6 ways to build a supportive environment for giving feedback

When starting your own big thing, you’ll encounter times when giving feedback is necessary. When doing so, keep in mind what Jack R. Gibb calls supportive behaviors.  Using this supportive approach allows you to create a safe climate so defensive responses are reduced.

Professor Gibb has this to say about defensive behaviors:

“Defensive behavior is defined as that behavior which occurs when an individual perceives threat or anticipates threat in the group. The person who behaves defensively, even though he also gives some attention to the common task, devotes an appreciable portion of his energy to defending himself. Besides talking about the topic, he thinks about how he appears to others, how he may be seen more favorably, how he may win, dominate, impress, or escape punishment, and.or how he may avoid or mitigate a perceived or an anticipated attack.

Such inner feelings and outward acts tend to create similarly defensive postures in others; and, if unchecked, the ensuing circular response becomes increasingly destructive. Defensive behavior, in short, endangers defensive listening, and this in turn produces postural, facial, and verbal cues which raise the defense level of the original communicator.”

6 ways to build a supportive environment for giving feedback

Description. Focus on describing very specific behavior so the person can repeat the behavior if it’s positive or isolate it if it’s negative. Be non-judgmental.

Problem Orientation. Focus on the task not on the person! Most importantly, focus on behaviors they can change versus labeling them “good” or “bad.”

Spontaneity. Give feedback immediately when you see the behavior, and make it relevant. Assure you don’t have any hidden agendas.

Empathy. Make sure you show your concern for others. Take the perspective of the person to whom you’re giving the feedback.

Equality. Own your comments, yet be willing to participate with the other person to define the problem. Come from a place of equality by de-emphasizing differences in power and/or ability.

Provisionalism. Be tentative and flexible. Demonstrate your willingness to consider alternate points of view and courses of action.  Use phrases like: “We could…One way we might do that is…or I think this is what is happening.” Remember things are not always what they seem.

Give positive feedback when you can and always give feedback because it truly is a gift.

Image from TW Training. See more of Amy’s insights at StartBIG.



Feedback shouldn’t be like limburger cheese

Barry was speechless, first with shock and then with anger, as he read the email from his boss.

“Here’s some input from Kevin on how you handled the last project team meeting. Get it fixed. Fast.”

Kevin and Barry were peers, both managers but in different departments.  Both assigned to a cross-functional project team tasked with improving productivity. They’d joined the company on the same day, went through the same onboarding classes, had attended several leadership development offsites together, and occasionally met for lunch. They weren’t best buddies nor were they total strangers.

“Bill, I thought it would be helpful for you to know my reactions to the last productivity project team meeting. Barry led the meeting. He appeared disorganized and unprepared. His answers to questions from the finance department totally missed the mark. Given this was my meeting, it seemed prudent to share my observations.”

On his way into the meeting in question, Barry had received a call from the project team lead. The lead told Barry he had gotten ill and had gone home. He asked Barry to take his place in facilitating the meeting. Barry knew he hadn’t done his best work in leading that meeting yet was caught off-guard by what Kevin had reported to his boss. Barry wished Kevin had had the professional courtesy to tip him off to the problems before going right to Barry’s boss. It felt like grade school, when someone ratted you out to the school.

Ever been in Kevin’s situation?

3 tips for coaching a peer to improved performance

1) Talk-one-on-one before taking the issue further up the food chain.  Peer-to-peer feedback is a valuable tool for supporting and helping fellow leaders grow into their potential. Leadership isn’t a duel to the finish with one person taking home the spoils. (Or shouldn’t be!)  It’s a collaborative endeavor focused on delivering company objectives.

2) Sharing doesn’t mean conflict. Offering up well-framed observations and/or asking clarifying questions - ”today’s meeting felt disjointed to me. Is there a reason for that?” - sets the foundation, not for conflict, but for performance improvement.

3) Frame without judging. “Man, you totally blew it today. There goes your promotion.” Hey, who isn’t going to get defensive when someone lobs a grenade like that your way (and probably feel like a failure, too).  ”I” statements deflect blame, “I got a little lost in the meeting when you were going over the balance sheet.  Did I miss something?”  They also advance the conversation. When people feel attacked, they may stop the conversation altogether or negatively escalate it.

Peers tactfully providing input on areas of improvement as well as kudos for success to one another is a powerful way to change the stories of leadership and build a culture of collaboration and camaraderie.

“Peer coaching can make a real difference in helping people change.” ~Stewart D. Friedman, Practice Professor of Management at Wharton



Managing the 4 F’s: Fear, Feedback, Feelings, Futures

“Tell me why you didn’t say anything to Kyle about his performance problems.”

“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”

This exchange occurred during legal discovery in an unlawful termination lawsuit.  Fed up with an employee’s ongoing failure to meet job requirements, the supervisor had fired him. The employee believed he was fired because he was older than the rest of his department.

If you supervise, manage and/or lead others, talking to people — candidly, caringly — about their job performance is a must have skill in your toolkit.

I remember the first time I had to tell someone their job performance was missing the mark. I had mentally postponed the discussion probably a dozen times. The time lag only made me more and more uncomfortable and dashed my secret hopes that the employee could/would read my mind and would miraculously start doing a better job.

As the possibility of that miracle receded further and further, I talked to a respected colleague.  He asked me what I was afraid of.

“I’m afraid of hurting his feelings.”

“What will happen if his performance doesn’t get any better?”

“I’ll have to let him go.”

“What about his feelings then?”


My colleague went on to tell me that really good leaders talk frankly and frequently about performance with their employees. That those discussions come from a place of caring, not a place of belittlement or forced obligation (the form is due to HR).

As a leader, you own developing your people just you own production or sales numbers or whatever other metric is used as the yardstick to assess your work output.  To make that happen:

  • give your employees regular, ongoing coaching and feedback about how they’re doing because their insights, growth and performance evolve over time
  • be really specific in describing in good work and what needs to improve
    • You need to be nicer to customers isn’t descriptive enough and is open to lots of interpretation. Say instead, Smile and make eye contact when you greet customers. Use a friendly tone of voice and ask how you can help them. That feedback paints a much clearer picture of what performance you expect.
    • Saying Good job! is good recognition yet it doesn’t give enough specificity to help develop particular skills and/or behaviors.  Great job on that presentation to the boss! You had all your facts, had analyzed them well, had anticipated her objections and was able to deflect her pushback with appropriate humor…well done! See the difference?
  • give feedback (high fives and otherwise) often so it becomes a normal practice for you to do and for your team to receive and respond. Build a culture in which your employees give feedback to each other as well. There’s nothing that says that feedback can only come from the boss!

As for that employee who was my first “feedback guinea pig”  — he thanked me for being upfront with him and went on to become a star performer.

What other tips and techniques have you experienced that worked well for you?