How easy is to give colleagues a piece of your mind?
I’m on a long-haul flight as I write this, and fortunate enough to have been given a choice of meals (though I should point out, for the frugally minded: I am not in business or first class!). When I heard the options, I assumed everyone would choose the beef rather than the chicken; and so was very surprised to discover that everyone around me – without exception – went for the chicken. Now, I’m sure you can read too much into people’s meal choices (that’s what I’m doing now); but whilst it is a trivial example, it also demonstrates how we often make assumptions about what other people think, or the judgements that they are likely to make, in a given situation.
This curious incident has made me ponder more deeply about how we form our perspectives of others and how we make assumptions about their perspectives – not least their views about us, and the impact we have on them. This is highly topical for me as I am currently coaching a number of senior executives in major organisations, and because I am travelling to run a development programme which is precisely about self awareness and leaders’ impact on others.
During a series of feedback conversations with the peers of a leader I am working with, it became apparent to me (not for the first time in my career) how bad some people are at giving feedback to each other. This leader is desperate to get the honest views of his colleagues – and indeed has asked them directly on numerous occasions. But, like most people who ask their colleagues this, what he has tended to hear is a bland stream of “yes you are great/you are doing fine”, with the occasional extraordinarily rare nugget of useful constructive feedback.
The reality is that very many people who are open to feedback are still pretty unwilling to give it to others. It is a tricky situation. Providing meaningful feedback to a colleague is risky: how will they react, and were they really expecting it? It’s an “I’m not going to show you mine until you show me yours” moment and “I can’t be sure how honest to be, until I know how honest you are going to be with me, and how you are going to take it”.
It is little surprise that colleagues end up doing this polite little dance around each other – it is the feedback equivalent of that wonderful thing British people do when they bump into each other and both apologise. Incidentally, I once saw someone apologising to another passenger on a train: “I’m really sorry, but you seem to have put your suitcase on my foot”.
Clients ask me whether this reluctance to provide feedback is a particularly British phenomenon. I can tell you that in my experience it is not. I work in a very international organisation and with clients of a range of nationalities. There are certainly some countries and cultures where people tend to be more direct, but being direct is not the same as giving – and being open to – constructive feedback (and sometimes it is precisely the opposite). I have yet to work in a culture where people are consistently prepared to give and receive frank feedback, and stereotypes are often pretty unreliable guides.
This is a difficult nut to crack, even if we agree that open feedback is a desirable attribute in the first place. It’s one of those issues where people think it sounds good without necessarily thinking through the implications. The clearest example of feedback we get in popular culture (think TV talent shows) is singularly unhelpful in some respects and lurches between highly destructive (“that was the worst performance I have ever heard”) to bland and uninformative (“you’re amazing and you really made that song your own”).
So back to my in-flight meal. Not only does it spark some thoughts about how we view the world and our assumptions about other people, it is also a little worrying if you are as insecure as me – maybe everyone else knew something about the meal choice that I didn’t (was it really beef, for instance?). Bon appétit!
Graeme is a director at global management consultancy, Hay Group, specialising in leadership and talent management. He is a passionate advocate for the role leaders can (and should) play in business and society, and likes to spend his spare time socialising, cycling, and thinking.
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