Emotionally Intelligent Feedback

From The ‘F’ Word… to the ‘E’ Word

It has been shown that, along with a lack of skills and a lack of performance expectations, a lack of feedback is one of the biggest barriers to effective work performance (Lapid-Bogda, 2004).

This makes perfect sense doesn’t it?

To improve performance we all need an accurate reflection of our strengths (so that we can build on these) and our areas of needed improvement (so that we will know what to change).  If accurate and effective feedback is so important to individual and organizational success, why are so many employees and managers often unenthusiastic about the feedback process?

Surely if we can share information that will enhance performance and workplace relations we should relish the opportunity to give and receive feedback!

The truth is that feedback, especially around performance and organizational functioning, is an emotion-filled endeavour that, if done badly, can lead to conflict, disengagement and defensiveness. At play in the interface between feedback giver and feedback receiver is a complex set of personality style factors that can become a barrier to the feedback conversation and ultimately to the change process.

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But knowledge and understanding of these very same personality style factors can greatly enhance the ‘emotion management’ and effectiveness of the feedback loop. What is required is an emotionally intelligent feedback process based on a sound assessment and understanding of employee personality style.

The Need for Emotionally Intelligent Feedback – Joe and Sarah

Joe walks into his line manager Sarah’s office to discuss the recent review of his performance in the accounts department. Sarah is already nervous because Joe does not respond well to any kind of criticism or negative feedback from superiors. He tends to kick against authority and often distrusts his colleagues’ motives. Sarah doesn’t enjoy conflict and tense conversations and just wants to get it over and done with.

As Joe sits down his arms are folded, his eyes are darting nervously around the room, and in Sarah’s gut she can sense that this is not going to be an amiable conversation. Still she tries her best to be tactful and constructive in the way she describes some of the concerns raised about Joe’s recent standard of work and punctuality:

Sarah: “Joe, thank you for coming in this morning. As you know we conducted a 360 performance review in the accounts department last month, which has raised certain concerns about some individuals’ work. I’m sorry but would you be ok if we talk about a few things…um… in your situation that… um I’d like to look together at some issues that some of your colleagues have said you may need to work on…

However before Sarah can finish, Joe has leaned back in his chair and mumbles something under his breath while looking out the window.

Joe: “I know exactly where this is coming from. The person who complained has got something major against me and she’s the one who needs to work on her issues. What is her problem with me? If this is about what happened with the building project then I can tell you exactly what happened. And it wasn’t my fault!”

Sarah feels the tension rise in her shoulders and she’s tempted to greatly minimize the problems raised about Joe’s performance to avoid a big blow up. Somehow she has to get through this.

How is she going to make this feedback conversation end well!?

Feedback and why it requires Emotional Intelligence?

Before we help Sarah manage Joe’s feedback more constructively let’s define what feedback actually consists of. Feedback can be defined as the direct, objective, simple, and respectful observations that one person makes about another person’s behaviour (Lapid-Bogda, 2004).

That definition in itself reveals why feedback is a skill that must be practiced and developed. We need a good level of emotional intelligence to manage the interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics that can make direct, objective, simple and respectful observations tricky.

Nevertheless, emotionally intelligent feedback skills are within the reach of anybody who is willing to expand their usual ways of perceiving and communicating to consider how their own and others personality styles affect the feedback conversation.

A good starting point to developing emotionally intelligent feedback skills is a feedback formula to guide the general process of giving feedback. Within the structure of this formula we can then begin to consider how the specific personality styles of people influence how feedback should be given in order to maximize its effectiveness.

The Emotionally Intelligent Feedback Formula (Adapted from Lapid-Bogda 2004)

The emotionally intelligent feedback formula consists of three components:

  1. Describe the observable behaviour: Present a factual description of the person’s observable behaviour – including concrete examples that the person can concur with. Returning to Joe and Sarah…

Sarah: Joe, I’d like to spend some time on discussing two issues. The one is punctuality and the other is accuracy. Can we start with punctuality?

Joe: Ok, what’s the problem?

Sarah: Over the past two weeks, according to the time sheet, you have reported 20 to 30 minutes late for work five times. Is this an accurate statement?

