It’s a curious irony of the business world that while leaders and managers will always say that they are seeking optimal performance from their people, they very often fail to deal with poor performance, allowing it to fester unchecked and risking the same malaise affecting others.
The reason for this is simple. Many of us are uncomfortable holding these sorts of challenging conversations or giving this sort of challenging feedback. We shy away from confrontation because we feel unequipped to get to the heart of the matter or deal with the elephant in the room, preferring instead to take the easier path of collusion, denial or prevarication.
Yet we all know that challenging feedback is a crucial component in our leadership repertoire. Challenging feedback takes feedback to the next level by helping to create a fundamental shift in awareness. Effectively and regularly delivered, challenging feedback can lead to a transformational breakthrough in performance.
So how can we provide feedback which informs, inspires, and ensures that recognition for a good job is balanced with honest feedback about mistakes? The secret is to learn to get to the heart of the issue. And to do that, we need to be comfortable when entering the ZOUD.
It might sound like something out of science-fiction, but the ZOUD – the “zone of uncomfortable debate” is a pithy phrase first coined by Professor Cliff Bowman as part of his research at Cranfield School of Management into the nature of high performing teams. It describes the area of creative tension that exists in any conversation that is more than a social chat and which needs to be penetrated if we’re going to be able to deliver the message we need to get across.
For most of us entering the ZOUD does not come naturally since we have learnt the skills of comfortable debate and we have learnt to prize rapport highly in our everyday relationships. That’s why we so often try to defuse the pressure by exiting to a safer place. Our relationship is maintained, but the ‘elephant in the room’ is still there.
Entering the ZOUD
You enter the ZOUD by speaking your truth. This is the world as you see it; your reality and your truth. It is like the boy who said the emperor had no clothes when everyone around him was inhibited by politeness, social norms and the fear of looking stupid. By speaking your truth, with confidence and stating your reality in a rational and factual way, you enter the ZOUD.
A key technique in helping us do this is to be aware of when we are trying to duck an issue. You might hear yourself saying, “I’d like to build on what you have just said” and then go off on a random tangent. You might drop in a quick, “That’s interesting, let’s come back to it later”, but then never do.
So it helps to create a trigger for yourself – a little mental switch which you flick to ‘On’ rather than ‘Off’ at these key moments. The, instead of being diverted away from the uncomfortable issue you want to address, you say something different like:
- ‘Now hang on a minute, what’s really going on here?’
- ‘You know this doesn’t really fit with my experience of the reality of your performance.’
- ‘I’m really disappointed in what you have just told me.’
- ‘Right now, you remind me of a clockwork train I had as a child which just used to go round and round in circles.’
These are edgy, provocative statements that carry a short term ‘breaking the rapport’ risk yet plunge the conversation into the ZOUD at which point things can get unpredictable, novel and potentially transformational. In my experience, the reaction to these sorts of statements can range from silence to laughter, anger, shock and intense curiosity. Most interesting is when the other party completely ignores the statement and refuses to let it interrupt the pattern, the current story, the prevailing trance. That’s when you know you really have a challenge on your hands!
Support and challenge
The key to effective feedback is a balance this sort of challenge with support. Pushing, provoking, confronting and holding someone accountable needs to be balanced with concern for the individual, acknowledging and empathy.
If you combine a low level of support with a low level of challenge, you end up with a bland, ‘why bother’ type of feedback, little more than going through the motions or ticking the boxes.
Highly supportive feedback that lacks challenge leads to positive affirmation but no traction. It might make someone feel better, but it isn’t constructive. “I don’t believe what the Board said, I think your project plan is very good. Maybe they were having a bad day.”
Feedback which is highly challenging but lacks support is stressful and can be counter-productive. “That was rubbish, my five-year old could do better, think harder!” isn’t a positive way to boost someone’s performance.
So the sweet spot for feedback is an optimal balance of support and challenge. This is ‘tough love’, but it provides the best basis for growth and development.
Where am I coming from?
It follows, then, that the ‘ego state’ of the person delivering challenging feedback is all-important. If you are stressed, emotional and feel the need to prove your superiority, your feedback will never be constructive. If you genuinely want to help someone to make a positive contribution and have real faith in their future potential, your feedback is far more likely to be supportively challenging.
Six steps to Challenging Feedback
The balance of high support and high challenge is achieved through six stages:
- Observation – a specific and factual description of what happened. This is a non-judgemental statement of your truth. It might be a positive observation or a statement that something is not going to plan.
- Preparation and opening statement – your first words are the most important, so prepare them. Consider both the individual’s and your desired outcome.
- Impact – describe the personal and business impact that the observed issue has had on you or on other stakeholders.
- Invite input and listen – explore the shared reality by asking “How do you see this?”
- Reflection – if this is a significant issue, allow time for reflection. Don’t be tempted to rush or force a resolution.
- Action – feedback is only effective if it is future-focused and leads to action. Agree a specific action plan with clear goals and devise an explicit ‘contract’ stating who will do what, by when.
Ian Day works as an executive coach and is co-author, along with John Blakey, of “Challenging Coaching – Going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS”. To find out more visit www.challengingcoaching.co.uk.
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