5 times when giving feedback is a bad idea (and what to do about them)

5 times when giving feedback is a bad idea

Feedback is one of the most obvious ways to improve performance, however, there are five times when people should put the brakes on good intentions to provide colleagues and peers with feedback, writes Murray Priestman

Feedback is important. It helps us understand how others see us and it’s one of the most obvious ways to improve performance. Most organisations recognise this and devote a lot of time and effort to improving their feedback capability and processes. After all, feedback is, famously, a gift.

But like many gifts, it is not always thoughtful or welcome. While much training focuses on all the ways and situations in which you should give feedback, very few organisations consider when you really shouldn’t.

People can often make this mistake in the (well-intentioned) rush to provide feedback to peers and colleagues. Here are five times when giving feedback is a bad idea.

1. When it’s not the right moment
One of the many features of high-quality feedback is that it should be timely and instant. Anything else reduces the impact and lessens the likelihood that the recipient can contextualise it and react. Waiting for my annual review to tell me about how you thought I flubbed that presentation six months ago makes it much harder to act on the feedback.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple, and there are plenty of times when it’s just not helpful or productive to give feedback.

Cast your mind back to that presentation I screwed up. You obviously shouldn’t have brought it up in the meeting, but how about straight afterwards, to make it as timely as possible? Well, I kinda knew it didn’t go well so I wasn’t really in the right headspace to hear it from someone else as well. And you were pretty mad, so I don’t think you would have been calm and balanced about whatever you said.

“Waiting for my annual review to tell me about how you thought I flubbed that presentation six months ago makes it much harder to act on the feedback”

We had a catch-up diarised a few days after the pitch. That would have been the moment; we would have both had time to process it, the client had fed back to us by then so we knew the impact, you had space to think about how to structure the feedback and put it in the context of my wider presentation skills.

Think carefully about the right moment to provide feedback; timely is good, knee-jerk in-the-moment not so much. Prepare properly and make sure the recipient is ready, because there are plenty of reasons why they – or you – might not be.

2. When they will never change
The whole concept of feedback is premised on the notion that someone will hear it and – crucially – act on it. It might regularly be used for other purposes, such as the venting of frustration about poor performance (“I gotta tell you Bob, this is hands down the worst report I’ve ever received”) but the aim is – should be – to provide input that leads to better outcomes.

So what do you do if you’re dealing with someone who just isn’t going to change? Yes, everyone can adapt, but there has to be a will to do so, and some behavioural changes can take months of effort, if not years.

Before jumping to provide feedback, make sure that the target is open to change. That’s often a judgement call and can be hard to test, but it’s important. Think about the return on your investment in feeding back to them; if it’s going to require you providing feedback on multiple occasions over a lengthy period of time before you see a difference then there may be better uses of your time.

Just because there’s an opportunity for someone to change, it doesn’t mean that they will recognise it, and trying repeatedly to help them do so is unlikely to help them – or you.

3. When there are significant consequences
Feedback can be as simple as a few thoughtful words delivered in the moment. It can also be very structured, and associated with significant, sometimes life-changing, consequences. Examples include feedback gathered as part of performance reviews, promotion processes and job applications (reference-checking is just a form of feedback gathering).

“Think carefully about the right moment to provide feedback; timely is good, knee-jerk in-the-moment not so much”

All feedback should, of course, be carefully structured and sensibly delivered. But think very carefully about what is at stake before providing full and open feedback, particularly if it is not wholly positive. The bottom line is that, no matter how good you are at it, your feedback could be misused, intentionally or not.

The performance review feedback you provided might be used by a manager looking for an excuse not to award a high rating. The reference you gave an ex-employee might be misunderstood and result in their job offer be turned down. There could be pressure on promotion numbers and it might be your feedback that makes the difference between someone getting through or not.

And in all these cases, your feedback might be shared directly with the subject, leaving you open to all sorts of complicated outcomes. You might be blamed, rightly or wrongly, for a smaller bonus, a missed promotion or a career move that didn’t happen.

You should always consider what all the potential outcomes of providing feedback might be – and whether the risk is worth the potential upside.

4. When you’re wrong
I was watching the Rugby World Cup recently and took the opportunity to provide some clear, specific feedback to the Wallabies’ back row. It was well-intentioned (mostly), and certainly aimed at improving their performance, but there are a range of reasons why they didn’t act on it.

Even though I was pretty loud, I don’t think they heard the advice. But even if they had, they wouldn’t have paid any attention, because when it comes to giving international rugby players feedback on quick ball, I don’t know what I’m talking about.

“You should always consider what all the potential outcomes of providing feedback might be – and whether the risk is worth the potential upside”

Next time you’re preparing some feedback for someone, check that it’s on a subject you are qualified to speak about. And just as importantly, will the intended recipient feel the same? Just because you’ve formed an opinion on how someone can improve their performance, it doesn’t mean that it’s a useful opinion, or that the target will see it that way.

5. When you’re not very good at it
Feedback is not just a fundamental workplace skill, it’s also something we do endlessly in our personal lives. And like a lot of other universal skills – speaking, influencing and writing, for example – it can be tempting to assume that just because you’ve always done it, you’re pretty good at it.

That’s simply not true; like every other skill, it requires structured learning, conscious effort and practice to master. This should be self-evident, but that’s not always the case with skills that we use so often in so many situations.

To put it another way, just because you’ve spent your whole life interacting with other human beings it doesn’t automatically follow that you’re good at it.

Try and figure out how effective you are at giving feedback. Is it something you invest time and effort in? Do you consciously plan and structure it? Have you, well, sought some feedback?

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