I don’t have a problem – YOU have a problem: When feedback fails


Have you ever given feedback to someone coming away with the feeling that it actually made things worse? It could be a matter of tool selection.

A friend of mine, let’s call him Michael, had the following experience some time ago in a regular standup meeting. During the standup, Michael noticed that there were a few features that were ready to deploy to customers, but nobody on the team took on the task. Michael got increasingly uneasy. Finally, before the meeting ended, he asked: “Have you noticed that there are a few features waiting to go out? So who will deploy those?” Nobody answered. Instead, one of the team members, Karen, sighed and rolled her eyes. Michael was lost for words. He felt confused, embarrassed and a bit insulted.

In this situation, many people would ignore what happened, hoping the situation will resolve itself. Sometimes it does, but often the resentment remains under the surface, leading to other symptoms, like unwillingness to help, passive aggressiveness, cynicism or similar dysfunctions. Better to attack the issue head on.

Feedback that fails

Other people, like Michael, reach for the only tool they know: Feedback. So he called a meeting with Karen to go over the situation and ask her to change her behaviour. He was determined to follow a well-known model of how to give feedback. He did everything by the book. Still, the following happened.

Michael: Can I give you some feedback?
Karen: Em… why? (suspicious)
Michael: Well, to help you improve.
Karen: OK…
Michael: This morning, when I asked who would take on the deploy task I saw you sigh and roll you eyes. It made me feel stupid and embarrassed.
Karen: Well, what do you expect if you disrespect us – the whole team?
Michael: What do you mean?
Karen: We’ve been deploying almost daily for 4 months. We are doing fine. I find that question insulting, to be honest.
Michael: Insulting!? It’s a normal question…

And so on. There is a high probability that this talk won’t end as Michael had hoped. He hasn’t reached Karen and he hasn’t improved their relationship. Quite the opposite.

What’s the obstacle here? What is Michael not seeing? My answer would be that he’s using the wrong tool. He’s using feedback to Karen when they actually have a relationship problem.

The key here for me is that it would have been equally plausible should Karen have booked the feedback meeting, where she might have said something like: “When you asked us who would deploy today at the standup, I felt you didn’t trust us and respect us enough to handle that ourselves.” That’s also quite reasonable. That we have two reasonable perspectives indicates that it’s not so clear-cut and one-sided that Michael wants to believe.

You don’t solve relationship issues with feedback.

Let’s be clear, you don’t solve relationship issues with feedback. Trust me, I’ve tried (just ask my wife).

Instead, you need to work out this issue together by talking about it. One way to do that is to have a relationship talk, a technique I learned at Tuff Leadership. In a relationship talk the objective is not to modify someone’s behaviour. The goal is simply to improve, or clean up, the relationship.

Having a relationship talk

First, instead of putting yourself above the person you think behaved badly, thinking (s)he needs correction, put yourself in his or her shoes. Try to figure out why the person behaved that way. What really happened in that situation? What did you say? Also, try to understand your own triggers, small things that you overreact about.

When you meet, talk to the other person like a grown-up colleague – even if you’re the manager. Start by asking if that person would be OK with talking about the event that is currently interfering. If (s)he says yes, you proceed by asking for their take on the matter. It’s important that you let the other person speak first.

When that person gives their perspective you listen actively, to understand. Make sure that person feels heard. Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand. Paraphrase (say with your own words) what s(he) says to validate your understanding. Summarise.

When the other person has finished and you have heard and understood their point of view, you probably feel differently about the topic. And if you did your listening well, the other person feels much more calm and open. S(he) may now wonder about your perspective. Why did you get so worked up about that deploy task? Perhaps s(he) will even apologise for making you feel stupid, who knows?

Here’s the same issue we had before, but as a relationship talk.

Michael: This morning, at the standup, I noticed that nobody would take on deployment, so I thought I could help by asking who would do it. Then I heard an audible sigh from you and I think I also saw you rolling your eyes. I would like to understand what was going on. Can you help me?
Karen: Yeah, I suspected that. It was just that when you asked us who would deploy today, I felt you didn’t trust us and respect us enough to handle it. We’ve been doing this fine for four months now. Why wouldn’t we handle it this time?
Michael: Ah, so you felt I didn’t trust you? Hm, maybe even that I was policing you a bit?
Karen: Yeah, exactly! As our team coach you shouldn’t control our working process. You should guide us towards improving it.
Michael: OK, got it. Go on.

Karen: Listen, I’m sorry I made you feel stupid. I guess I overreacted a bit to your question. I think I’m a bit sensitive to criticism around the team, after all that happened last spring.
Michael: Thanks, that’s OK. And I’m sorry I was so controlling.
Karen: Cool. I’m curious, why did you feel the need to ask?
Michael: Thanks for asking. Do you remember that training we had last week about not starting new tasks before finishing the current ones? About keeping work in progress low? I think I felt I must have been utterly rubbish as a trainer…

This is not feedback. This is just having a candid conversation in a non-threatening way. After this kind of talk, the relationship is often even better than it was before the drama started. Also, it can often provide insights into how the two of you work. Perhaps you can now, in collaboration, find a way to deal with or even take advantage of your differences? The talk just turned into learning.

Summing up, before giving feedback to someone, think about whether a relationship talk would serve you better. Using feedback when there’s a relationship problem simply doesn’t work.

4 thoughts on “I don’t have a problem – YOU have a problem: When feedback fails

    • Thanks, Henrik! Glad to finally meet someone who seems to dislike feedback even more than me. 🙂 I think feedback can be a useful tool sometimes, but it’s way overused, misunderstood, and often badly practiced.

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