Beyond structured frameworks: how to give feedback that inspires growth

We need to shift the paradigm from self-serving feedback practices to those that centre on the recipient’s development, says Olga Valadon. Discover five leadership behaviours that will enhance your emotional intelligence and boost your feedback’s effectiveness

Have you ever received feedback that left you puzzled or unsure of its true intent? Perhaps you were told, “Fantastic job! Just keep me copied in on emails and invite me to meetings. But you don’t need me – just keep doing what you’re doing.” The person who got this feedback was me. It was unclear whether this was a compliment or a criticism. The traditional feedback sandwich method, with its positive-negative-positive structure, led to vagueness and confusion.

How can managers give feedback that truly supports growth? How can we shift the paradigm from self-serving feedback practices to those centred on the recipient’s development? Managers must go beyond the blind application of structured feedback frameworks and enhance their emotional intelligence to provide effective and constructive feedback. Here are five non-negotiable leadership behaviours to focus on:

Keep candour and respect in check

Most of us desire harmony. We were taught not to hurt others’ feelings, so we fear offending others. That’s understandable but withholding an honest appraisal when we give feedback has two undesirable results. First, you deny the recipient the chance to learn, grow and improve as an individual and professional. Second, you risk creating a typical situation where both the giver and receiver grow frustrated because nothing changes. This negatively impacts team goals, engagement and culture.

Candour plays a crucial role in effective communication that fosters growth. Candour must, however, be approached with caution, taking into account its potential emotional impact on the recipient. Authentic candour is not about being brutal or resorting to personal attacks. It’s about expressing genuine intentions for improvement. By highlighting our good intentions and providing concrete examples, we can ensure that our feedback is both honest and helpful, empowering the receiver to comprehend the areas where they can achieve growth and improvement. For example, try using the following sentence: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” In this way, candour becomes a tool for fostering development and creating an environment conducive to continuous learning.

Listen to inspire change  

The power of listening can never be underestimated. When we approach someone with criticism or suggestions for improvement, their first instinct is likely to be defensiveness. However, by practicing active listening and thoughtful questioning, we can increase the likelihood that the employee will arrive at their own conclusions, which makes them more inclined to consider or enact necessary change.

Active listening goes beyond hearing what is being said. It is truly understanding the underlying and often unstated message. As we listen attentively and ask relevant questions, we encourage the receiver to self-reflect on their actions and thinking processes. This approach helps them internalise feedback and can lead to a more open-minded and receptive attitude towards personal and professional change.

Show empathy

Providing a supportive space for the receiver to express their thoughts and feelings is crucial when giving feedback. By allowing them to share their side of the story, we practice empathy and demonstrate a willingness to understand another’s perspective.

It’s essential to recognise that it is a significant step for someone whenever they open up and express vulnerability. Verbally acknowledging this difficulty can foster trust and create an environment where individuals feel valued and heard.

Refrain from blaming or making excuses when giving feedback. Instead, the focus should be on understanding circumstances that may be previously unknown. Doing so will offer insight into factors that may have influenced the receiver’s actions or decisions. Reflecting on their silence can shed light on many things, including perceived psychological safety within the team or environment, so considering why the receiver may not have disclosed certain circumstances Is also essential.

Acknowledge strengths

It’s crucial not to underplay or ignore an employee’s strengths when giving feedback. Too often, the emphasis is solely on areas that require improvement, leaving employees feeling demoralised or undervalued.

A strengths-based approach recognises and celebrates an employee’s unique strengths. By acknowledging their talents, skills and accomplishments, we boost their confidence and motivation and create a more positive and supportive work environment. For instance, we could provide specific examples of when a particular strength contributed to the success of a project or positively impacted the team. By focusing on and highlighting these instances, we validate an employee’s abilities and inspire continued growth and excellence.

Create a clear structure to motivate follow-up

To truly support someone’s growth, creating a clear structure that motivates employees to address feedback is essential. Establish clear accountability measures, provide necessary resources and offer opportunities for skill enhancement. By building a partnership based on mutual support and demonstrating a genuine desire to help, we show individuals that they’re not alone in their efforts. We go from telling them we’re with them to supporting them with decisive action.

Olga Valadon is a corporate empathy expert and the founder of leadership, strategy and culture consultancy Change Aligned®

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