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20 Reasons Why We Don’t Give Feedback

Post co-authored by Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov

Neuroscience tells us managers don’t like giving feedback. Who knew? Well, most of us, actually.

Recently, we sat with a group of HR leaders and explored reasons given by managers for not giving feedback. You would be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t… ) about just how many justifications, excuses, and rationalizations we had all heard over the years.

As authors, we selected our “Top 20”. But all the reasons given fall into one of five categories of “like-concerns”. We believe this categorization provides a practical framework for HR.

For each category, HR should ask “what would a good performance feedback process have to look like, to address this concern?”

But let’s start with our Top 20.

  1. I am not trained to give feedback or I haven't done it before

  2. It makes me feel awkward and vulnerable

  3. I don't know the root cause of the problem

  4. The employee will go to ER, for sure,

  5. I am not rewarded for it anyway.

  6. It takes too much time and I have to record it,

  7. I don't have any answers. I don’t know what they can do about it.

  8. I know what needs to be said. I don't know how to say it.

  9. I don't do it frequently, so I am not good at it.

  10. I will be told the rating anyway, so what’s the point!

  11. I don't mind, so long as it is positive.

  12. I can't manage the employee’s expectations.

  13. I have to assess behaviors. That's "personal".

  14. It's pointless, people don't change anyway …

  15. The employee will disagree. I know they will.

  16. My boss / others will just contradict me.

  17. I can't afford the $ to back up my feedback.

  18. It has to be balanced.

  19. I don’t want to damage the relationship.

  20. The employee may leave!

While not a statistical survey, the first thing to notice is that, in a consensus list compiled by highly experienced practitioners, no one identified a leader’s lack of knowing what feedback to give as the issue. Content isn’t the issue. Instead, we believe this randomized list of excuses actually comprises 5 distinct categories:

  • Developing Messaging – Get the message right.

  • Aligning with Others – Calibrate own thinking.

  • Enabling Solutions – Just do it!

  • Managing Emotions – Keep calm and give feedback.

  • Prevailing Mindset – Believe in Fair Talk.

Developing Messaging. We believe that there is an approach to constructing simple messages which support effective feedback. Developing messages can and should be easy. We have previously said that Fair Talk, providing feedback to help me perform, is best when it …. (read the FairTalk book)

Aligning with Others. There is leader anxiety about taking a stance, only to have it undermined by others. There is risk that the view of my boss, or matrix partner, or even the employee, will be contrary. That results in vulnerability. HR must do two things: design processes which collect input which synthesize into a holistic picture of performance. Performance calibration is common, suggests calibration alone is not enough. The second requirement is to educate leaders on the accuracy of their feedback, if well prepared, compared to other sources and to ensure that the organization know this.

Enabling Solutions. “I know what is wrong. I don’t know what to do about it.” Leaders often think they need to identify the problem, and know the answer. They don’t. Firstly, the employee may have the answer. They may have missed awareness that there is an issue to address. Secondly, there is probably not a single answer, anyway. There are likely many answers. Few developmental issues haven’t been examined. If the organization doesn’t have supporting developmental tools, make the employee’s first task researching development solutions. (Hint … Google will find 100s of them!) Finally, few problems have to be solved immediately. If it isn’t career limiting in the short term, the Leader and the employee can … shock, horror … explore solutions together. HRs role is to take pressure off managers to have solutions. If we don’t, we create a justification for not giving feedback.

Managing Emotions. This is largely managing the emotions of the feedback giver, rather than receiver. You can’t remove an emotional response. You can reduce it by helping Leader’s be fully prepared. If the messaging and the alignment are done well, the leader can proceed with a different level of confidence. In every other aspect of business, we know the difference preparation makes our command of a situation. Performance feedback is no different.

Prevailing Mindset. Carol Dweck says there are two types of mindsets: fixed and growth. Fixed mindset drives Leaders to actions that block their own development and the development of others. A growth mindset unleashes the potential to change that we all possess. If, as a Leader, I don’t fundamentally believe that people change, or if I don’t see performance feedback as “my job”, the best system, build on the previous four steps (creating messages that motivate, calibrating with others, exploring development solutions and proceeding with confidence) probably won’t make the needed difference.

So this last element is the most critical, and where HR must lean in. So here is some Fair Talk messaging for those Leaders that HR might try …

“Giving performance feedback is important in our company. We believe it drives organizational performance and individual success. We also believe that transparency is fundamental to integrity. You do not give regular, developmental feedback to your direct reports. Going forward, we expect you to develop a plan for how you intend to give regular, accurate feedback, which will help your team members develop and perform, and your growth, as a strong Leader. ” Or similar!
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