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  • Peter Allen

Feedback and the Poison Tree

How does your organization handle feedback?

Confrontation or avoidance?

There’s a broad spectrum of approaches to telling employees what’s working and what’s not. Some companies are famous for being highly confrontational, with feedback being given quite publicly, just like old-fashioned schools, which would post exam results for all to see. (My high school biology teacher embraced this practice: He announced our grades and our names as he handed papers back to us in class, from “A triple plus” to “F cubed.”) Other organizations have cultures hemmed in by no-talk rules, in which people actively seek to avoid telling colleagues what they think - though they may well complain to others. 

Obviously confrontations can be uncomfortable, and if they are handled badly they can do significant damage. Someone I know recently referred to these as “public executions” - criticism and even firings carried on in view of other staff. At Netflix, at least in the past, “dozens or even hundreds of people” would see emails or attend meetings explaining why employees had been fired. In reaction to this, it’s easy to understand why people might avoid confrontation.

From a systems point of view, both extremes are dangerous. Public shaming makes it very clear to other employees what not to do, but there’s a significant risk of organizational damage. Teamwork and empathy, which hold organizations together, are threatened (think of East Germany, where there was not only a massive secret police network, but also a culture in which citizens - and even spouses - spied on one another). The spirit of innovation is endangered as well: If mistakes are fiercely punished, then it’s far safer, and wiser, to do only what has been done before.

A Poison Tree

But avoiding confrontation creates different kinds of problems. In organizations that discourage direct conflict resolution, employees don’t know when their managers are unhappy with them; concerns can’t be addressed, and so persist; gossip thrives; and small problems become large ones.

William Blake (1757-1827) described this situation in one of his most famous poems, “A Poison Tree.”

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath. My wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe;

I told it not. My wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears;

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,

When the night had veiled the pole.

In the morning glad I see

My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree.

It may be satisfying to think of one’s rival “outstretched beneath the tree,” but in terms of organizational health, it’s a disaster. People (to state the obvious) should not be killing one another at work.

Building Feedback into the Culture

What’s the answer, then? No surprise: It’s a culture of frequent, balanced, and skilful feedback.

  • Frequent: Feedback works really well under the right circumstances. It needs to be frequent and consistent (so that it isn’t reserved for exceptional circumstances, e.g., when something is really bad). 

  • Balanced: Feedback should be positive at least as often as it is critical or developmental. Indeed, research has shown that the ratio of positive to critical feedback needs to be well above even; in marriages, in fact, it should be 5:1

  • Skilful: both givers and recipients of feedback need to know how and when to give it. It is a very normal human response to resist rather than learn and grow from poorly directed feedback.  Knowing and applying the guidelines for sensitive and effective feedback can help both giver and receiver.

It’s most helpful to follow these simple principles:

  • Base feedback on facts

  • Give it as soon as possible after the observed incident 

  • Be specific about what was good or bad, and why

  • Talk about the impact of what was observed, and 

  • Include recommendations for future behavior. 

Based on my observations of how people accept feedback, I also encourage people to follow the “praise in public/criticize in private” principle.

And feedback needs to be built into an organizational practice. Like so many other things, when leaders institutionalize and model behavior, it becomes part of the culture. The organizations I know of that do this best start by teaching feedback techniques early in the employee life cycle, model it at all levels, and include it in performance conversations on a regular basis. Yes, it takes time, and yes, it’s definitely uncomfortable at first, but it’s far better than the alternative.

If your organization’s feedback culture could be improved, here are three things you can do.

  • Build your skills. There are plenty of articles available on line - for example, one from Forbes (another here) and another from HBR. Coursera also has a highly rated module. Or speak to your learning and development colleagues about resources your company may already have.

  • Start doing it yourself. Explain to your colleagues (including manager, peers, and direct reports) that you’re making feedback part of your regular practice, and that you’d welcome their help in getting better at it. Frame your efforts as attempts, and invite feedback on your feedback!

  • Work with your People team to teach feedback techniques department- or company-wide, especially in preparation for performance reviews, and survey employees to see what’s working and what’s not. 

How are your team and your company handling feedback? If you’d like to talk about it, let me know!

Schedule a chat with me on Calendly today.

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