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The Psychology of Feedback: Why Executives Struggle And How To Overcome It

Even CEOs can find it challenging to give direct, honest and sometimes difficult feedback to direct reports. Here's how to fix that.

Any teacher, coach, or elite performer understands that accurate, well-timed feedback enhances performance. Yet many executives are uncomfortable with the part of their job that requires them to develop the members of their team. All too often you see highly confident people hesitate, procrastinate, or simply avoid providing feedback altogether. Why do so many executives find this part of their job so hard? The roots can often be found in the executive’s personal psychology.

Fear of sabotaging relationships

For many, feedback is unconsciously or consciously viewed as a threat. At some point, the executive internalized the idea that feedback is negative and will irreparably damage a relationship, even when well-intentioned.

In fact, well-intentioned feedback rarely puts a relationship in jeopardy. Providing helpful feedback enhances your direct reports’ ability to meet their career objectives and realize their personal goals. When withholding constructive input, we compromise someone’s ability to grow as a leader. Avoiding constructive feedback can also send the wrong messages to your team (for example, that the absence of conflict is more important to you than performance, or that you are not paying attention).

Fear of bringing people down

It’s a natural desire to want to build people up. It’s also easy to think that glowing feedback (“You’re great; don’t change a thing.”) will raise someone’s confidence and boost their performance. While positive feedback is critical to growth, it loses its efficacy when it is not rooted in truth.

The fear of bringing people down is shortsighted and assumes people are more delicate than they are. Imagine a young, talented financial executive who wants to become a CFO one day but never gets any feedback about where they could improve. Then imagine this same person in several years, getting passed over by an executive hired from the outside, simply because their boss did not take the time to provide constructive feedback when needed. True superstars won’t appreciate compliments when they need actionable feedback. In fact, your highest performers may seek out a new leader to provide them with direct feedback that will help them advance, perhaps at a new company altogether.

Fear of asking people to change their ways

Sometimes you see managers hesitate when asking people who have been in role for a while to change their ways. “Jeff is set in his ways, so why waste the effort?” Or, “I’m not willing to change, so I won’t ask them to.” Sound familiar?

The truth of the matter is people become complacent when they think others don’t care or notice how they behave. Emotionally mature executives will reflect on and benefit from constructive feedback, even if they bristle initially. They might even surprise you with their willingness to change. Failing to give someone feedback because of an assumption you are making about their readiness to change is not fair to the other person. Have the hard conversation and let them be the one to decide whether they are willing to adapt.

Belief that the numbers do the talking

For some, financial results are the only feedback that matters. So why go beyond that and provide constructive feedback? Believing that the numbers can do the talking takes too narrow a view of leadership. Members of your team can achieve superior financial results in the short term while simultaneously engaging in behaviors that contribute to the organization’s downfall in the long term.

Leadership behavior lives on in the organization for years to come. How the job gets done makes the real difference in building sustained business success over time. Active feedback to members of your team about how they show up is as important as what they deliver.

How to give feedback

Providing accurate, timely feedback is a critical executive skill. Becoming more comfortable with providing both positive and negative feedback necessitates a shift in mindset from fear of doing harm to “I’m in your corner and want to give you something that is truly valuable.” Be unapologetic about your pursuit and delivery of quality feedback—after all, to know is to grow.

1. Prepare the soil. Set the expectations of your direct reports from day one. Explain to new team members that you will provide direct and real-time feedback because you care about their growth and development and view it as a form of recognition.

2. Give feedback regularly. This can help your team members grow purposefully, stay ahead of the game, and lead more effectively instead of evolving slowly or growing stale. Feedback at the right moment allows for mid-course correction that is lost if you wait for annual review time.

3. Make it collaborative. Engage colleagues in a mutual conversation rather than offering straight feedback, asking questions such as:

• How did you think that meeting went?

• When did you feel most effective?

• When might you have taken a different approach to get the best outcome?

• What can I do to help you improve?

4. Be situation-specific. Identify how a strength in one situation may be a weakness in another situation. Have a conversation about the dangers of playing only to one’s strengths and how strengths can be overused.

5. Feed forward. Add a future-looking component. “What might you do differently next time to increase your impact?”

6. Capture teachable moments. Whenever possible, deliver feedback in real time when the behavior in question is fresh and top of mind.

7. Put it in career context. Be clear regarding implications for your direct reports’ career progression. For example, “Broadening your repertoire in these kinds of situations will build a case for taking on greater responsibilities.”

8. Avoid the ‘feedback sandwich.’ Balance positive with corrective feedback but beware of the critical piece getting buried between two pats on the back. If the person does not “hear” the feedback, they cannot adequately respond.

9. Take action for immediate relevance. Help a colleague jump-start a new behavior by putting it into action this week or, better yet, this afternoon.

10. Remember that you treasure what you measure. Create feedback loops (360s, post-meeting reviews) to reinforce the new behavior and provide tangible evidence of progress.


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