How to make feedback less stressful

Regular feedback is one of the most erowerful tools in improving the performance of employees. Recent numbers say 65% of employees want more feedback than they’re getting, with 98% of employees disengaging when managers give little or no feedback.

With numbers like these, there’s no question that regular, meaningful feedback is crucial to business success and employee satisfaction. What is less certain is how to help ensure managers actually give the feedback that delivers better performance and more engaged people.

The answer relates directly to stress. People actively avoid giving feedback because it’s so stressful. If we could remove or lessen that stress reaction, we’d all be much happier to give and receive feedback more often.

A recent webinar from Harvard Business Review: “Making Feedback Less Stressful” aims to do just that.


The best webinar on feedback I’ve ever seen

Whether you need to encourage your leaders to deliver feedback more often – or you’d like to improve your own skills, this SlideShare is a great resource (If you’re working specifically in this space, I suggest bookmarking this 146-slide pack). It’s the brainchild of Ed Batista – executive coach, change management consultant and course facilitator at Stanford University. Batista facilitates ‘Interpersonal Dynamics’ (or ‘Touchy Feely’ as it’s more commonly known), which is one of the most popular electives at the university.

If you’re short on time, let me help. In this article, I’m going to talk about the two most important things that I took away from Batista’s webinar on making feedback less stressful.

Takeaway one: Why is feedback typically so stressful?

Before looking at how to reduce the stress around feedback, we need to understand why it’s so uncomfortable. Batista doesn’t beat around the bush here: “Feedback is a social threat”, he says. Just like all threats, it causes physiological, emotional and cognitive responses. These include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Heightened blood pressure
  • Anger, aggression, fear and anxiety
  • A negativity bias

Of course, it’s the person receiving the feedback that experiences these stress-inducing reactions. However, being the person giving the feedback and being responsible for such uncomfortable reactions is no picnic either.

Takeaway two: How you can personally make feedback less stressful

If you knew your feedback was going to be accepted gratefully and acted on every time, how would that affect your management behaviour? My guess is that you’d deliver feedback much more often.

In his presentation, Batista suggests two frameworks for delivering effective  feedback. Both of the frameworks focus on feelings – but from different perspectives:

Framework 1: A simple equation (that’s quick to remember)

This framework is an easy-to-remember equation that requires you to draw on your own feelings (as the feedback giver). If you link the feedback to an emotion you are feeling, it tends resonate more and have a longer-term impact

“When you [X], I feel [Y]”

[X] specifies a behaviour and clarifies what you’re talking about.

[Y] specifies an emotion, creating interest and influencing future behaviour.

For example: “David, when you keep making avoidable mistakes in these mark ups, I feel really frustrated.”

Framework 2: The SCARF model (for when you have more time to plan)

When you give feedback, you risk threatening five components of social situations: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

Before you give feedback, consider the recipient’s thoughts and feelings – and reframe your feedback accordingly:

Status

Status is a person’s relative importance to others. If their status is threatened they will feel like they are being spoken down to, undermined or patronised.

How to reduce the status threat

Encourage people to give themselves feedback on their own performance:

“How do you think that went? How might you do it better next time?”

You may also want to give praise in public.

Certainty

Certainty concerns the future – and how predictable or secure it is. At its worst, threatened certainty may manifest as a fear of being demoted or even fired.

How to reduce the certainty threat

Establishing clear expectations is the best way to increase certainty. While expectations would generally be set prior to a task beginning, you can give feedback during the task to help reduce certainty threat:

“Remember, the ideal outcome here is…”

Autonomy 

If someone has autonomy, they have a sense of control over events and they have choices available to them. If feedback is seen as micro-managing, it will feel like choices are being taken away.

How to reduce the autonomy threat

As a threat to autonomy could feel like losing choices, the best way to avoid a negative reaction is to give choices as part of your feedback:

“Here are two options that might work, which do you prefer?”

Relatedness

Relatedness involves deciding whether someone is a friend or a foe. A healthy manager-employee relationship can be damaged if feedback threatens relatedness.

How to reduce the relatedness threat

Encouraging friendships is a good way to reduce this threat, especially if people work remotely. At the point of giving feedback however, you may want to try personally relating to the task at hand:

“I had to do this last week/last year and I struggled, try this next time it might help.”

Fairness

To evaluate whether feedback is fair or not, the recipient will look at the actions of other employees and the feedback given to them. It is important that your feedback is based on fact too – not an assumption or a generalisation.

How to reduce the fairness threat:

Make it clear that you are not treating one person differently to another:

“Like I just said to Sid…”

For more detail, check out ‘SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others’ by David Rock – the creator of the SCARF model.

In conclusion…

Increasing the frequency of feedback is a sure-fire way to improve performance and engagement – both at the individual and team level.

However, telling your leaders to give feedback more often is only part of the story. Address the reason/s why people don’t naturally give feedback: complacency can be a problem, but the more probable reason is the uncomfortable stress reaction people often experience when both giving and receiving feedback.

Training everyone (including leaders) in the art of feedback is a great opportunity for companies wanting to step-up performance and deliver stronger results. I recommend using this webinar as a starting point. The great news is, everyone can learn to give better feedback more easily, with less stress for both the giver and the receiver.

Have you seen any other great resources on feedback? Let me know via Twitter: @cognology.

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

2 replies
  1. Ed Batista
    Ed Batista says:

    Thanks, Jon–I appreciate the enthusiastic review, and I think you do an excellent job here of capturing some of my key points. A really well-done writeup. My only suggestion is to address the issue of fairness by using David Bradford’s “Net model” in order to minimize the likelihood of a defensive response.

    Even when we deliver feedback evenhandedly to multiple people, it can still easily be perceived as “unfair” by any one of them. Ensuring that we don’t “cross the Net” and stay focused on their behavior and our response (rather than our assumptions about their motives) increases the likelihood that our feedback will be perceived as fair. (Note that HBR’s written summary of my remarks along with the archived video is now available on my site.)

    And two corrections about me and my role at Stanford: First, by no means is Interpersonal Dynamics “my” course. It was first taught at the GSB in 1968, and a number of faculty have taught it since then, notably David Bradford, Mary Ann Huckabay (my own professor), Carole Robin and Scott Bristol, among others. I’ve facilitated in the course 16 times, working with many different faculty members, and I’ll join the faculty and will teach my own section next year. Also, outside of my work at Stanford I’m primarily an executive coach, working mainly with tech CEOs in San Francisco. I do some change management consulting with startups on culture and communication issues, but that’s a smaller aspect of my practice.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up–a very useful resource.

    Reply
  2. Jon Windust
    Jon Windust says:

    Hi Ed, thanks for the fantastic resource and your comment. I’ve made some quick amends to the article reflecting your role at Stanford and consulting practice.

    Would you be interested in penning a short follow-up piece on the “Net model”? I think this is a fascinating topic that Australian talent management professionals would get a lot out of. (There’s some background info on blog readership here http://www.cognology.com.au/guest-blogging-opportunity-thought-leaders-hr-talent-performance/)

    Thanks again – looking forward to staying in touch.
    Jon

    Reply

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