The Untapped Potential of Feedback

Giving feedback is routine for leaders. But don’t let the everyday nature of feedback fool you — a single moment of giving feedback can have momentous impact, especially if the way it is delivered results in someone losing face.

Consider one of my clients, Mark. Mark manages Joseph, who is one of his top salespeople. Joseph is from the Philippines and Mark is born and raised in the U.S.

On one particular sales call, Joseph was trying to close a large deal with a potential customer. He got ahead of himself in his zeal to close the deal and made a commitment to provide additional services that weren’t normally included. He also hadn’t checked with his service department before making the commitment.

When Mark learned of this, he told Joseph that the company wasn’t prepared or able to provide the additional services he had promised. “In the future, you should check with the service department before offering items outside the normal scope of services.” Mark said.
Upon hearing the feedback, Joseph felt as if his actions jeopardized his future with the company. He submitted his resignation.

Surprised by this reaction, Mark immediately reassured Joseph that he was doing a great job. The feedback was meant to correct a simple miscalculation and was not a personal attack on Joseph’s character. He assured Joseph he appreciates his work and asked him to stay with the company. Joseph accepted.

People in Asian cultures often personalize negative feedback, perceiving it to be an attack on their character. They view feedback as a loss of face. While this reaction is pronounced in Asian cultures, it is a natural human response.

In commenting on neuroscience research for her forthcoming book on competencies for working across cultures, author and intercultural expert Diana Rowland notes that when we feel threatened, whether physically or emotionally, a distress signal from our brains creates an impulse to fight or flee. We become less able to use our prefrontal cortex, which deals with logic, empathy, and regulating social behavior, and instead react aggressively or defensively. We also create a negative memory, which is stronger and lasts longer than a positive one.

Negative feedback can create this kind of reaction, causing someone to lose face, often irreparably. We can avoid this by following a few guidelines for giving feedback:

Use “straight talk.”
When delivering feedback, make sure your message is communicated accurately and clearly, and in a way that makes the other person feel respected. Deliver it in a private, safe environment. Make sure the message is based on facts and expectations are clear.

The Center for Creative Leadership developed an effective approach called SBII: Situation>Behavior>Impact>Intent. First, describe the situation. Then, describe the observable behavior and the impact on you — what you thought and/or felt. Then, inquire about the intention behind the behavior.

For example: “At the staff meeting yesterday, you raised your voice when Sally questioned your financial data. It made me and the team feel uncomfortable about speaking up. What was going through your mind?”

This approach focuses on facts and behaviors. Defensive reactions are minimized, leading to productive conversation, desired outcomes, and no one losing face.

Avoid “blunt talk” and “safe talk.”
Instead of straight talk, most people use either blunt talk or safe talk to deliver feedback. Neither technique works.

With blunt talk, whether it’s the right place and time to deliver feedback isn’t considered. Clarity or accuracy aren’t important. The receiver’s feelings aren’t considered — the giver just needs to get things off their chest.

The impact of blunt talk is that the receiver does not feel respected and likely feels blamed or unappreciated. Walls are put up and the feedback is usually difficult to accept. The receiver becomes so resentful that they don’t make the needed changes.
Safe talk is the opposite, but equally damaging. Instead of being direct, hints are dropped. The message is vague and ambiguous. The manager thinks the feedback was provided, but the receiver is confused about what was said. They may even think everything is fine. While the manager may have thought they were saving face and preserving harmony, they’ve actually created confusion. The result is the same as blunt talk — nothing changes.

To assure feedback is understood and digested, and to preserve the dignity of the receiver, stick to straight talk.

Use positive feedback to “give face.”
Giving face is the opposite of losing face — you build a person’s confidence and, in turn, help them grow. This can be accomplished by giving positive feedback.

In “The Feedback Fallacy” (Harvard Business Review 2019), Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall note that managers often only give feedback after something goes wrong. The instinct is to tell someone what they did wrong and how to fix it. This is remediating, which inhibits learning and does not lead to strong performance.
Buckingham and Goodall encourage managers to stop someone when they’re doing something well and dissect their behavior or actions with them. This puts them into what they call a “rest and digest” state of mind, which helps them understand what strong performance looks and feels like, building confidence — and trust in their manager — in the long term.

Focus on feedforward, not feedback.
Feedforward is the opposite of feedback. Feedback focuses on the past. Feedforward focuses on the future. We can’t change the past, but we can create the future. Feedback can be demotivating, while feedforward is empowering.
It is necessary to deliver feedback, but don’t stop there. To set your employees up for success, take the time to coach them on lessons learned and practical next steps to move things forward.

Feedback is a necessary part of leadership. Use straight talk, give positive as well as negative feedback, give feedforward, and always keep the receiver’s dignity and “face” in mind. It is then that feedback can become one of your most powerful tools.