Feedback is one of the most important factors in an engaged workplace. But whether it’s positive or negative, many of us have trouble giving feedback to employees.
Let’s take a look at giving structured feedback. I’m not talking about performance reviews, I’m talking about giving general feedback to employees on their performance or their behaviour – whether it’s negative or positive.
Feedback is important
Feedback is incredibly important in the workplace. One Gallup study suggested that over 40%, of highly engaged employees receive feedback at least once a week. Meanwhile, OfficeVibe found that 96% of employees say they want to hear feedback regularly.
‘96% of employees say they want to hear feedback regularly’
Feedback is hard to give
So why isn’t it happening? One of the reasons is that feedback is awkward. It doesn’t matter whether it’s negative or positive, we often feel a little bit uncomfortable giving people feedback. But this is a skill that can be learned. And it’s well worth learning how to give feedback because it can increase the engagement of our employees.
‘whether it’s negative or positive, we often feel a little bit uncomfortable giving people feedback’
This is the reason we ask about feedback in the employee engagement surveys we conduct for clients. Respondents are asked whether they agree with statement ‘My direct manager gives timely and helpful feedback on my performance’.
We aim for at least 70% of people agreeing to that statement, which can sometimes be a challenge. When we get scores lower than that, we start to look at what we can do to train people in the organisation to give and receive feedback.
Feedback is hard to receive
And our Amplify HR training isn’t just about how to give feedback. Feedback can be just as hard to receive, as it is to give, particularly negative feedback.
‘Feedback can be just as hard to receive, as it is to give’
There’s something termed the amygdala hijack, which happens when stress causes us to feel strong anger, aggression or fear and the fight or flight response is activated. The primitive part of our brains called the amygdala hijacks control of our responses to the stress, and disables the frontal lobes. This puts us into that fight or flight response.
The way to avoid this is to teach people how to give and receive feedback. And two great tips for this are to use permissive language, and to use a really simple model called SIA (Situation, Impact, Action).
So to go back to the amygdala hijack, one of the ways that we can move through that is by priming the person for what’s about to happen.
Our brains receive negative feedback in the same way that we receive pain. If I burn a finger, the neuroscience of what is happening in my brain is not dissimilar to what happens when someone gives me negative feedback. It literally hurts. The old saying ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ is actually not true.
The takeaway from this is that we should prime people for what we’re about to talk about so that they don’t feel blindsided. They don’t go into an amygdala hijack response, because they have a chance to prepare themselves for what’s about to happen.
I like to frame that kind of conversation by starting with, ‘I have some feedback I’d like to share with you, which may be hard to hear. Is that okay?’ So that’s using permissive language, to allow the person to have control over what’s about to happen.
Because if the person says to me, ‘you know what, this is really important, but I am just not in the right space now. Can we please do this tomorrow?’. That’s actually a good thing, because that shows they’re aware of what’s happening for them right now.
But in fact I’ve found that 99% of people will say, ’yes, I’m ready for the feedback’. We’re curious people, we like to know what’s happening. But it gives the person the chance to think, ‘okay, I’m about to hear something that’s not great’. It helps to prepare them psychologically.
So after they’re prepared we can give the feedback using theSIA model, which stands for Situation, Impact and Action. Let’s look at an example of how to use this model to give negative feedback.
First, you need to describe the situation. For example, I could say, ‘in the meeting with Isaac earlier today, I overheard you say, “Why did you do X Y Z when I’ve asked you three times not to?” Now I understand that you’re frustrated, but your voice was raised, and Isaac just seemed to shut down because he didn’t have the chance to explain himself.’ So that’s the ‘S’, you’ve explained the specific situation.
Next you describe the impact. For example ‘I’m concerned, this may impact on how safe Isaac feels to raise concerns in future.’ We’re trying to show really clearly that there was an impact from the actions taken in the specific situation.
With the Action step, you describe what you want the person to do. The traditional SIA model will go straight into Action, but I am not a huge fan of doing that. I prefer a coaching approach, which involves more open questions and more permissive language. The aim is to try to help the person come up with actions themselves.
So after I’ve said ‘I’m concerned this may impact on how safe Isaac feels to raise concerns in future,’ I would ask, ‘what are your thoughts?’ I would allow the person to speak and we could start talking through that, focusing on how things could be different in the future and if there is anything I can do to help.
Once you’ve worked through those things, you agree on the action together. By doing that, you are giving that person a lot more ownership over the issue, and also how to fix it. Of course there might be some times, particularly if you’ve already had this conversation a number of times, that you’ll go straight into the action. So here’s the situation, here’s the impact, here’s the action that I need you to take.
But if this is the first or second conversation about the issue, I encourage you to have a more open conversation to agree on an action, rather than going straight to your own thoughts on what should be done.
So that is the SIA model. Next time you need to give feedback to someone, and you know it may be hard to hear, consider how to frame the conversation so that they’re prepared for it and then try SIA – Situation, Impact and Action.
SIA for positive feedback
Now, not all feedback is negative. We need to be really careful that we are giving positive feedback to people as well. As I’ve said before, human beings have a negative bias. It can be challenging for us to notice positive things, and awkward for us to give people positive feedback about it. But as we know, positive feedback is incredibly important, and you can use SIA in this case as well.
For example you might say, ‘when you were speaking to the client today, I was really impressed with how you were able to answer her questions around X, Y, and Z. It seemed to give her a lot of confidence in the services that we’re offering. So thank you. It would be great to use you on the ABC account, because we have similar issues with them at the moment.’
So hopefully you can see that this includes all the elements of SIA:
- Situation: when you were answering the client’s questions today.
- Impact: It gave her a lot of confidence.
- Action: It would be great to use you on ABC account, where we have a similar issue.
Though note that with positive feedback, you may not always have an action.
Another key point is to ensure that your feedback is specific. Just saying to somebody, ‘hey, you’ve done a great job’ is nowhere near as motivating as actually giving the specific reasons why someone’s done a great job.
The research has shown the importance of being specific in goal setting, and it’s just as important in feedback. People need clarity. They need to understand exactly what they did that was good, and that helps them to repeat it in the future.
It’s not enough to say, ‘hey, you did a great job’. What does that actually mean? This sort of feedback ends up as just water off a duck’s back. It’s not very motivating.
Years ago I worked with a manager who told everybody what a fantastic job they were doing all the time. At first it was nice and a bit of fun, but over time, we just started to ignore it. We never knew whether we were doing a great job or not because we never got any other feedback. The only feedback we got was, ‘hey, you’re doing a great job’.
So it is important to ensure you balance negative feedback with positive feedback, and in both cases, make sure it is specific.
If you want to take it up a level, there’s a couple of books out there that I recommend – Radical Candor by Kim Scott, Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, and also Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, where they call it rumbling. These three great books use three different methodologies and they’re all worthwhile. They’ll help you to train people in your business in how to give and receive feedback and make it part of your culture.