Joe: Yes, but I’ve had car problems!

  1. Describe the impact of the behaviour: Tell the person why this information is important to him or her, to the organization and to you.

Sarah: The regularity of your late arrival at work has created an impression amongst your colleagues that you are not reliable and motivated. This may not be true but it is causing some negative vibes in the office towards you. Have you noticed this?

Joe: Yes, people are really out to get me in that damn office!

Sarah: Furthermore, the team cannot perform at their peak when you aren’t available for the early morning meeting where the day’s tasks are outlined. I’m also concerned about your own productivity and work satisfaction when you don’t get the day off to a good start.

  1. Suggest and discuss the preferred behaviour: Provide suggestions for alternative actions and enlist the person in coming up with strategies for change they may not have considered.

Sarah: It would greatly improve the team atmosphere if you could arrive at work on time. I understand that you have had car trouble and I could help you with the number for a good mechanic. Are there other things that are making you late that could be addressed? How can I be of assistance?

The feedback formula provides the outline for managing many of the emotions and uncertainties inherent to a typical feedback conversation. However, we also need more in-depth guidance and awareness of the personality factors that can derail or enhance the feedback loop.

Emotionally Intelligent Feedback with the Enneagram

Consider again the first interaction between Joe and Sarah. Sarah didn’t have any real resources to draw from in preparing herself for the feedback conversation with Joe. She knew he tended to get defensive and reactive to criticism from superiors, but didn’t know how to deal with it. She knew she struggled with conflict, but seemed to have no real insight into why this was the case or how to manage this fear.

The Enneagram is a powerful personality profiling system that reveals the motivation behind the behavioural, cognitive and emotional patterns of individuals. Importantly, the Enneagram forms an invaluable resource for understanding the different ways in which employees respond to the feedback conversation.

Having access to this kind of knowledge can greatly enrich and enhance the way feedback is tailored to specific personality styles.

Enneagram EQ Resources for Sarah

With the help of the Enneagram Sarah would’ve known that Joe’s personality style-based behaviour was actually motivated by fear and a sense of deep uncertainty about the support and loyalty of authority figures. Joe’s is a Style Six on the Enneagram (the Enneagram consists of Nine Core Styles) which means that he tends to overreact to negative feedback with an habitual mental pattern of anticipating the worst possible outcome before it has happened. This results in Joe reading the worst into relatively neutral statements. If Sarah had known this she could have given early reassurance about the magnitude of the problem, while pointing to possible positive outcomes from the feedback conversation. She could’ve reassured him about her support of him, while affirming his concerns and worries about the team’s support.

With access to an awareness of her own Enneagram style (style Nine), Sarah would’ve realized that her fear of conflict was a result of a deep desire to not experience disconnection and disapproval from people around her. She would’ve learnt that avoiding conflict in her life was an habitual coping strategy that made her comfortable only in the short-term. She would’ve been invited to consider how ‘conflict avoidance’ is actually a form of self-forgetting where she doesn’t acknowledge or value her own opinions and needs. This leads to her being overlooked and taken for granted, and often results in later worse conflict when issues are not addressed in time. Sarah might have learnt to embrace and view conflict as a necessary part of healthy and productive relationships (and feedback conversations) where her perspectives made a real difference.

Enneagram EQ Resources for Joe

With awareness of his own Enneagram style Joe would’ve realized that his suspicion and defensiveness was a rather ineffective way of managing a deep anxiety about his safety and sense of belonging to the team and organization. In fact, his behaviour only reinforced his fears by pushing others away and making them team up against his overly defensive style.

The Enneagram would’ve encouraged Joe to realize and trust that he has very real skills and characteristics that brought huge value to his team, and for which he was appreciated. For instance, as a Style Six Joe has a remarkable ability to identify problems and underlying risks before anybody else in his team can. However, Joe would’ve learnt that he could ‘switch off’ his problem-focus and rather anticipate more positive outcomes with his workplace relations

These are just a few brief examples of how the Enneagram could’ve empowered Sarah and Joe to respond to the feedback process with less of their habitual reactivity, avoidance, and fear. Managing these habitual personality patterns are the key to emotionally intelligent feedback processes.

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