09 May 2016 18:16 IST

Do you give and receive actionable feedback?

Feedback can be specific and undiluted without sounding accusing or intimidating

Before coaching a senior executive from a large firm, I asked the CEO (who was the manager of the leader to be coached) if there was any identified focus area that needed attention. The CEO promptly pulled out a few sheets and shared the outcome of an internal 360 feedback carried out for all senior leaders. He handed me the feedback pertaining to the leader to be coached. This was a helpful starting point. I read through the contents of the 360-report and learnt the report was was also given to individual leaders for reflections. Again, another great step before initiating the coaching intervention.

As I went through the report, I found that it was written in polished language and also contained some vague messages. I asked if this was the expression of the respondents. I was informed that the respondents’ feedback was more direct, but the one given to the leaders was “polished” so as not to hurt the senior managers concerned. However, when I asked for the “real feedback” and the CEO was open to sharing and gave it readily.

Avoid Obscurity

Well, the key point here is: does it help to dilute the feedback? If the intent of 360-feedback is to help the leader recognise and reflect on how his/her attitude/actions impact those who work with him, the efficiency of such feedback will be grossly reduced if the comments are diluted. Pruning the comments for avoiding duplication is fine though.

I asked the CEO if I can present the “unfiltered feedback” with the leader to be coached. To the CEO’s credit, he gave me a “go ahead.” The challenge I had to manage as a coach, however, was a stout possibility that the leader denied the “actual feedback”, and said that that is not what he/she heard officially from the CEO.

As I started the coaching relationship, I invited the coachee-leader to share the feedback he received from his organisation and again to the coachee’s credit, he actually pulled out the sheets he received from the CEO and shared it with me. You will agree that this is a good beginning. I probed the coachee’s style, approach, and more importantly the reflections on the feedback. In the process of doing this, I helped the coachee to reflect and understand that the problem might be a bit deeper than what it appeared in the papers given to him.

Impactful feedback

Leaders need the courage to both provide and ask for specific feedback. Motherhood statements do not help or create any impact, and much less to provide any help for meaningful action. We see this tendency on the part of leaders giving feedback and the ones receiving it. It offers a fake comfort to both the receiver and giver. But, the real feedback coming to terms with what people say about the leader and his behaviour rather than avoiding it. Leaders derail most of the time because they do not muster the courage to ask for specific feedback from their bosses, particularly when the bosses beat around the bush and keep it very vague.

Ask Questions

For example, when a leader received the feedback from the boss that she has to improve her interpersonal relations, it is seldom helpful unless she asked for specifics by asking some of the following questions:

~~ Could you please expand and clarify on what you mean by interpersonal relations?

~~ Is it about listening poorly or being biased or about managing conflicts?

~~ Is it with certain section of the people she is dealing with or uniformly perceived by everyone in her role-set?

This is just an illustrative list of questions and examples of what will help you understand the real issue. It is very comforting to give and receive feedback that is vague and confusing. But it does not help the giver or the receiver. Giving vague feedback is sometimes worse than not giving feedback at all.

Improvement is impossible unless the feedback is specific and clear. Leaders who avoid giving specific feedback often suffer from a misunderstanding that being specific will hurt the receiver and may actually be counter-productive and may even demotivate. Nothing can be further from the truth. If the intent is to aid improvement, dilution is not an option.

Feedback can be specific and undiluted without sounding accusing or intimidating. This is a skill senior leaders must learn. Real improvement is not possible unless it is received with an open mind. Seeking specific input without feeling defensive is a skill every leader has to learn.