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Sheila Heen, a leadership coach who focuses on negotiation and decision-making in the workplace, recently co-authored the book “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.” Heen spoke about communication between employees and managers with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What is the key to providing meaningful feedback to employees?

A. At the end of the day, how leaders receive feedback is actually more important than how they give feedback. Being a skilled giver is great, but the receiver is the one who is in charge of what they let in, what meaning they make of it and how they decide to change. So if you want your team to have high-quality performance conversations, the real leverage is in modeling the skills of seeking out input, working to understand it and wrestling with continuous improvement. That shows your team that regardless of the quality of the feedback, as receivers we should be able to pull something useful out of it. And as we work together to become better receivers, we have richer conversations — whether we’re giving or receiving.

Q. Are there common misunderstandings when bosses try to communicate with their employees?

A. One problem is that we use the word feedback to represent three different kinds of things: appreciation, coaching and evaluation. Things get confusing when these get muddled together, which is quite common. Appreciation says, “I value you. I see that you are working hard. You matter.” Coaching tells someone how they can get better at something. Evaluation — your rating or ranking — is the most anxiety producing, because it determines whether an individual will get a promotion or a pay raise, and few of us enjoy being judged. In the workplace, appreciation often gets neglected entirely and evaluation becomes so emotionally dominant that it drowns out the coaching.

Q. How important is the appreciation element in manager-employee relationships?

A. There was a Department of Labor study a number of years ago that showed that 93 percent of American workers feel underappreciated at work. And of the people who left their jobs voluntarily, almost half cited being underappreciated as the primary reason they left. So in terms of talent retention and motivation, thinking about ways to genuinely express appreciation can lay the foundation for people to be motivated and feel valued.

Some people need public recognition, some people need quality time or to be assigned important projects, and some want to see it in their paycheck. It’s not just saying thank you, it’s about being genuine and thinking, “What will tell this person that I really see and value them?”

Q. What are some of the problems to effectively providing and receiving advice in the workplace?

Sheila Heen (Credit: Joe Wallace) Sheila Heen (Credit: Joe Wallace)

A. We found that people have three kinds of triggers that produce reactions to feedback, and we refer to those as “see,” “we” and “me.” “See” triggers have to do with the challenge of seeing what the giver is trying to tell you, and seeing yourself accurately. “We” triggers are connected to who is giving us feedback and the relationship with that person. “Me” triggers relate to the unique ways that individuals respond to feedback based on their personalities and wiring.

You have people who are extremely sensitive to feedback and others who you have to hit over the head for them to even pay attention. There is enormous variation in sensitivity — up to 3,000 percent — between individuals, and it is difficult to give feedback without knowing how someone is going to respond.

Q. How can individuals better receive feedback?

A. Don’t decide what you think about the feedback instantly. Our immediate reaction is to try to decide if the feedback is right or wrong. If it’s right, that’s incredibly upsetting. If it’s wrong, I can shelve it and move on with my day and start to recover. So we’re really good at wrong-spotting: identifying everything that is wrong with the feedback. But even if feedback is 90 percent wrong, if 10 percent is on target, it gives you something to think about. So wrestle to understand what the giver means by “be more confident” (what do they think I should do differently?) and to see your own blind spots (what am I doing that doesn’t look confident?) before you decide whether it’s something you want to experiment with or not.

Finally, don’t ask, “Do you have any feedback for me?”  Nobody knows how to answer that question. Instead, ask for one thing. “What’s one thing you see me doing (or failing to do) that’s getting in my own way?” That they can answer — and their answer is more likely to be concrete and useful to you.

Read also:

Tips for overcoming workplace misunderstandings

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