is said of them.

But being an effective and industrious team member doesn’t always translate into being a good motivator – managers needs a broader range of skills. And effective communication and emotional intelligence come high up on that list.

One of the biggest challenges in the world of work is the giving and receiving of feedback between manager and employee and this goes both ways.

Giving feedback is a skill. And like all skills, it takes practice to get it right. It is all too common that the only feedback given to employees is around targets, outcomes that haven’t happened or about the person’s behaviour.  

Pandora’s Box

With many managers the thought of actually asking the person how they are doing or feeling is perceived as too ‘fluffy’ and could open up a ‘Pandora’s box’. It also takes a very safe and trusted relationship for the employees to actually say how they really feel.  It is more common to get an ‘I’m fine’ reply.

Managers of all industries must start to understand that there are much more powerful intrinsic motivators that can have a bigger influence on human performance. There’s more to managing human performance than a carrot or a stick.

This challenge partially stems from a subconscious push-back leaders have, a pang of fear when they realise that delving into conversation that contains critiques can pose potential consequences they may otherwise try to avoid. The human brain is wired to avoid threats and pain hence avoiding having those difficult conversations.  

Negative response

Effective feedback needs to be specific, not general and focused on the behaviour rather than the person and their intention. This reduces the risk of creating defensiveness and a negative response.

Feedback also needs to be ‘useful information for the other’, well timed, frequent and relevant. Often, it doesn’t land well, can be misinterpreted, poorly delivered, ill-considered and feels unfair to the recipient.

Feedback is even more challenging when tight deadlines loom and important results are required. In these cases, managers need to have their people skills well oiled as the tendency to just jump in with big feet and tell the employee ‘off’.

There is good brain-based science that supports the fact that, despite managers often meaning well, they don’t always get feedback right. It is a fact that management in any business can be a lonely pursuit. The demands put on managers are often unrealistic and fail to recognise that it takes time to build a relationship with the team.  

Employees and managers the world over dread this ritual and therein lays the main problem. The people side of management gets neglected and put into the too difficult category.

Alison Blackler of 2minds
Wirral transformational mind coach and therapist Alison Blackler of 2minds


Hapless employee

We have institutionalised the giving and receiving of feedback. The managers save up their comments and document all the things noted about a person’s performance. And then, like a big cat ready to pounce, the manager brings a hapless employee into the office and springs a year’s worth of “constructive criticism” onto him or her.

Feedback is best delivered live, in the moment and frequently.  This helps the employee to progressively grow, understand and have the chance to add their thoughts and feedback to the situation.

The unwanted outcome of not getting this right, is drama, conflict, negativity which all lead to wasting time, and critically, money in the business. To be an effective leader, stop pushing for feedback. Stop giving feedback and start asking for it.

Employees giving feedback

This is equally a challenging problem.  What is often the case is that employees don’t feel like they have a voice and are too nervous of sharing their thoughts, ideas and observations with the boss.  

Big risk

The basic issue that prevents managers from getting feedback from their employees is that managers have a power or authority over the employee, and any efforts of the employee to address a manager’s performance issue is, at its core, a big risk. 

The manager, should he/she be resistant to the feedback, has numerous ways to retaliate.  So the risk is too big, and the employees tend to avoid having a performance feedback conversation to their manager – even though many want to!

There still is a risk that the manager won’t like what the employee has to say, and could react negatively. It’s a lose-lose situation for the employee, and the most likely behaviour by the employee is to say, “Things are fine.”

What managers are often missing is the wealth of information an employee has about their management style being on the receiving end of it. Again it is important that this is evidence based and not an attack on the manager. 

Six key pieces of advice for giving and receiving feedback:

  • Get into rapport and the right space
  • Listen to what the other person is saying
  • Summarise to ensure there is a shared understanding
  • Do not justify, defend or argue
  • Say ‘Thank You’ – this could be the blind spot
  • Take action

2minds is on Facebook –  and on Twitter… @AlisonBlackler

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