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Why You'd Better Start Using the ‘F’ Word

Stephen Coburn/

No, not that word, the feedback word.

There is so much talk about the importance of providing feedback and yet for some reason it still seems to rank at the bottom of the list in terms of organizational competencies (maybe too much talk and not enough action/practice?). Even the most senior leaders struggle to master this important skill and despite all the talk about how important it is, few have the courage to actually do it.

A client called recently to share about how his annual performance review went. He is a leader in his organization and generally considered to be a high performer. He and his manager have a very strong relationship and the reviews over his career have been stellar. He said his manager shared some pretty tough and constructive feedback with him; most of which he agreed with. That said, he felt somewhat blindsided by feedback that he had not heard before and that took him totally by surprise. It wasn’t that he disagreed with the tough feedback. What he disagreed with was the delayed timing and the fact that for months no one talked to him about it—including his manager. Apparently, at least five other people in his organization had feedback to share but no one had the courage to actually do it. This this was a clear illustration of the blind spot quadrant depicted and articulated in the JoHari Window.

He asked his manager why she hadn’t previously shared the feedback. She told him she didn’t provide the feedback because she didn’t think he could handle it at the time.

There are so many lessons out of this story. Here are six:

  1. Stop treating adult professionals with kid gloves and trust they can handle the well-intentioned feedback you have to share. If the person for whom you have constructive feedback truly can’t handle it, you’ve got another issue on your hands altogether and feedback alone isn’t going to address what may be a larger issue.
  2. Employees should never be surprised by constructive feedback provided during an annual review. It’s the No. 1 rule of performance reviews and it’s incumbent upon leaders to provide timely, specific and relevant feedback. Period.
  3. If you truly care about someone or need them to be aware of how their actions and behavior are affecting performance, or affecting others, no matter how difficult the feedback, share it. The person you share it with might actually really appreciate you summoning the courage to say tough things. It could literally change that person’s life.
  4. There is never a perfect time. My client’s manager said she was waiting for the right time to provide the constructive feedback. Six months later she finally provided the feedback during annual review time and it left my client feeling confused and even hurt that the feedback hadn’t been provided earlier. The problem is often there is no right time. There may be a better or worse time, but delaying constructive feedback can make things worse for the individual and for those affected by the behavior/actions warranting the feedback in the first place.
  5. Remember that the person you are sharing the feedback with has feelings and is a human being. Put yourself in that person’s shoes and think about what you would want someone in your position to do in sharing constructive feedback.
  6. Stop being a hypocrite. We can find 100 excuses for why we don’t share constructive feedback. If you postulate that sharing feedback is important, then do it. But don’t say it’s important and then not do it. It will leave people confused and could erode trust.

What’s the most valuable feedback you’ve received? Do you think it was hard or easy for the person to share it with you? What stops you from sharing?

And, out of curiosity, what do you think about annual performance reviews? Tried-and-true gem, or relic of the past?

(Image via Stephen Coburn/

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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