How do you feel about feedback, honestly? As startup leaders, we need to seek and hear feedback to get better ourselves, and also deliver feedback to help our team improve. Yet when it comes down to it, so many of us have a slight gut-tingling aversion to the whole thing and even the very word ‘feedback’.
Whether this discomfort stems from cultural norms, conflict avoidance or personal foibles, we can’t let it hold back our team performance. As startup leaders, we want to create high-performing teams, and that requires us to create an environment of continuous improvement – where everyone in the team has a yearning to do great things and continue to build and improve on those great things. That requires an environment where feedback is encouraged and even celebrated; one where it is the day-to-day norm.
Most of us have learned to face into feedback along our journey, but how can we make peace with it and how can we encourage effective feedback in our teams?
Understanding those feedback foibles
The struggle with feedback is an inherently human affliction. Our brains sub-consciously react to negative feedback with the same hormone-driven fight-or-flight reaction as it would to a physical threat, so it’s no wonder we have an almost visceral reaction to it sometimes.
This is made worse by our brains being wired to seek out negativity – prioritising negative information over positive information as a kind of evolutionary protection mechanism. This negativity bias is why we often only really hear the one negative point in a list of multiple positives, and why criticism or ‘constructive feedback’ can start a negative spiral of thoughts or trigger self-doubt.
“A feedback loop is one of the most effective tools for improving performance. We learn faster and accomplish more when we make giving and receiving feedback a continuous part of how we collaborate”
Reed Hastings, Netflix
Our own feelings on feedback impact our appetite to give feedback too: Will I hurt their feelings? What if they react with anger, get defensive, or I make them cry? What if I’m wrong? Or get labelled as ‘difficult’? Fundamentally, we want to help, but we don’t want to hurt peoples’ feelings.
Unfortunately, not giving improvement-focused feedback has consequences:
- At a company level, performance slips and deadlines are missed.
- At a team level, unspoken frustrations accumulate and boil over to an over-reaction later, often leading to more significant conflict.
- At a personal level, star performers can leave feeling under-developed or underwhelmed with peer-performance.
By contrast, if we embrace a feedback culture, and encourage it throughout the organisation with feedback flowing in the right way, across the whole team, then a culture of high-performance is organically born. Team members are driven to do their best work, motivated to improve continuously, and even hold each other to account, rather than accountability coming only top down.
With the right approach we can give feedback without hurting any feelings
Despite the initial reaction we might all share, most people value feedback and see it as a significant driver to personal growth and performance. In a 2014 study, 72% felt their performance would improve if they received more corrective feedback (n=1000). So even though it might initially be unpleasant, we appreciate that feedback really helps.
The Situation, Behaviour, Impact framework is an adaptable framework with three simple ingredients – the Situation you saw, the Behaviour (good or bad), and the Impact of this that you observed. This structure helps us to deliver specific feedback without generalisations and judgement, two elements that are vital to feedback being effective.
Going into this with your coaching-style hat on also helps position the feedback in the best way to be received effectively. By adding open questions after Behaviour and/or Impact, you can understand the perspective or intent of the person you’re speaking with – which often uncovers misunderstandings, or new perspectives which you can work through together.
You can also flex to be more directive at times, by adding a Request at the end of the framework – asking for what you need or would like to see as in improvement. This could be a behaviour, goal or deliverable.
FoundersCircle members can download this as a worksheet in the Hub here
Tips to practise with…
Practise positive feedback too:
How frequently do you share just positive feedback day-to-day? Much like negative feedback triggers fight-or-flight hormones, positive feedback is shown to release the happy hormone oxytocin so can boost team morale. Read more about giving positive feedback regularly in our earlier article here
Soften the blow by taking a humble approach:
Starting with “I think…” will improve the likelihood of direct feedback being received better.
Aim to assist and show that you care:
Always have positive intent with feedback and show that to them with phrases like “I saw/noticed something that I think could be helpful”. Showing that you care about them as a person goes a long way too, and even better, be an enabler to helping with the solution or their development if you can.
Lead from the front:
The higher you get in an organisation, the less feedback you receive, but you can model the feedback behaviours you want in the team by asking for feedback all the time (and meaning it!). An effective go-to question is Google-coach Fred Koffman’s “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” Push for at least something small if team members resist at the start, and thank them for their feedback afterwards, without reacting to it.
And the golden rule…
Always avoid retaliation or feedback to get something off your chest, it only results in emotionally-fuelled language. Instead step away and prep your feedback.
This article is part of a series on feedback:
- A simple framework for effective feedback
- And coming soon… how to use feedback effectively to boost your co-founder relationship with co-founder retros and how to boost performance with self-led feedback in your team
About the FounderFuel Series: Actionable tools and bite-sized insights to empower entrepreneurs and founders to get the best from themselves and those around them as startup and scaleup leaders. Get the fuel direct to your inbox by signing up here.
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