When speaking with leaders in healthcare systems, a term frequently arises as they describe their organization’s culture: “healthcare nice.” This term, for the uninitiated, is not entirely a compliment. While it means that people in the organization are generally kind, compassionate, and collaborative, the negative side of this niceness manifests as the tendency to avoid conflict and difficult discussions. And this phenomenon isn’t unique to healthcare.
In many of our leadership development and coaching engagements, DDI helps leaders in all industries learn to coach proactively, provide feedback that focuses on behavior (not the person), and recognize and nurture the potential within others to grow and change. As with anything, however, there’s both a can-do and will-do component. When leaders are too nice to put their feedback skills to use, we must consider what traits and tendencies underly this aversion.
For anyone who struggles to provide developmental feedback (Hello, conflict-averse leaders!), here are five tips to help you step out of your comfort zone and give more feedback.
1. Don’t be a feedback fortune teller.
Psychologists use the term “fortune telling” to describe distorted thinking that predicts a negative outcome without realistically assessing the odds of it occurring. People who don’t like giving feedback tend to anticipate that it will be met with resistance, dismissiveness, and high emotion. They think things like, “She’ll be so hurt if I tell her this! What I think won’t even matter to him.”
A great antidote to fortune telling is looking for evidence that contradicts these negative assumptions. Try reframing your thoughts to something like, ”She is a resilient person; she can handle this feedback,” or, “He has listened to my ideas before, so I know I have credibility with him.”
Your feedback may be no big deal to them. They may even appreciate it. Or they may have their headphones in and not even hear you! In any case, you’ll be surprised how many molehills hide among your mountains.
2. Share personal stories to create a connection.
During a challenging career transition, I had a skillful leader whose feedback frequently contained anecdotes from when she was in a similar place in her career. This was exactly what I needed. It gave me perspective on my beginner’s mistakes and illustrated the road to improvement and mastery of my craft.
The implicit message in these stories was, “I learned through experience, and so will you.” Her ability to laugh at her past mistakes made my blunders feel less like failures and more like rites of passage. Her vulnerability paved the way for a candid coaching relationship and increased my receptivity to her advice.
It’s important not to confuse vulnerability with self-deprecation. “You made that mistake? Ugh. That happens to me all the time” is not vulnerability. Statements like this simply minimize the problem. Self-deprecation is making yourself smaller to make the other person feel bigger; vulnerability is courageous self-disclosure that fosters a safe environment to learn, fail, and grow.
3. Approach feedback as collaborative problem solving, not a verdict.
Some situations, like addressing serious performance problems, require feedback that’s delivered in a direct and unambiguous manner. In the case of more nuanced course correction, an open two-way discussion works even better. Think of feedback as collaborating to solve a problem, not an indictment of the other person’s skills.
Imagine a discussion with your superstar team member who tends to dominate group discussions. His ideas are great, but some newer members of the team are struggling to join the conversation. Consider two options for approaching him:
- I noticed that you did a lot of the talking in the meeting. You need to give other people the chance to speak up. (What he hears: “You are bad. Please be less bad.”)
- I noticed that Sarah and Drew didn’t say much in the meeting. As one of the most experienced members of the team, do you have ideas about how we can pull them into the discussion more? (What he hears: “You are valued, and you can help me solve a problem.”)
The best part of the second option for the feedback-fearful is that it’s technically not feedback! A key to this collaborative approach is to balance seeking and telling. When first practicing feedback skills, many leaders err on the side of being overly directive. Think about the kind of coaching you value from others. It probably involves them asking questions to better understand your situation and helping you arrive at your own conclusions – rather than just telling you what to do.
4. Exercise caution when using the “feedback sandwich.”
Should your feedback be gluten free? The idea of bookending negative feedback with positive feedback, a.k.a. “the feedback sandwich,” is an age-old formula. It’s not a bad one, either; but the technique falls apart when it’s used as a crutch. If your true intent is to provide pure developmental feedback–and you bolt on insincere praise to soften the blow–your perfunctory positives are white noise. If it’s time to give tough feedback, bring your empathy, kindness, and listening skills; but don’t manufacture positives if they aren’t genuine, specific, and sincere.
Balance isn’t the quality of a discussion; it’s the quality of a relationship. For a new team member getting his sea legs, balance might be providing praise five times for every one time you suggest something he improve. The more authentic your approach is to who you are and the relationship you have with the colleague, the more receptive they will be to your feedback.
5. Become a feedback receptivity Jedi.
If you’re not ready to ask for feedback, you may not be ready to credibly deliver it. Soliciting feedback about yourself provides an opportunity for you to role model feedback receptivity. You can practice listening without interrupting, asking clarifying questions to show you’re truly listening, demonstrating non-defensiveness, and thanking the other person for their feedback.
Each time you ask for feedback, you pave the road for others to listen to yours. This give-and-take of performance information is the hallmark of a coaching culture. When it’s sought and delivered frequently, feedback stops feeling like a scary conversation reserved for egregious mistakes. In any work relationship, the best way to start giving feedback to someone is to first ask for theirs.
When you’re tempted to avoid providing developmental feedback, it’s important to ask, “Do I care about this person and their development enough to allow myself to be uncomfortable?” Remember that the empathy that holds you back from delivering feedback that might hurt their feelings is the same quality that will help you to deliver it in a kind, constructive way. Practice putting some of these tips to use as you work to become the courageous leader your colleagues deserve.
Giving effective feedback is just one way to become a better leader. Check out the rest of DDI’s Leadership Development research, products, and solutions for more information.
Mark Smedley is a Leadership Advisor in DDI’s Healthcare Practice. He works with organizations to design and implement their leadership strategies. One of his passions is helping organizations cultivate more inclusive cultures. When not at work, Mark spends time traveling, reading mystery/suspense novels, and searching for the definitive best coffee shop in his adopted hometown of Atlanta.
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