An alternative to negative feedback?

Someone giving negative feedbackWe all take on many roles in our working lives. Our success is often dependent on an apparently straightforward but essential skill: giving quality feedback.

As proactive team members, we must interact with our peers and members of other teams. We also have to be able to raise issues with people in more senior positions. How else would they know what is causing us difficulties? And if they don’t know, then why should we expect them to do anything about it?

When we are leading or teaching others, we have to let people know if they are doing the right thing or not. How else would they know whether they are on track and making progress? And if they don’t know, then how does that make them feel?

So, an important skill. Yet many delegates on our courses are open about the fact that they really struggle with sharing feedback. This has been confirmed by our peer-reviewed research, based on self-assessment by over 200 doctors. 45% indicated that they were not effectively challenging or giving corrective feedback to fellow team members. Our ongoing follow-up study is suggesting this is an even greater issue for doctors when working in a leadership context.

Does it matter?

Well we could consider it to be just a cultural thing. People aren’t perfect. There’s only ever so much time available, so we have to prioritise. Patients are more important, so doctors just have to get on with it.

But – and it’s a big but – not speaking up about things which aren’t going well or causing problems leads to major questions of professionalism. Not speaking up allows behaviours which are causing difficulties to ourselves or others to persist. Stress, disconnection and burnout are waiting just along the line. And what about the Duty of Candour? Where does this start? Speaking up about things which aren’t right must be the frontline of action. Waiting to be open and honest with a patient when something has gone wrong is surely at odds with the true spirit of this ethical position.

So, what holds you back?

Many doctors have fallen into the thinking that ‘feedback’ is an annual event. There’s a reliance on anonymous comments via digital portals. But this can never replace face-to-face conversation about what is going well and what is not.

There can be many reasons for not speaking up and saying what needs to be said. Some people have a fear of repercussions or upsetting others. There’s also a culture of staying quiet and many doctors don’t actually know how to go about giving feedback. A good number of our course delegates say they feel comfortable with the idea of giving ‘positive’ feedback. However, this can often be the surprising driver of inhibition.

What’s the opposite to ‘positive’ feedback? ‘Negative’ feedback obviously. And who wants to be negative?

An alternative mindset

Rather than thinking of polar opposites, it helps to go back and consider the reasons for giving feedback. Sometimes we want to recognise effort, achievement or progress. Our aim is to reinforce what we want, encouraging the other person to continue in this direction. At other times we want them to change something and to initiate some improvement. So, how about this:

  • Rather than ‘positive’ think Recognition or Reinforcement Feedback
  • Rather than ‘negative’ think Change or Improvement Feedback

The feedback still needs to be delivered in a constructive manner that the receiver can take on board and use. So, a structured approach is still important. However, altering mindset and intent can significantly change the delivery and outcome.

What do you recognise as the most constructive aspects of your attitude to giving feedback.  How can you change and improve?

Stephen McGuire – Director of Development