Why Leaders Need to Confront Their Fear of Feedback

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The feedback you give the people you lead doesn’t always have to be positive, but it does need to be present. Think of it as an opportunity to tell your association’s story.

Executives often struggle when it comes to delivering feedback to employees, but in some ways it isn’t much different than what you’re doing in other areas of the organization. That is, you’re telling stories. You’re engaging in storytelling when you deliver a report to the board on the progress of a new initiative. You’re storytelling when you connect with members to explain the value of their joining your association.

And you do that because you implicitly understand that if you’re not the one telling the story, they’re going to make up their own. So imagine what your employees might be conjuring up in their head when they’re not hearing much from you or their managers. Often the story isn’t good.

If you hold a growth mindset for yourself, you’ll be more comfortable giving feedback.

In an article on employee feedback in the Harvard Business Review, executive coach Deborah Grayson Riegel explains that employees tend to take three negative messages from a lack of feedback. One is that no news is good news, which doesn’t press employees to improve or increase their engagement. Another is an assumption that the boss thinks they can’t handle feedback, which leaves employees feeling unsupported and makes your workplace look like it avoids accountability. Lastly, employees might assume you think they’re incapable of change—and you’ll be proven right on that if you don’t deliver feedback.

Lack of communication on leaders’ part has some proven consequences: A 2015 SHRM poll found that 64 percent of workers say that “leaders making decisions without seeking input” was their top concern. Similarly, a 2015 Gallup poll found that 67 percent of employees are engaged when their managers give feedback on their strengths.

And ultimately, supporting employees’ strengths is part of your job. Leaders, Riegel writes, are compelled to cultivate a “growth mindset” among employees. So if you’re hesitant to deliver feedback—or to do it consistently—Riegel suggests that a look in the mirror may be in order.

“If you hold a growth mindset for your employee, you will give more feedback because you believe she will welcome—and rise to—the challenge,” she writes. “And if you hold a growth mindset for yourself, you’ll be more comfortable giving feedback because you trust that you will welcome the challenge.”

How you deliver that feedback is up to you, and it may differ from employee to employee, of course: “You can’t please everyone, but managers can make a conscious effort to understand their employee’s communication style to help set them up for success,” Jennifer Dowd of the workforce technology firm Kronos recently wrote in Governing. But there’s plenty of evidence that it needs to be more iterative than the old-fashioned annual performance review.

In the latest “Career Coach” column in Associations Now, executive coach Maureen Glass, CAE, points out that positive feedback is as essential to underperformers as anybody else in the organization. “Reiterate that feedback is part of the growth and development of every employee and that you want him to succeed,” she advises. “Let him know that if he commits to performing better, you’ll commit to helping him meet his goals.”

I’d argue that such actions have a way of radiating outward—that it can improve your capacity to work with employees across the organization. And though private communications with an underperformer aren’t everybody’s business, employees are rarely confused about who those underperformers are, and they tell stories about how you handle them too. Are you a person who’s invested in improvement, or just a take-’em-to-the-woodshed type?

“Giving feedback that helps people achieve better business results is part of a manager’s job,” Riegel writes. “It’s also her job to create a climate of psychological safety—which is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake—for a direct report to receive feedback well.” That may not be an easy thing to do at first, but it’s one of those skills that gets easier, and more important, the more you do it.

What’s your process for delivering feedback to employees? Share your experiences in the comments.

By for Associations Now, a publication of the American Society of Association Executives.

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