We all know that giving negative feedback to a subordinate is likely to be an uncomfortable experience for both.
But as the supervising manager has the advantage of greater positional power, the nature of the activity suggests it holds greater risk for the less-powerful subordinate. The capacity and willingness of the recipient to absorb and act upon feedback must therefore depend upon the amount of relational trust that exists between them.
If relational trust plays an important role in the giving and receiving of feedback, what then is trust? In one definition, Miranda and Klement¹ consider authentic trust to be constituted as follows:
- Trust is earned over time, being grounded in a succession of past experiences.
- Trust implies expectations about how a person will act in the future.
- Trust is continuously re-established in every action.
- Trust in someone implies some level of vulnerability.
- Trust only exists where the potential for betrayal is also present.
- Trust between two people requires that each person understands the interests of the other and will not act against them.
- Trust is not a measurable entity but is a consequence of actions and a person’s intentionality (pp. 30-31).
Let us explore two examples taken from my research site that illustrate two modes of feedback and the responses of recipients.
Example #1: Face-to-Face Feedback
One of my research participants – a novice level-one manager – told me that he received frequent, informal face-to-face feedback from his manager. He said that this form of feedback had helped him enormously in his new role. When I asked him what was it about his manager (Sue) that helped him act upon her feedback, he told me he had tested her integrity, and that her successive actions and good intentions towards him had been consistent over time. Here is what he told me:
“When you have a manager, you’ve got to test them. You’ve got to test how they are. You have to work out what sort of person they are. I’ve tested Sue a few times. I’ve told her a few things and I was very honest and she took it on board and things got done. That’s how it always is. Sue has given me criticism, constructive criticism, and I’ve acted upon it straight away. So that’s why she knows that I’m like that.”
He continued to tell me, “We’ve become comfortable with ourselves.” In other words, these two managers appear to have developed a high level of relational trust which enabled them to give and receive feedback to each other.
When I asked him if he has been able to do that with other managers that he has had, he replied:
“No way! Just her! Sue likes her staff to get somewhere. Some managers, if they have a really good staff member, wouldn’t help them to get promoted because they want them on their team so all their work gets done.”
It appears that his other managers were focused on their own interests (e.g. team performance) rather than those of their staff (e.g. career development).
He went on to tell me that in his experience, it was rare for managers to take a genuine interest in their staff:
“Most of them are like, when their half-yearly results or their yearly results, at the end it’s like, ‘Well, what do you want to do, what’s your development plan?’ and all the managers will write it down for every single staff member. But they might say the same old thing. Nothing’s changed, no development has happened. With Sue, she actually has her processes: ‘If he wants to become a manager, we’ve got him to do this, this, and that.’ That’s how I became a manager.”
As the accounts of this young manager suggest, he recognises and may feel some indebtedness to Sue for her contribution to his current success. Perhaps the level of trust established between these two managers underlies Lucas’s willingness to receive and act upon Sue’s feedback and advice.
Example #2: Computer-Mediated Feedback
Not all managers at my research site provided their direct reports with feedback in such a timely and on-going manner. I was told that the organisation had a cultural issue: managers simply disliked giving negative feedback and avoided doing so despite this responsibility being part of their role. In response, the organisation selected a 360-degree tool that separates feedback from the line manager and other sources.
While these line managers may find giving feedback using an online questionnaire more comfortable for them, how might the recipients of this form of asynchronous feedback experience its delivery?
I observed the responses of a group of first- and second-level managers receiving their 360-degree reports during a leadership training program. For most of these managers, it was the first time that they were the subject of this tool. The facilitators used sample reports to educate them on interpreting results and as the anticipation of receiving their own reports rose, the ambience in the training room became increasingly tense.
Upon receiving their reports, some managers received a shock, especially when they received low scores on all criteria. One such manager told me that she had never realised that her line manager thought so poorly of her. In other words, he had not sat down with her and discussed his concerns regarding her performance. She went on to say that perhaps she was not suited to managing and should find a different role. Later that day, she told me that she was feeling a little better as she had found others with results similar to hers. She also asked me if I had any ideas about how she might approach her manager to discuss his evaluation of her.
The feeling of shock and betrayal that this manager experienced suggests that while organisational rules are being met, receiving unexpected negative feedback in this way is at the expense of relational trust and the relationship between managers.
What Can We Learn?
Based on Example #1 above, it appears that regular face-to-face feedback and consistent actions are fundamental to establishing and maintaining relational trust between a line manager and direct report. However, it’s not a one-way street. The direct report also needs to act upon feedback and advice consistently.
In comparison, as suggested in Example 2# above, trust can be badly eroded or broken when negative feedback is allowed to accumulate, only given once a year, and received “out-of-relationship”.
The late Peter Drucker² considered the work of a manager involved developing people, including teaching them how to do better, assisting them to be more effective, and improving performance as a result. Drucker argued that in the process of developing others, managers also developed their selves.
At my research site where the 360-degree tool is used to ensure all managers give feedback at least once a year, perhaps no third party should ever deliver 360-degree reports.
Instead, this responsibility could become a developmental activity for all line managers. For those who already work closely with their direct reports, this would be a relatively straight forward task as surprises would be unlikely. For those who do not, it would force them to take ownership of the consequences of neglecting this role responsibility. Perhaps they might learn the value of giving face-to-face feedback when it is warranted, most meaningful and most relevant for the development of the direct report.
If trust is earned over time, re-established in every action, and a consequence of a person’s intentionality, we can use these two examples to reflect upon our own practices in giving feedback and how we might improve them.