6 minutes

At NHS Elect, we know that delivering constructive feedback is hard for both givers and receivers. Doing it remotely creates additional challenges and worries for those concerned.  

In this article, Linda Keenan and Gareth Corser, who lead our Compassionate Conversations workstream offer six tips for those giving feedback remotely.

1. Assume positive intent

Always operate from the idea that a person meant well or gave their best – no matter what they said or did. Most importantly, feedback won't work for either the giver or receiver without a foundation of trust.  

We naturally have a double standard when it comes to the actions of others. We blame circumstances for our own mistakes but individuals for theirs. Social psychologists call this bias the Fundamental Attribution Error. It's the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are – we attribute errors to character or personality.

Ask questions. Focus on understanding the situational factors behind behaviour rather than judging the person.

2. Manage Conflict in the Open

In a remote environment, signals are harder to read. You must pay special attention and seek to understand how team members are doing. Most importantly, you want to address minor issues.

In Project Management, project teams often have a team operating agreement that sets out how they will deal with conflict. This is a practice every team should adopt. For example, what topics might we only discuss in 1:1 conversation? The important thing is to set up clear rules of engagement.

As a leader, if giving feedback, ask the other person how they want to receive it. If turning off the camera makes someone feel safer once listening, we should accept that and allow them to turn their camera off.

Judy Ringer suggests that we should change our thinking about conflict. Instead of seeing it as a moment of taking positions, enter any disagreement with the intent to ‘listen with fascination and ask ourselves, “What can I learn here”?

The reality is that when two intelligent people come together, they will disagree. Approach disagreement, therefore, as an opportunity to learn a new perspective not just to impose our own.

3. Take a Break

When people are not expected to respond immediately or outside of work hours, they can think before writing and come back with more thoughtful responses.

Silence is indeed powerful: without words to fill the void, we make room for deep thinking. In meetings, silence is necessary – especially to address complex topics.

Apply the 5-Second Rule to make people feel safe and give them space to reflect before they react. If you're having a feedback session, pause after asking a question. Don't surrender to the pressure to fill the silence. Slowly count to five. Let people reflect before responding.

Sometimes, if discussions become heated, it is sometimes helpful to step back and take a break to make a drink and collect their thoughts. Taking a break turns giving and receiving feedback into a calmer experience.

4. Just Listen

Feedback comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes, the best help you can offer is your silence. Just listen.

When providing feedback, we fall into the source of truth fallacy. We see people as a problem to be fixed and want to tell them how to improve. We can, however, learn more from our own experience than from someone else's advice. Processing past events helps us reflect on what we can do better next time.

Have a non-advice feedback meeting. Invite your colleague to talk about a recent issue. Ask them, "How are you today?" and let them talk freely. Just be there, listen, and make space to discuss people's fears and feelings.

As a follow-up question, you can ask, "What worked? What didn't work? And why?" Most importantly, "What will you do differently next time?"

Don't assume that feedback always requires providing a solution. Sometimes, people just want to be listened to. Create a space for reflection, not advice.  

5. Establish a Buddy System

Encouraging team members to create ‘accountability partnerships’ or ‘success duos’ help build strong interpersonal relationships and strengthen culture. A team is as strong as the sum of all their relationships. Some organisations use ‘induction buddies’ to provide a better experience to new members.

A ‘buddy’ becomes the ‘go-to’ person that will help build psychological safety within a team and to build better understanding of how things work and the team culture. It becomes a trusting relationship for people to get help and support.

6. Set Regular 1-on-1s

Do you have a partner or spouse who has a fantastic photographic memory and is able to share in minute detail all your past failings, errors or mistakes? If so, do you thank them whenever you are reminded of them? Does it help you to correct yourself with huge amounts of enthusiasm? Can you not wait to sit down with your partner again whilst they tell you what you have done wrong this time?

If the evidence is anything to go, the answer to the above question is, “No”. So, why do we do that when giving feedback to others? The focus should be on what you can change (the future), not what you can’t change (the past).

Having regular conversations to see how people are doing, discuss progress, and address barriers is critical for remote team members. The focus should, however, be on the future and applying learning.

Not only should managers hold regular 1-to-1s with team members, but peers should also too.

1-to-1s should focus less on tracking progress or monitoring people and more on ensuring people are okay and set up for success.

Have a set of open-ended questions to spark a two-way conversation – follow the flow, not your questionnaire. Here are some examples of questions:

  • What's one thing you're excited about? What's one thing you're worried about?
  • What's obstacles are getting in your way? How can I help?
  • Share a recent win and a mistake. What have you learned from both?
  • Who's doing a great job and why?
  • Am I providing enough clarity and direction?
  • Where would you like me involved more? Where would you like me to be involved less?
  • How do you find working with your colleagues? What can we do to improve our team culture?

Our final suggestions are:

  • Ensure that you prioritise 1-on-1s and protect that time. Rescheduling this type of conversation because of urgent issues sends the wrong message.
  • Make 1-on-1s optional, too. If one person doesn't want to meet one week, it's okay to opt-out. However, if they cancel them 2-3 times in a row, it could be a sign that something's wrong. Once again, assume positive intent and find out.

We hope that these suggestions are helpful and should you like any further information on compassionate conversations, please contact Linda or Gareth.

Heidi Wilson-Le-Moine
08 April 2022
This has been very helpful as I work with a member of staff with mental health issues and I want to be a line manager
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