Don’t Let Fear of Conflict Keep You From Delivering Essential Performance Feedback
Let’s face it: As humans, we want to be liked. This desire drives people to avoid conflict. In many organizations, avoiding conflict has become the art and science of self-preservation. We’re always looking for ways to avoid or put off difficult conversations. This is particularly true when it comes to providing feedback on performance.
Giving and receiving feedback is part of the job for most of us; however, for many, it is not a process they are comfortable with. Finding the right approach and environment for delivering and discussing feedback – whether positive or negative, upward or downward, anonymous or open – often brings stress for both the reviewer and the reviewee. While we want our feedback to be constructive and useful to the recipient, the circumstances and parties involved can ultimately influence whether feedback comes off as supportive or judgmental.
Yet, if we are to be effective managers and team members, we owe it to ourselves and our colleagues to provide direct, constructive, and regular feedback that elevates individual and organizational performance. That requires us to disassociate the act of providing feedback with the negative connotation of “conflict.” This starts with exhibiting behaviors that foster trust and respect.
Turning the feedback process into an activity that is a positive experience and a stepping stone to a more productive professional relationship begins with these three simple principles. While these ideas are not new, they are easy to overlook.
Share feedback continuously and in a timely manner.
Most organizations have an annual review process that ties feedback to salary increases, bonuses, and promotions. Certainly, the documentation (forms that compare results to stated goals) and discussion that are part of the process are important. But the most effective feedback is ongoing - not an “event,” but rather a continuous discussion of performance expectations and outcomes. The feedback loop should be part of the everyday, not separate from it.
Furthermore, people should not hear about performance issues for the first time during a formal annual review. The sooner you can work with someone to provide direct, real-time feedback to curb behaviors that detract from individual and/or organizational success, the more quickly that person can adjust in advance of documenting said performance - and the more genuine you will appear in your effort to guide that improvement.
Deliver constructive feedback in person rather than anonymously.
Anonymous channels, such as a 360-degree feedback tool that encourages everyone in a person’s sphere of work to share their views, are a formal part of performance management at many organizations. These tools can serve specific and limited purposes. Anonymous feedback provides an opportunity for anyone interested to weigh-in on a person’s performance, expanding the number of data points for assessing performance from a multitude of perspectives.
Keep in mind that anonymous feedback is a one-way communication channel with no opportunity to clarify or engage in discussion, which can lead to misinterpretation. Further, it might embolden stronger and more prejudiced responses because they cannot be traced back to the reviewer.
Anonymous feedback is an easy way to avoid conflict. However, dialogue can make the difference between someone listening to feedback and actually “hearing” and trusting the message. An in-person conversation makes it more likely the feedback will stick.
Focus feedback on behavior and outcomes, not on personality or likes and dislikes.
Whether you are providing feedback in person, in writing, or through an anonymous channel, make sure feedback is clear and actionable.
Consider these examples of feedback provided through anonymous feedback mechanisms:
- Nobody likes her – she feels entitled.
- He is too bossy and not a team player.
- He is impossible to please and yells at me if I don’t understand something.
- She shows favoritism to certain people, and everyone sees it.
If you received feedback like this, how would you react? You’re probably more likely to be upset and defensive than motivated to do something differently.
If you have concerns that someone doesn’t embody the character of the organization or shows favoritism, give examples of what that means and suggest actions that could help reverse that perception - whether true or not. Doing so keeps the process on a professional rather than personal level and builds trust rather than anger.
"He is too bossy and not a team player" becomes, "He doesn’t practice active listening with his team, and the team would feel more collaborative if he allowed us to speak and provide our perspectives."
Furthermore, not only should we all commit to making sure our own feedback is constructive, but we need to teach and encourage others to do the same.
If embraced in a constructive and helpful way, the feedback process does not have to feel like going into battle - it can become a positive experience that improves relationships, performance, and outcomes consistent with an employee’s professional growth plan.
By keeping these three principles top-of-mind when preparing to offer feedback, we can begin to make the process feel more open, honest, and most importantly, safe - which, in turn, will alleviate some of the stress and tendency toward avoidance.
Paul A. DeCotis is Senior Director and East Coast Energy & Utilities Practice Lead for West Monroe Partners. He has over 30 years of experience as an executive, consultant, and educator.
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Senior Marketing Manager
West Monroe Partners
I’m a Marketing Executive with over 8 years of experience in the financial, technology and consulting industries. I merge data, digital and design to implement effective marketing strategies.
I have studied, lived and worked around the globe (London, Moscow. Almaty, Paris). I am extremely passionate about my work, which centers on designing and executing strategic marketing initiatives, performing market research & analysis on both my company and competitors as well as solving complex business development issues.
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