Ever wonder why it’s so hard to give feedback, and more fundamentally, address matters as they occur in a transparent, respectful fashion? We often do too – and we also have some insight.

Oftentimes, inability or unwillingness to provide feedback is rooted in avoidance, or fear, of conflict.

One of the most common workplace issues we see is that of leaders, managers and employees at all levels avoiding conflict, sweeping issues under the rug, and simply not addressing matters/providing feedback. While we would certainly expect to see this among employees, we are often surprised how prevalent this is at the leadership level.

What’s behind the prevalence of conflict avoidance?

There are a number of reasons why so many individuals – from top-level executives to front-line workers – often tend to avoid and fear addressing conflict. Some of these include:

  • Upbringing/past experience – Perhaps it was something that no one in their family did or when it was done, it was met with negative results.
  • Culture – Both ethnicity and workplace culture.
  • Stress – With added stress, there’s less room and energy left to be able to appropriately navigate conflict; feels easier to just “walk away”.
  • Fear/anxiety – Worry about how the other person will react (e.g. with anger).
  • Power imbalance – It can often be much more difficult for employees to bring up concerns to those in more senior positions (especially if it’s about the senior person); minorities and/or marginalized individuals also often find it challenging to bring up matters to those of dominant groups.
  • Ability – Some are simply unsure how and lack confidence in their ability to do so.

How can you/your teams work towards addressing conflict more successfully?

  • Start first by understanding how you view and define conflict – If you see it as a negative or confrontational occurrence that will have adverse results, you’re definitely more likely to want to avoid it. If, however, you reframe it simply as a difference of perspectives, opinions, or interests (or the appearance of a difference), it becomes less of a matter to fear.
  • Take a step back – When faced with conflict or “difference”, take the time to step back and objectively clarify what led to the conflict, what it is, what its impact is/was, and what you want to achieve by addressing it. Be especially clear on your own part in the process.
  • Make a plan – Before addressing it, be clear about what you want to say and make sure the time and place is right (refer to guidelines for feedback below).
  • Don’t assume – While you may have ideas as to why the differences exist or someone acted a certain way, never assume that what you perceived was actually the case. Stick to the facts and the impact.
  • Take a break if it goes south – Remember that you can always stop and reconvene later if the discussion becomes too emotional.
  • Go in with empathy and collaboration in mind – Differences involve two people. For that reason, it’s important to consider varying perspectives and how you can work together in resolution.

While addressing conflict may involve providing feedback, and providing feedback may feel like conflict, feedback isn’t always about addressing conflict. Providing it is, however, critically important in any work relationship – at all levels. For example, while positive feedback shows appreciation and value, failing to provide it may demotivate employees and make them feel devalued. The commonly heard saying “no news is good news” is, in our minds, just that: old news. In the case of constructive feedback about conduct, failing to provide it may increase the likelihood that inappropriate conduct may continue. With respect to performance, when you don’t provide feedback, the employee may have no idea their performance needs development or improvement. In that case, the likelihood of them improving on their own is significantly reduced.

That said, as is the case for facing conflict, giving feedback isn’t an easy task for many.

Guidelines for providing effective feedback

  • When possible, be sure it’s a good time for the other person, you’re in an appropriate and confidential place, and never do it in front of others.
  • Provide both positive and constructive feedback as soon as possible, and do it face-to-face (or if working remotely, by video).
  • Be comprehensive, but concise and specific. Avoid using words like “always” or “never” (e.g. “You’re always late to meetings”).
  • Use “what” and “how” rather than “why” in order to avoid putting them on the defensive. “Why” is asking them about their motivations, as opposed to the end result (“Why aren’t you ever on time?” versus ”What can you do differently to be on time?”).
  • Be objective and honest, and focus on specific behaviour, not on their intention. Describe actions or behaviour that they can actually do something about.
  • Share information and observations, rather than subjective thoughts/assumptions.
  • Ensure it takes the form of teaching and mentorship, rather than criticism or advice.
  • When giving positive feedback, influence the likelihood of the conduct happening again by both showing your appreciation and asking them to share what impacted the positive results/their success (e.g. time, resources, support, training, interest, etc.). Discuss how you can support continued positive results.
  • When providing constructive feedback, you can frame it positively, but don’t “hide it” between two pieces of positive feedback. For example, you might say: “I appreciate that you’ve made efforts to be prepared for meetings and you bring up great ideas regularly. The impact of those ideas can often be lost when you arrive late to meetings and we need to go over what we’ve already discussed…”. Feedback needs to be said regardless of whether you have positive things to say or not. And while you can end on a positive note, it’s important that they’ve heard what you said and that it doesn’t get lost in the mix.
  • Link it to your values as an organization, both in terms of how the employee positively aligned with or supported the values, or how they detracted from them.

Try using this format for constructive feedback

  • State your observations.
    • In the last few months and on several occasions, you’ve arrived late to our team meetings.
  • Check in and seek first to understand versus trying to be understood.
    • I’m curious if anything has been going on for you, if you’re okay, and if there’s anything you’d like to discuss/I can support you with.
  • If needed, identify specific examples.
    • On average, you’re about 10-15 minutes late, but last Tuesday, you were 30 minutes late.
  • Describe the consequences of the event/behavior, including how it detracted from or could support your organizational values.
    • As a team, we’ve all made a commitment to being here on time, in order to be as efficient and productive as possible. When someone arrives late, it disrupts the overall flow, and we have to catch them up. When it happens regularly, it can also send the message that you don’t value the team’s time (which goes against our value of collaborating) and that the ‘rules’ don’t apply to you.
    • Showing up on time aligns with our value of accountability.
  • Ask them for suggestions to a course of action or resolution.
    • How do you think this can be resolved or prevented in the future?
    • How do you think things could have been done differently?
    • What do you think can be learned by this?
    • Do you have suggestions on how this can be avoided?
  • Suggest what they should either do less, continue doing or do more.
    • What do you think of trying X?
    • How can I/we/the team support you?
  • Agree on a solution and follow up (via email). Ideally, have the employee write the follow-up message to show that they truly understand and are bought into the agreement and/or there’s a need for further clarification.
    • We agree that this can’t continue and that you will arrive on time going forward. To help you do so, you’ve agreed to set multiple reminders on your phone, as well as email, and – while it will be the exception – if you’re going to be legitimately late, you’ll let me know in advance.

Having a strategy and process for both dealing with conflict and giving feedback increases the likelihood of a successful outcome. It can also greatly minimize the associated fear, stress, and anxiety about doing so AND help support greater productivity!