Turn Your Feedback Inside-Out


There’s a lot of talk these days about helping managers give more feedback to employees. What if it’s not a matter of more or less feedback, but rather intentional versus unintentional feedback? In other words, your managers are giving your employees plenty of feedback already, but are phrasing it in a way that prevents growth, instead of inspiring it.

Unintentional feedback is emotionally withdrawn. Intentional feedback is emotionally transparent.

Unintentional feedback expresses a feeling or judgment but does so without any transparency or vulnerability. It leaves the listener wondering what you’re not saying, and, over time, leads to people shutting down and adopting a defensive posture — not to mention feeling micromanaged and “un-mentored”!

Intentional feedback expresses a feeling or judgment, too, but it does so in a way that is transparent, based in care for the individual, and inspires him or her to look inward.

Let’s take three situations where managers typically give unintentional feedback and see what the alternative could be.

1. When you notice yourself feeling anxious about a deadline …

Unintentional feedback around deadlines often expresses itself in trying to “do something” to help them, anxiously hovering (in real life or over email, Slack, etc.), only to find yourself frustrated when something is late. We often say something that sounds neutral on the surface but often comes with an unconscious charge, such as “Where are we with that?”

Here’s what intentional feedback sounds like: “I’m a little worried about where are on that project, can you give me a better idea of our progress?”

The pivot is not subtle. In the intentional example, the manager shows up with a bit of vulnerability. Can you see how this slight adjustment — intervening early and leaving space for dialogue — is a recipe for progress, instead of defensiveness?

2. When you notice an employee who seems unhappy or disengaged…

Unintentional feedback might sound like: “Hey, how was your weekend?”

On the surface that sounds caring, and might be well-intentioned, but it doesn’t give them a window into what you really mean, which is that something is going on that is impacting their work.

Contrast this with what intentional feedback might sound like: “Hey, you seem a little out of it this week. I noticed you didn’t share your opinion as you typically do in meetings. Is there something going on?”

3. When you find yourself drawn into a conflict with two team members coming to your office to vent…

If you don’t step back, you might offer general advice and a vague suggestion (a.k.a., unintentional feedback) without realizing the secondary impact. You might say something like: “Well, you both should try and work this out.”

If you took a step back, you might approach it differently, offering something like: “I get that this is frustrating for you, but what I’m asking is for you to find your contribution to this conflict. If you can do that, I can help you through this. However, you guys are adults, and it would be disempowering if I step in here.”

The feedback employees are hungry for is the same kind we all want: genuine insight from a person in our life who cares about us, who wants to point out something we may not see about ourselves, and who is there to help us grow.

It turns out the most difficult skill in giving employees high-value feedback doesn’t require any advanced technical knowledge or even many years of management experience. It comes down to being willing to see what you see, and then to take a small step back before intervening.

If you’re a people manager or leader, intentional feedback is a gift for your organization, because it’s contagious. By giving your colleagues small examples of transparency-in-action, you take a proactive step to creating the conversation you want to be part of.

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