“Giving feedback” is outdated. Try this instead.

Blog | April 20, 2021

Can I give you some feedback?

Before you even answer, how does that feel?

Immediately you feel on edge and defensive. Has anyone ever said that and actually shared something positive with you? Nope.

This response is why I am NOT a fan of “giving feedback,” which immediately puts the listener on the defensive.

I used to work at a company where it was a regular part of the culture. Walking out of a meeting, people would say, “Can I give you a piece of feedback?”

“Um, no thank you.”, is often our initial internal reactionBut of course it’s not cool to say no. We all want to appear to be, and often are, open to development and “constructive criticism.”

After we say the obligatory yes, now we’re holding our breath, anxiously waiting for them to tell us how awful something just went. It’s not usually our idea of fun.

There is a better way.

This dilemma came up in conversation the other day with a client, who we’ll call Julie.

Julie needed to confront Tedabout his team’s performance. However, Ted is not a direct report of hers; he’s a stakeholder over whom Julie doesn’t have authority.

Ted’s team had been consistently missing deadlines, leaving Julie’s group without the deliverables they needed to move forward on a project they were working on together.

The situation came to a head when both teams got together for a meeting—expensively, with 12 people (!) in attendance. Ted’s team was responsible for the agenda and presenting deliverables. Instead, they showed up asking, “So, what do you guys think we should do?”

Julie and her team were shocked and frustrated. “Weren’t you supposed to update us on what you’ve done so that we can respond to it?” was the unspoken retort that hung in the air.

They had been waiting for this meeting for a month. It was such an expensive waste of everyone’s time, Julie knew she had to have a conversation with Ted.

Julie would need to leverage her influence and use a more subtle approach in asserting that expectations weren’t being met.

This approach is profoundly important, particularly at the most senior levels. It can become politically loaded to say, “Can I give you some feedback on how your team is failing to deliver right now?”

Julie could see that Ted is creatively inclined, focusing on big picture strategy and less on the plan of execution; he isn’t driven by project deadlines. She worried that this attitude was trickling down to his team and affecting their productivity.

We talked through how to provide this feedback in a way that wouldn’t be received as feedback. I introduced the idea of collaborative feedback or problem-solving.

With a collaborative approach, the conversation sounds more like, “Hey, how can we work together to make this happen?”

This mindset shift alone made what felt like a challenging situation for Julie feel less like a difficult conversation and more like an inquiry to solve together.

I coached her through language that keeps her and Ted on the same team:

“Listen, I know this project is high profile for both of us. I’m concerned about how some people are showing up to the meetings.”
To share her concerns and acknowledge, “I know this may be a worry to you as well as we know that we need to launch this project on time.”
“Let’s talk about what my team could be doing differently to get you what your team needs?”
“What is your thinking in terms of the priorities of this project?”
“Who on your team can we leverage to help drive this project forward?” (Julie had already identified a member of Ted’s team who she thought would be great at managing the project.) “How would you feel about me reaching out?”
The conversation becomes more like, Hey, we’re on the same side hereLet’s figure this out.

Also, in every way possible, Julie doesn’t make it look like Ted’s fault. We’re not here to point fingers. We’re here to get the work done.

And people are usually more amenable to cooperate when they don’t feel attacked. (Having this conversation privately, one-on-one, helps too.)

So, stop giving feedback ESPECIALLY cross functionally at the senior levels of your organization. Bring collaborative problem-solving to your next challenge instead.

Difficult conversations in your work (and elsewhere) are inevitable. Having a sounding board and trusted advisor to help resolve those situations? Priceless. Learn more about working with a MettaWorks coach by scheduling a no-obligation discovery call here.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant