Constructive Feedback - 31 March 2015
Throughout our childhood and adolescence, there are events that happen to us – often characterised by the things people say and do – that end up influencing how we think, act and feel as adults. These events have an impact on something known as ‘attachment’, which reflects the degree to which we feel comfortable receiving support from others.
Generally, there are three categories of attachment. Have a think about the one that best describes your employees in the context of receiving feedback:
- Secure attachment: These employees see feedback as positive and helpful because they know it fulfils a specific need or a current gap in knowledge.
- Anxious attachment: These employees demand constant reassurance and immediate feedback. When you’re not around, they quickly become helpless.
- Avoidant attachment: These employees resist feedback – even when they need it – because they dislike the idea of being dependent on someone else.
It should be obvious that the third category of employee is the one to whom managers struggle to give feedback the most. Even when feedback is tactful, these employees still interpret it as distressing and negative because it threatens their sense of self-worth.
And now, in four new studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers have discovered a novel way to cut through. Each of their studies focused on romantic relationships where one partner is avoidant while the other is trying to help. The two main lessons of this research are just as applicable in the working world.
Lesson 1: Do it anyway – but do it a lot: The scholars found that when avoidant personalities were provided with only low-to-moderate levels of support, they resisted it. But when high levels of support were offered, they embraced it. That’s because the extra effort was proof the support-giver was reliable and could be trusted.
What this means for you is that, unlike many managers, don’t shy away from giving constructive feedback to avoidant employees just because they seem hostile. Do it anyway. Do it immediately. And do it by dedicating enough time and resources. Eventually, they’re more likely to see (and accept) your genuine intention to help.
Lesson 2: Be practical – not emotional: There are two main types of support. One of these is ‘practical’, which includes the giving of advice, information, and guidance. The other is ‘emotional’, which includes listening, reassurance, and providing comfort. The researchers found it’s practical support – not emotional support – that avoidant people value most.
What this means is that you should focus more on pragmatic feedback rather than sessions where you might come across as a counsellor or a therapist. So focus on facts, be direct, and empower your avoidant employees to be involved in generating solutions.
It’s also useful, by the way, to spend some time in self-reflection: In which of the three attachment categories do you personally belong? And does it serve you well to stay there?
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