The Inner Game of Feedback Conversations

May 12th, 2011 | 8 Comments

“Everyone here is motivated eleven months out of the year. Then we have performance reviews.” Manager at a Fortune 100 company

Dan’s brief history of performance feedback:

After all these years, why is this so difficult?

The answer might lie in the dialectical nature of people management. On one hand, leaders know they need to have strong, supportive relationships with their staff. On the other hand, they also know they need to challenge people to help them boost their performance. These two goals can feel contradictory; supporting and believing in their people on one hand, confronting and challenging them on the other.

Supporting represents the affirmative aspect of a relationship. It feels good to both parties and immediately brings them closer. Challenging is the negative side. It is important, even necessary for development, but has its risks. The recipient can feel hurt by the challenge and can become defensive or angry at the feedback giver, often damaging the relationship, at least in the short term.

It is almost as if the leader needs to possess two different personalities; a positive, supporting one; and a challenging, critical one. How can a leader combine the two? How can they integrate their wish for a positive, caring relationship with their need to provide corrective and growth-stimulating feedback?

When the leader keeps these two motives separate, they can act against one another. In trying to preserve a good relationship, their caring side prevents them from sharing useful but potentially upsetting information. Then, if the employee’s performance doesn’t improve, the leader can then become disappointed or angry, and tempted to communicate from this frustrated side.

What if leaders were able to integrate these two sides? Could they combine these dual motives for support and challenge? Could they remember their supportive feelings when they are challenging a person’s performance? If they did, their criticisms wouldn’t sting as much. The words they use might even be the same, but their emotional tone would communicate support and caring. The trick would be to hold on to their supportive feelings while delivering difficult feedback.

Professional coaches and coaching-oriented leaders have learned to do this when they deliver difficult feedback. When they cite negative consequences of a behavior and advocate behavior change, they do it with a palpable tone of caring. Many have mastered combining drive and kindness.

This is the challenge for leaders, to integrate these two parts of themselves, their caring and their drive for improvement.

8 Responses to “The Inner Game of Feedback Conversations”

  1. Tita Beal wrote:

    Important questions. Do you remember when we worked on a major company’s motivational management course when we were starting out and had to use a skill model that robotically paired positive with negative feedback on performance. Any time our project manager would start to praise our work, we’d duck.

  2. dan wrote:

    Tita, Yes. Some people call that “sandwiching”. Some models still use it, but must think it wrong-headed as it leads to the “here it comes” reaction you point out.

  3. F. Reynolds wrote:

    In order for a leader to provide constructive feedback they must have cogently observed the subject’s behavior. I think this is where the wheels fall off in most evaluative situations. Leaders/managers often can be too busy with their own areas of responsibility to make qualitative assessments of the performance of their people. In this environment, evaluations tend to be more form than substance based.

    When the leader truly knows the tasks their people are responsible for, evaluates their performance based on this knowledge and cares that they succeed and grow, criticism will be communicated fearlessly and (usually) received gratefully

  4. dan wrote:

    Farrell, I agree. Observation is often the missing piece of actionable feedback. As the pace quickens, it often gets omitted. Let’s bring back MBWA, management-by-walking-around.

  5. Robert Fisher wrote:


    A very real, real-world problem…and a year-round one, actually.

    Well described.

  6. Sheryl Spanier wrote:

    This is a well constructed and very insightful recommendation. In addition to the challenge of combining drive and caring, I know you have also run into the dynamics of “polite” cultures in which leaders and managers resist giving constructive (and helpful) feedback out of a fear of conflict. In this case, the inhibition is more related to how they can handle their own experience of creating an uncontrollable emotional reaction in the recipient (anger, rejection, sadness, fear). It would be interesting to learn about your work in this arena as well.

  7. Mary Walker wrote:

    I am tempted to use self-reflection as a starting point. Looking at my “TO DO” worksheet, I see the classic 4-square design i.e. (I) important / urgent, (II) important / not urgent, etc. What if I were to add two new fields for review at the end of the day: a) most satisfying / rewarding parts of the day and b) opportunities for growth? Or better yet, what if everyone in the organization were to do this on a daily basis? Ideally we would come to see the “two parts”, i.e. support / challenge, as all in a day’s work, and have access to a common vocabulary which enables rich exchange between supervisor and direct report.

  8. dan wrote:

    Mary, That would be neat,and developmental. Attention is the new mantra of the neuro-leadeship crowd; i.e., what you focus on determines what you learn.