Feedback tips for the conflict-avoidant

My dad was so conflict-avoidant that he once chewed through half an avocado at a dinner party, even though he detested the things with a vengeance. He couldn’t bring himself to let the host know he didn’t like them, even though they had asked everyone prior if there was anything people didn’t like to eat.

We might not all be in the same spot on the ‘keep the peace at all costs’ scale as my dad was, but let’s be honest: most of us have had our own avocado moment. We’ve avoided having conversations that needed to be had, because we didn’t want to upset the other person or because it was awkward or meant momentary discomfort.

Even in the last week, I’ve had dozens of leaders talk to me about why they avoid giving feedback to their team members, especially when it’s what I call ‘redirectional’ feedback.

“I’m worried they will take it the wrong way or get upset.”

“I’ll get it wrong or stuff it up.”

“It might ruin the relationship.”

But let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a moment. Let’s say it’s you who is the one doing something that’s somehow getting in the way of you succeeding. Maybe it’s a blind spot that everyone else sees but you don’t – and if someone would just point it out to you, you could do something about it. What would you want your boss to do, if they saw an opportunity to give you some helpful feedback? Would you want them to say nothing?

Most of us don’t like giving feedback, but research shows that most of us do want negative feedback at work, provided its delivered well.

So, if you’re recognising my dad’s vibe in yourself (I certainly am too!) here are four small ways to make it easier to lean into feedback:

  1. Get into the habit of asking your team members to self-reflect first.

Let’s say they have completed a task or done a thing, or maybe you’re just reviewing the last week. Ask them “what do you think you did well? If there was anything you would like to improve or change next time, what would it be? Anything you would like a do-over on?”

This improves self-awareness and is a gentle way into a feedback conversation. You can then ask if they are keen to hear your thoughts or observations. Remember, it’s a two-way conversation not a monologue. So, do lots of listening, and use paraphrasing and coaching questions when you do this.

  1. Ask for feedback more often.

Receiving feedback can be tough! But I’ve found that if I have some control over when and how that conversation goes, I’m more likely to be able to receive it well. So regularly ask peers, direct reports, your direct manager and customers: “what did I do well? What is at least one way I can improve?”

  1. Ask your direct report when you first start leading them, or before you have to give them feedback, how they like to receive feedback.

Establishing up front with your direct report that feedback is really good for them, and that they can expect to get it from you – as well as confirming how they most like to receive it – makes the whole process smoother.

It might go something like this: “I know that receiving feedback, both positive and constructive, has been really helpful for me. And I really want to offer the same for you. But I want to make sure I do it in a way that helps you. So, how do you like to receive feedback?  What has worked well for you in the past when you have received feedback? What should I avoid? If I see you coming unstuck, or I think there’s an opportunity for improvement, how do you want me to approach that with you?”

  1. Build feedback processes into the team’s culture and operating rhythms.

That way, its not a big deal, just the way we do things around here. Start on small stuff, focusing on positive feedback. Retrospectives, one-on-ones and team meetings all provide opportunities for feedback conversations. The more you have them, and build them into your team’s operating rhythms, the more everyday they become – and the easier it will be for everyone to give and receive feedback.

A lot of issues in organisations would be resolved if we started talking to each other rather than about each other. Avoiding conflict might feel good in the moment, but it shoves things under the carpet until everyone’s tripping over it.

So don’t be like Dad and eat the avocado.

Have the courage to have those conversations. Sit with the discomfort and if you’re conflict-avoidant, try some of the four tips above to ease your way into feedback conversations.

2 Comments

  1. Dennis Vogel on May 7, 2022 at 8:58 am

    Suzi,
    I’m glad you included the subjects of customers & control because we need to guide each other to make course corrections. Sudden changes can cause losses of control to become damaging.
    When bosses set this example with subordinates, they can do it with customers.
    Example: ‘This plan has 5 steps based on what we know now. As you implement this plan, you might uncover other symptoms or problems. If you do, please report them so we can adjust. This isn’t about who’s right or wrong. It’s about the best long-term benefits, so we need to be sure preliminary results fit our goals. We have more knowledge & wider perspectives than just one of us. If conditions are different or change differently from what we expect, let’s respond as quickly as we can.’

  2. Chris Gladstone on May 5, 2022 at 10:08 am

    Right on Suzi! Perfect! Thank you!

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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