I was interviewing Gisele, manager of a company where we were starting a Target Teal project. I couldn’t believe what I heard:

Gisele: Peter is very irresponsible. I went on vacation, I came back and now I saw that he did almost nothing of what I asked for.
Davi: What did you ask for?
Gisele: I left a to-do list for him to handle. I hoped the list would be done by now and that he would have done more.
Davi: Why did it bother you?
Gisele: As manager we always expect more, right? If I asked for 10, I want 20. He should know that.
Davi: Did you tell him about it?
Gisele: Not yet. I need to call him for a chat. He needs some feedback.

That last comment saddened me. How can one find that the other is wrong and needs to change without having a minimum amount of clarification before? But what upset me most was the anticipation of a possible scenario. Probably Gisele would have a one-sided conversation with Peter to unload a series of orders. Orders, if not met, would damage Peter’s reputation in the organization. A subtle threat of dismissal and exclusion from the group disguised as a “feedback session”. I didn’t know what really happened, although I have experienced similar scenarios several times in other companies.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe Gisele is the villain of history. She is also the victim of a system that naturally shapes and selects “leaders” with her profile. Let’s take a closer look at the situation from the perspective of how to give feedback.

What’s wrong with giving feedback in that way?

Imagining that Gisele in fact did what I suppose she would have done, we come across some “problems” in the approach of how to give feedback practiced by her.

Unobservable complexity. An observer can never see the whole system, unless the complexity of that observer is equivalent to that of the system. Therefore, our conclusions are always failures and incomplete simplifications of reality. There is information we don’t have that can radically change the meaning we attribute to what we observe. Maybe Peter got sick. Perhaps the tasks were more complex than Gisele initially estimated. Maybe Peter worked on something more important. And endless other possibilities. What’s the best way to find out? Asking him!

Gisele believes that feedback is about Peter, when in fact feedback is also about her. She might have wondered: Why is this important to me? Probably she wants to be a good manager. She wants to be recognized by others and by the organization. She wants her team to work well so she can reach her personal goals. Obviously, if none of this was important to her, she would not even bother to talk to him, right?

The silent revenge. Often we want the other (whom we consider guilty) to suffer what we suffer. Maybe Gisele’s boss asked her for a project that she further delegated to Peter. For Gisele’s boss that’s not important: he just labeled her as incompetent. Gisele then gets very frustrated and blames Peter for what happened, since the task had been delegated to him. Unfortunately things are not so simple. The world is complex and there are usually many other things that contribute to a particular event that unfolds. Things we don’t know. Blaming others doesn’t help much to fix the situation.

Revenge can also trigger an endless cycle of retaliation, as Peter probably won’t recognize that he is to blame.

Climbing the ladder of inference. When Gisele starts to act on the (unvalidated) assumptions she builds on Peter, this tends to come true. Gisele could understand that Peter is lazy and would start treating him that way, delegating less. Peter would then start doing fewer and fewer tasks, becoming unmotivated and not understanding what happened. Finally Peter would begin to really compose that image of a lazy person that Gisele built from the observations of his behavior. Outcome of the story: a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When we quickly climb the ladder of inference to give feedback, we are placing ourselves more in our own world than having a useful conversation.

But I am responsible for giving feedback. I am the boss!

You are a leader, manager, or boss. But you are also a person with needs. Let’s work on this a bit. Others expect you to give feedback, as it’s part of your role. What if you don’t? What happens? Is your image as a manager damaged? Can you be fired? You won’t be able to pay your bills?

Realize that after all, everything we do is for our needs. Forget this thing about being boss. That’s not why you have to give feedback. It’s because what you observe in the other bothers you in some way.

At Target Teal we believe that feedback is not the responsibility of the boss, but everyone’s. A common approach is to use Cultural Design to create artifacts that facilitate the exchange of feedbacks between peers.

How to give feedback more effectively

Here are some feedback tips that could help you or Gisele:

Feedback is (usually) a request. In general what you expect when sharing feedback with someone is that this information helps that person to adapt his or her own behavior. When you have something to ask for, do so explicitly. Don’t pretend that you have no intention when giving feedback. Communicate the request clearly. Even if you are the boss and have authority, treat the other as a person who can make a choice.

Share your needs and become vulnerable. Yes, talking about your feelings and needs when giving feedback can help a lot. This makes what you are asking for more legitimate and invites the other to do the same. If you hide things, the other person is likely to be suspicious about your intentions. Also be careful not to carry your description of the situation with judgments. Focus on the facts and how they impact you.

State your intention and share all relevant information. Make everything that is related to the problem explicit. Be sure to share something that you think is relevant, including your intentions with the feedback. In general, when we hide things that are important, our message becomes inconsistent to the listener.

And in the end…

You can only change yourself. Maybe you can offer information and make requests that may impact others. But if that doesn’t work out, focus on yourself. After all, when you want to give feedback it’s not about the other person. It’s about your needs.