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Giving better feedback

We often ask our coaches what topics come up most frequently in the coaching room. I should say all Sanctus Coaching sessions are 100% confidential – indeed, how professional our professionals are is something we are deeply proud of and genuinely sets us apart – but they’re able to tell us if the same things are collectively on the minds of the nation’s employees. Here’s what’s been coming up most recently:

One topic that’s apparently been coming up a lot recently surprised me. 


I think because what seems to be on people’s mind lately constitutes some kind of a crisis, I expected the giving and receiving of feedback to be further down people’s list of priorities. But I suppose that’s to underestimate how people see and interact with feedback at work, and how important it is to a business functioning well. 

“Feedback is a powerful tool that is central to many functions at work, as it guides, motivates, and rewards employees’ behaviors. Feedback tells us how we are doing and how close we are to reaching our goals. People realize what they know, how they are performing, and what they need to do to improve.”

Feedback for Performance Development: A Review of Current Trends

We all know feedback is vitally important and extremely useful. But only 26% of the feedback people receive is really effective. So what are we doing wrong? A Harvard Business Review piece titled The Feedback Fallacy exposes a few long held myths about what does and doesn’t work with feedback. Notably:

“Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.”

I wonder if we’ve missed this or lost sight of it because of how we work now. I often think about the impact digital, virtual tools have on our communication styles and sense of connection with one another. Have we allowed ourselves to immerse in bad habits, losing sight of what we’re actually trying to achieve? 

Either way, technology continues to have a big say in the way we work, and feedback is no exception:

“…organizations are moving away from traditional methods of feedback delivery and toward three promising trends, namely ongoing feedback with the aid of technology, crowdsourced feedback, and strength-based performance feedback.”

Which is encouraging in the way that any new tech innovation is encouraging: we’ll probably be able to do things faster and with a machine’s level of accuracy. But if we’re missing the point or approaching things the wrong way, that just means we’ll be going in the wrong direction only much, much faster. So it’s important to get it right from the outset.

Dr. Albert Viljoen is one of two Coaching Practice Leads at Sanctus (alongside the one and only Valentina Passoni – you can read my chat with Val about impostorism here). Recently Albert and I have had pretty candid conversations about purpose and meaning in the workplace, the importance of working relationships, and the ins and outs of career progression

What’s the most important thing to know about feedback at work?

AV: “Feedback” as a concept, can be quite abstract. And a mistake we often make is to treat feedback like a hot potato: this strange, unwanted object we need to ‘hand over’ to someone. We even say “I am going to give you feedback”, as if, once I’ve said it, I can go and leave you with the unwanted package.

In truth, feedback forms an intricate part of the relational dynamic. So instead of focusing on the mechanics of giving and receiving feedback, it may be more helpful to zoom out: start by focusing on the relationship. “How do I cultivate a trusting, caring, mutually supportive relationship?” This is the fabric through which you weave the thread of feedback.

What factors influence how feedback is given or received?

AV: Imagine a stranger at the bar telling you “You are quite timid.”

Now, imagine one of your best friends – who you trust with your biggest secrets – saying the exact same thing, with the same tone: “You are quite timid.”

Now, imagine someone you admire saying: “You are quite timid.”

Now imagine an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend saying it: “You are quite timid.”

Do you notice how the same phrase lands differently, depending on who delivers it? We tend to dismiss the opinions of strangers more easily than the opinions of those closest to us. And we colour their words with our own sense of meaning & intention, filtering their opinions through the lens of what they mean to us: if a trusted friend, it’s more likely for you to frame their comments in a positive light; if an ex-lover, you may assume something worse than what they meant.

How can we improve the way we deliver feedback?

AV: In my opinion, managers and employees would do better if they move their attention away from the ‘scary’ topic of feedback, and rather turn their focus on the quality of their relationship.

Once the relationship is trusting on both sides – stable, caring, and supportive – you don’t need to walk on eggshells to deliver feedback. That being said, I am often surprised how many managers don’t create structured conversations with their direct reports. By structured conversations, I simply mean adding a bit of clarity, intention and framing to your check-ins. It can be something as simple as creating a few key questions for your 1-to-1s, or something as complex as an engagement survey you can both work through.

What practical steps can we take to make feedback better?

AV: Doing a regular check-in on “How is our relationship going?” is a powerful way to give both the manager and employee an opportunity to voice their needs & make requests. Open-ended questions, like:

“What would you like me to do more of?”

“What would you like me to do less of?”

“What is working well for you in our working relationship?”

“What is not working so well for you in our working relationship?”

“How can I be a better manager / colleague / direct report?”

How feedback works in coaching

To answer this question, I’m going to use something LinkedIn Top Voice George Bell said earlier this very morning:

“Let’s say you wanted to learn to swim. You could hop on YouTube and watch videos of other swimmers, you could buy a few self-help books, and you could get some tips from your friends. You’d definitely learn a thing or two this way.”

“But the real learning comes from when you actually get into the pool with a professional to guide you. Someone who can highlight where your stroke might be slightly off, where your breathing is a bit shallow, or where you’re tilting your head a bit too much. They can identify specific areas for improvement that are personal to you, and work with you to hit the goals you want to hit.” 

“When it’s come to my own journey with my wellbeing and personal development – I’ve been on Google, I’ve got a stack of self-help books and I’ve watched dozens of TED Talks. But the real progress for me came from getting into the metaphorical pool with a coach and identifying my own blindspots, my own issues, and my own areas for growth.” 

“There’s something about having a dedicated, unbiased person that can help you 1-2-1 with the specific thing you want to work on or talk about. Whether that’s to talk about work, the house you want to buy, an issue in your relationship, the difficulty you’re having with managing someone… whatever it is, we all need a space to talk and to learn.”

Sanctus Coaches support employee development, wellbeing, and performance – the myriad benefits of which you can read about here. They’ll do that in a number of ways, from acting as a sounding board and benchmarking skills, abilities, and mindsets, to reviewing progress towards agreed goals, helping set new ones, and suggesting tools and techniques to make incremental improvements in their day to day. Here’s a bit more info on how Sanctus Coaching works.

And with regards management and leadership teams, you can read about our approach to leadership development here. In a nutshell, we’ve developed a way to upskill managers and people leaders (at all levels) to make sure they’ve got the support they need to thrive in a modern working dynamic. It’s an approach to leadership you can measure, based on five key focus areas:

  1. Thriving in change
  2. Empathetic connection
  3. Personal wellbeing
  4. Purposeful engagement
  5. Authentic leadership

For more on manager coaching and leadership development, take a look at our Connected Leadership coaching track.