The First Rule of Feedback: Make it Safe

Feedback is risky business

There is one inviolable rule of feedback: make it safe.  We can author the most poignant messages, the most pithy and incisive review, but they will all miss their mark if the individual doesn’t feel like their future is safe when they’re hearing it.  This feeling cannot be ‘sold’ by the person giving feedback.  They must feel it viscerally, down to their marrow.  In its absence, the receiver will move into a fight-or-flight mode in direct proportion to the weight of feedback. (Feedback on the pot of coffee I made this morning might make me less concerned than feedback on my performance managing new accounts.)  

As a result, every word becomes a potential threat to scan and a bullet to dodge.  Their ego will work overtime to distort, refute or vilify the message because there’s just too much danger in accepting it.  They build internal barriers to explain why the observation wasn’t totally accurate, why the feedback isn’t really applicable.  Even if unvoiced, they are building these walls and moats in their minds.  A humble smile with silent head nodding is a sure sign of moat-building.    

Unsafe feedback plays Chutes & Ladders with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Our goal was to improve self-actualization (the pinnacle of our developmental hierarchy) but instead we took a slide all the way down to ‘Safety’ (just one step above our need for food and water).  This obliterates Belonging and Esteem, at least in the immediate sense. What growth could occur in that internal environment?

How do we make feedback safe?  

  • Start with you.  

    • We need to get over our concern for being liked versus giving feedback that will help someone improve.  It’s a sucker’s choice to assume we can only have either harmony or improvement.
    • We need to get over the anxiety of having to deliver unpleasant news.  Funnel the energy into making feedback safe.
    • We must develop compassion for the person on the other side of the table.  Instead of offering them disdain, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt
    • Know what your goals are. What do you want the behavior to be like when this over?  What type of relationship would you like to have with the person in the long run?
  • Find a time when the person is ready for feedback.

    • The receiver of feedback needs to feel in control.  Control equals safety to our monkey minds.  Let them pick a time and ask for their agreement on the location.  Their act of just showing up reiterates to them that they want to receive feedback, that it was an act of volition.  
  • Clarify your goals with the other person.

    • Explaining that your goal is a changed behavior (versus a changed ‘them’) and about protecting their success let’s them know that you envision a safe future for them.  Providing only the negative (“You’ll end up unemployed if you keep this up.”) does the opposite.
    • These goals will be congruent with their own, underscoring that you’re interested in the same outcome they are.
  • Make them a partner in the discussion.

    • Ask them to tell their story of the event.  What occurred, from their perspective?  
    • Paraphrase and prime.  Summarize what you’re hearing to underscore their message was delivered.  If you see a river of dangerous subtext building, call it out. (“I can imagine how this might seem unfair.”)
  • Look out for the ‘safety dance’.

    • Be aware of indicators that the person no longer feels safe.  This might include: 
      • Shifting position in their seat frequently
      • Crossing their arms or legs
      • Shifting their body to face away from you.
      • Short or non-existent replies, especially with a silent nod and light smile.
      • Defensive statements that try to explain away the incident versus taking responsibility for it (though we need to be aware that sometimes we didn’t reach the correct conclusion in an observation; we might invent a story that supports our preexisting biases).
      • Counter-attacks.  They may push back that it was someone else’s fault, or that they were set up to fail.

Making feedback safe needs to be our first goal.  Giving feedback doesn’t have to elicit a primal fight-or-flight response, it doesn’t have to be a minefield.  Good communication that underscores our positive intentions and directly addressing likely worries or misconceptions can lead to a valuable pool of shared meaning.  These are the tools that allow us to be direct and build the best outcome for our team members and ourselves.  

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