The art of giving critical feedback

First published in Accounting Technician January 2016 issue

Don’t shy away from giving your staff critical feedback, says Anneli Blundell. Use it as a chance to help them develop, and they will thank you for it. 

Great leaders give critical feedback. They tell it like it is. They are heard. They inspire action. Leaders who give targeted, real-time feedback – both good and bad – support and challenge their people to develop.

Giving critical or corrective feedback can invite negative reactions: denial, hurt, blame and anger are possible responses. Most of us are not eager to upset others, which makes it easy to justify delayed responses or missed feedback opportunities. However, avoiding the tough stu can have major consequences. Leaders must make the effort. They must confront their own comfort and confidence levels when faced with having hard conversations.

Withholding critical feedback is like asking someone to complete a crossword without providing all the clues. It’s simply not possible.

Sue (not her real name) worked as a community support manager. She moved through several leadership roles in various divisions within ve years. Sue was liked as a person but not respected in her role. She sat on decisions, was easily overwhelmed, and was seen as a bottleneck to progress. She did not deliver.

When June was appointed as division head, she quickly noticed the issue. June gave Sue the feedback that no one wanted to give. She respectfully yet firmly laid out the situation. Sue was shocked and distressed by her apparent underperformance. Missed feedback opportunities meant Sue was not given the chance to modify her behaviour. After a few months of coaching support, things were looking up. Sue’s projects were on track and she noticed a change in how others treated her. Sue thanked June for her candour and willingness to invest in her growth. Without critical feedback, we don't know what we don't know; we become blind to our potential. The better you are at giving critical feedback, the faster and deeper your people will develop. Here’s why:

People need challenge. John Di Martini, an American researcher and best-selling author in human behaviour, said, “People grow at the boundary of support and challenge”. We need just enough challenge to keep us growing and developing, and just enough support to feel encouraged and on track. One without the other can lead to boredom and stagnation, or burnout and stress.

People need clarity. We can’t see our behaviours as clearly as others can. Sometimes we’re not as good as we think we are (the Dunning-Kruger E ect), and other times our performance deserves more credit (the Worse- an-Average E ect). With no outside perspective, we remain blind to our development opportunities and strengths. It’s a leader’s role to provide the clarity we can’t see for ourselves.

People have courage. It turns out that people actually want the bad news that their leaders don’t want to give them. In 2014, Zenger and Folkman surveyed 899 individuals globally about their relationship to feedback. They found that people want corrective feedback more than praise, if it’s provided in a constructive manner. Some 72 percent said their performance would improve if their manager provided corrective feedback.

Leaders who sit on feedback because they don’t have time, don’t think it matters, or are reluctant to have a hard conversation, stifle the growth of their people. I bet there’s a Sue in every once ready for feedback and waiting to flourish. 

Withholding critical feedback is like asking someone to complete a crossword without providing all the clues.