This cautionary tale tells the story of Dawn, who worked for a large customer service organisation. During one of those team building awaydays, they were asked to write some anonymous feedback for someone they worked with, who they wished didn’t behave the way they did.
Dawn wrote a lengthy letter, writing what she thought of Gemma, a younger manager she worked with. Dawn thought Gemma was too abrasive, and not considerate enough of others in the team. She didn’t hold back in the letter – after all, it was anonymous.
Only, it wasn’t. The trainers pulled a sneaky trick on the delegates. They were then asked to sit opposite the person for whom they had written this no holds barred feedback and read it out to them. My desktop won’t play along and let me post an emoji for this, but it would be the shocked one. I was horrified for Dawn.
I cannot see what is to be gained from this. I’m a big advocate of feedback. It is one of the best ways of learning and improving relationships with others. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to deliver it. This was definitely the wrong way. There are three obvious problems with the approach taken here.
What's the problem?
- The giver hasn’t prepared appropriately. Dawn thought she was just being given the opportunity to vent, get things off her chest. We’ve all done this in private, not expecting the other party to know what we’re saying. If she’d known she would have to communicate her thoughts to Gemma, she may have written in a more constructive way. She may, of course, have just felt it wasn’t worth the effort, or chickened out, and not stated the real problem. Which I guess is why the trainer thought it a good idea to lie about it being anonymous.
- Neither has the receiver – they may not be ready to learn from it. And if it’s just a list of complaints, things people don’t like about you, that’s really hard to listen to and not conducive to opening up a spirit of learning. I imagine that Gemma just became defensive. In fact, recent research on the brain confirms that negative feedback stimulates the 'fight or flight' response in us - even when we've asked for it. There's more about this response in this Harvard Business Review article by Buckingham and Goodall (see below also).
- It is not focused on improving the working relationship between the two parties. This, of course, is the real issue I have with the approach. Surely the purpose of a team building awayday is to build good team working? This can only happen if there are good relationships. I asked Dawn what happened to her working relationship with Gemma after. (Oh, and just to make matters worse, Gemma had also shared what she thought of Dawn in the same way.) Unsurprisingly, things did not exactly improve between them.
Is there a better way?
Yes. Yes there is.
On a day to day, informal basis, make sure the only uninvited feedback you give is positive. Make sure it is to help someone feel good. Make it as specific as you can. And genuine. And work related. As often as you can, not just ‘good job on that presentation’ but ‘I can see you were really thorough in your research for that presentation, I can see how hard you worked. I especially like the point about.....because.....’
If you’re invited to give feedback (by the actual person, not by a trainer who lies about it!) then you can give honest feedback about where they could improve. There’s still a sensitive way to do this though. We’ve all heard of the sandwich technique. Sometimes known as the shit sandwich; quite possibly because it’s often uninvited feedback, and done in a clumsy fashion. ‘I’m saying something nice about you as a cover for the criticism I really want to give you, then I suppose I have to say something else nice.’ The nice things somehow don’t seem sincere.
But if you are asked to give feedback, keep to the same rules of making it specific and genuine. And yes, you do need to find actual positives to share, even when you’re also delivering a point where someone can improve. You still need to ensure they feel good about your feedback, and you can only do this by being genuine about wanting to help them. The sandwich technique comes from a good place, and if you bear this in mind, that you want the person to feel good, then you can deliver feedback that will actually help.
What I think this trainer should have done is acknowledge that the delegates may not have had the skills, or be in the right place with a working relationship, to deliver effective feedback on 'areas for improvement'. The task then, was to help them gain the skills. Or alternatively, spend some time on looking at why relationships may not be as good as they could be at that workplace. Maybe both.
And if you’re ever in a position where you’re asked to do this, here’s my advice; call the trainer out on it. Ask them what the purpose is, what is the exercise meant to achieve? If they have an answer, but you don’t think the objective will be achieved, say so. And I'll be very surprised if they do have an effective answer. Lead a mutiny and refuse to just read out a letter that you didn’t intend the other party to hear. Although, seriously, I hope team building has progressed past this kind of nonsense. To be fair, this did happen some time ago, and we’ve learned so much more about how people learn, how the brain responds to threatening situations, and how to foster good working relationships since then.
As a counterpoint, I once went to a team building away day that did something like this far more effectively. We were split into small groups, and had to do a round robin type of exercise. We had puzzles to solve, one I remember was to build something in lego. There were other types of practical tasks too. After a given amount of time, we moved to the next table, and had to work on a different task. I remember being really confused about what we should be doing, should we undo the previous team’s work and start again, or carry on where they left off? The trainers refused to answer, telling us it was up to us. By the end of the exercise, I’d twigged. I realised the point was, we’re all supposed to be on the same team, we’re all working towards the same aims, our communication needed to improve so that we could build on what the previous group had done. Not undo it all and start again, destroying what they had achieved, wasting everyone’s time and the organisation's resources.
Many years later, this lesson remains imprinted on my brain. This was before I understood about purpose at work. Before I understood how fundamental it is to feel valued at work. At least before I understood it at an intellectual level, because those things had long been important to me on a visceral level. But this is a much better memory than being coerced into sharing some negative feedback to a antagonist at work.
Do we need feedback at all?
Let’s take the concept of negative feedback and examine it a little more closely. I was going to conclude that feedback is good, but negative feedback should be handled carefully. But then I remembered something I read just recently. In Nine Lies about Work, Buckingham and Goodall’s lie #5 is ‘people need feedback’. Should we even give negative feedback at all? Parenting guides talk about ignoring bad behaviour in your children and praise the good. (Easier said than done, I know!) Does this apply to the workplace too?
Looking back over workplace experiments and citing some research by Gallup, the engagement at work people, Buckingham and Goodall conclude that what people need is not feedback, but attention. The Gallup research found that the worst scenario for workplace engagement was where managers paid no attention whatsoever to their team. Even negative feedback is attention, and this achieved forty times more effectiveness in engaging the team. So it looks like a win. But as the point of engagement is to achieve more effective performance, is this still the best way to get this result? You might not be surprised to learn that positive feedback is more effective still, but you may be surprised to learn that it is thirty times more powerful again than negative feedback.
Buckingham and Goodall also borrow from the research on personal relationships; it has been found that a happy marriage has a positive to negative ratio of between three to one or five to one – so for each negative experience, you need to give positive attention three to five times. You can watch my review of Nine Lies about Work here. If you want to explore these ideas further, or if you still need convincing of the merits, I highly recommend a read of the book.
So what are the takeaways from this?
If you’re a manager and want to get the best out of your people, give them positive attention – catch them doing something right, and feed that back to them, help them see what was working.
If you’re a team member and wish you got on better with colleagues and managers, give them some positive feedback. As often as you can. It counts just as much whatever your place in the team.
If you’re a trainer, help your students to understand this concept.
If you'd like more ideas on how to be happier at work, you can get a free download here
What is your experience? Do you have any other tips for improving working relationships that have helped you? Let me know in the comments below.
Buckingham, Marcus and Goodall, Ashley, 2019 Nine Lies about Work, Harvard Business Review Press Boston, Massachusetts