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The problem with giving feedback

· Communications,Workforce,Leadership,Problem Solving,Management

When was the last time you asked someone to have a look at something you just did?  I do this at least once a week.  Of course we all do this from time to time.  It’s part of our DNA to ask for help or seek reassurance.  And therein lies the fundamental issue.

Welcome to the second blog in a series entitled, ‘Strategy Execution Odyssey’.  We are on a quest to discover the real secrets behind delivering that all important organisational strategy.  The most successful businesses always seem to deliver on their intended strategies.  In this age of business disruption, this is especially challenging to achieve.  What makes these businesses different to those that aren’t successful?  What are they doing differently? 

Join me on a journey to the boundaries of what could be, and what shouldn’t be.  In this post, we explore the age-old concept of providing feedback. 

Asking for help assumes there’s a problem to fix or need to correct something to ensure it is positioned well, or provides the right answer.  It is about managing a situation.  Reassurance asks for someone’s buy-in to strengthen something that is close to being finished, or illicit support for a new idea.  It’s about enhancing a situation or creating additional value.  This subtle difference has profound impacts across the entire organisation.

One such impact includes a lack of clarity.  The English language uses a singular word for both, critique.  Though most people may think of this word as providing fault with something or passing a negative judgement, critiquing can also be used to give merit and recognition to something.  (So for the remainder of this post, I will refrain from using this word.)

It’s no wonder that communication problems arise when these different intentions collide.  When we ask for a favour from someone, the receiver of our request may not appreciate this subtle difference from the words we are using.  If the receiver does not understand our intent, they will likely deflect back to their default mindset and assume one of the two intentions to be true.

For example, if I were to ask someone to review a new idea I have (seeking reassurance) but didn’t choose the words well, they may approach it with a problem fix mentality and red ink much of that idea. Their intentions are not malicious, however that degree of scrutiny has the potential to squash the embryonic idea before it was allowed to germinate.

Understanding this response mechanism cuts to the core of what empowers, or disempowers, each of us.  Though both intentions offer a way to build trust over time, asking someone for reassurance and receiving it, can often accelerate it. 

Why is this important to strategy?  If the majority of management in the workforce have an operational, problem-fix mentality, how does a company truly embed innovative thinking? 

A problem-fix mentality seeks answers to less-than-ideal situations. It tends to look for weaknesses in a proposition. A buy-in mentality seeks to go beyond the situation by exploring new approaches to doing things. Providing reassurance to someone in a measured way (for example, ‘I like what you did here’) can accentuate the positives about something. Reassurance is also a form of influencing to generate progress for a situation or new idea.

Here’s another way to think about it.  A problem-fixing conversation is about having a constructive debate where people state or share their viewpoints about something to find the best answer.  Seeking buy-in is similar to advancing an idea within a community of interested parties; buy-in is the fuel to growing the idea into something beyond what may have been first thought of.  

Words found from stating a viewpoint would look like ‘I believe xxx is the preferred way’ and ‘You might want to try doing this’, whereas words used in the context of reassurance would look like ‘I like the way you have described this’ and ‘you might want to talk to xxx to integrate your ideas’.

In the strategic corridors, both intentions actually complement each other.  Buy-in is absolutely essential to advancing strategic thinking, and problem-fixing becomes crucial for testing out how to best execute that strategy.  However, if we only have a problem-fix mindset, we will only consider the situation today.  None of us will be able to operate beyond the walls of where we sit.  Strategists and planners need a bit of both mental modals to be effective.

Historically, companies designed their strategies around process efficiencies and automation as key drivers to growth.  Many organisations were focused on making things better, or fixing things, as opposed to creating new opportunities or investigating different ways of doing things.  This legacy business world had a stronger affinity to problem-fix situations.  It's not surprising, therefore, that many of us have adopted this way of thinking as we have climb in our careers. 

Today we live in a business world where innovation and the customer are at the centre of the universe.  They are now the keys to success.  To orient ourselves to this new and disruptive business landscape requires us to develop more of a reassurance mindset if we wish to succeed. 

There will always be a need to discover the best answer to a problem.  It’s purposeful and immediate, which makes it real and tangible.  It’s a marker for progress and mentioned at the start, it’s part of our DNA. 

However, always applying this technique does not lend itself well to developing an empowering and inspirational work environment.  Seeking buy-in is also purposeful to producing outcomes, but it is generally more ephemeral in nature.  What it does do is to engender our creativity and most importantly rewards our self-esteem.  For some of us it can unlock our passion centre.  I recently read a quote that stated, “the biggest concern of any organisation should be when their passionate people become quiet.”  How true.

Today many organisations are wrestling with how to embed new, innovative practices to better compete.  What is your organisation doing at this very moment to focus more of a reassurance mindset?

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