Feedback is hard. There are plenty of posts, articles and books on how to grow a stronger culture of feedback, feedback traps and numerous other topics. But like any process - especially where humans are involved - optimising your feedback loop can become difficult and complicated. This is never more true than when a manager is tasked with providing feedback down their reporting lines to their people.
First of all, let's agree on what the definition of feedback is in a workplace or team setting: Feedback is information — it describes a behaviour or result with specific examples. Feedback is not judgement or criticism!
How do you know how effective you are at giving your people information they can take away and work with? As a manager, if you're not even asking yourself this question then now might be a good time to check other assumptions you're making about your performance. The single most critical element in any team dynamic is to create a culture of trust. If your people don't feel safe being honest and vulnerable with you, then there is no solid base from which to deliver your best possible results. Team members will tend towards defensive behaviours, and will be reluctant to ask for help from – or assist – each other. It creates a fractured and dysfunctional team dynamic and you're more likely to see high turnover or an inward focus from team members as they focus on their own tasks at the expense of communicating with each other.
The sort of feedback culture you create depends heavily on how safe your people are in offering their honest views and advice.
While it's useful to hear how the people above you in the hierarchy view your work, it's not sufficient. It’s also important for managers to understand how well they are doing in supporting others to do their work - Esther Derby (2008)
There is an innate power dynamic with any line management relationship which means your people may feel reluctant to openly discuss concerns with you. That dynamic is heavily affected by the style and substance of feedback you offer the team.
I've had my share of good managers to whom I aspire to emulate, toxic managers who I simply tolerated until I could find a new job, and plenty in between. A manager who provides performance feedback that has some specific, time-bound data that you can objectively look at as a benchmark to improve is infinitely a better leader than someone who simply goes through the motions every three or six months at performance review time and throws a few zingers into the conversation just to consolidate their authority.
For example, saying "A lot of your team mates are wondering why you should be going to another conference when your performance hasn't been up to scratch" does considerably more damage than help. This sort of feedback offers little that the receiver can work with: there is no clear data or evidence to back up the claim, it reinforces a culture of distrust in the team ("are they saying that about me? I thought we'd been really friendly and were getting on well") and doesn't offer any concrete actions that the receiver can use to focus on improving. If the manager is only showing up for quarterly reviews and offering this as feedback, the problem is that much worse because of how much time may have elapsed between the issue first arising and the receiver being made aware of it.
How would a team member be expected to respond to this? If you aren't even aware of how you're delivering the feedback (although this example doesn't really qualify as true feedback), what recourse or response can the person offer after being blind-sided with that comment? Feedback has effectively become a one-way street and the team member will be more likely to be defensive in his or her future interactions.
Effective managers should be looking at the data available to them, making the effort to understand and interpret it, and make small, incremental improvements for the benefit of the wider team. In other words, in order to create an environment where people can achieve their best, there needs to be a way for the manager to gain feedback on their feedback. This may need to be anonymous (until it's clear the team feel safe in offering input and advice openly and honestly) to start with.
The best article I've read on how a manager might seek productive, meaningful feedback on what's important to their team is this article from Esther Derby. In it, she discusses a practical approach to gathering data and discussing that with the team without the need to have any individual within it stick their head "above the parapet". This works well if the manager is self-aware enough that they want to improve without the appearance of favouritism or retribution.
What about a situation where the team - or individuals within it - feels that they need something more from their manager but feel unsafe in raising those concerns directly?
Moving the needle
Checking your assumptions and making an effort to be more self-aware of your own style and approach as a leader is an important part of constructing a functional base for the team (ref: "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" by Patrick Lencioni).
Asking a manager to adjust or improve the way they approach interactions with the team can often feel like an intimidating problem. Asking the team to elect a trusted third party outside the immediate team - possibly another manager or team lead - to whom they'd feel safe providing anonymous feedback might provide a channel through which people feel more willing to submit feedback. This person is sometimes referred to as a "Bomb Disposal Robot", because they are able to defuse tense situations without the risk of anyone being harmed in the process. However, it should be said that if this becomes a regularly, or worse - heavily, used medium then it's possible there's a broader issue of safety and trust within the team that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Gerald M. Weinberg calls self-blindness the "number one obstacle to innovation".
What I need is a consultant, someone to watch me and report to me what I can't see for myself. The only way we can see ourselves is through other people
Weinberg recommends keeping a personal journal in which you write for 5 minutes each work day and record the events of your day in a "facts, feelings, findings" style, or whatever feels the most natural to gain a personal account of what stood out for you that day.
All feedback starts by creating an opening or opportunity. It should describe a behaviour or result without resorting to labels or judgements, and it should be a two-way street that provides the receiver time to process what was said and formulate a response.
The last part is arguably the most important: getting feedback on the way in which you deliver feedback ensures that you're able to set your dial to the right levels for each person so that they're more comfortable discussing things with you, and that you're delivering your messages in the right way. Aiming for future outcomes rather than atoning for the sins of the past means that people will be more willing to sign on to the goals and action points of the conversation. This moves the boat forward. It builds safety and trust. It enables a more productive team. It lets you succeed. And at the end of the day, that is what management should be chiefly concerned with.