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Despite our adeptness at virtual communication, our ability to communicate face-to-face in the workplace is waning, and giving feedback is getting harder. So read on for advice about improving communication skills and giving effective feedback.

Change and communication specialist and principal of Message Stix Karen Williams, attributes the breakdown in corporate communication to a changing work demographic and a fear of ‘scaring off’ staff in the current buoyant employee market.
According to Williams, senior executives and managers (particularly those who have a pseudo-HR role) often need assistance in this area, given they are dealing with large numbers of employees.
Change and communication consultants are often brought in to train executives in the areas of communication, feedback and negotiation, by coaching them in human behaviours in the context of the organisation’s structure.
“As a result of the ‘war for talent’, senior managers and HR teams alike are very careful about the feedback they give their staff.
“They are wary of balancing the need for better organisational performance against maintaining a harmonious work environment.
“Adding to the pressure is the reality that most organisations have staff from three different generations each of which has honed completely unique communication receptors.”

Know Your Audience

According to Williams, each demographic is unique in the way it wants to receive feedback and the challenge for managers is to tune in to the best ways of communicating with these very different groups. The key to overcoming this fear is to be prepared – know your audience, know your content and arm yourself with concrete examples that support what you have to say.
Williams says the better you know the group and what makes them tick, the more likely you are to have insight into what feedback they respond to and what motivates them.
“As the oldest demographic in the workplace, ‘baby boomers’ have seen ‘em come and seen ‘em go, however, they can be overly sensitive to feedback. This group is facing growing pressure from a young, enthusiastic demographic beneath them, so they need reassurance about the value they add to an organisation.
“But be warned – baby boomers are quite no-nonsense and can spot transparent, insincere feedback. They shy away from regular attention – preferring to get on with the task at hand and respond best to a ‘straight from the hip’, authentic approach,” Williams says. 
Often working alongside the baby boomers are the younger generations, eagerly championing for more flexible, family-friendly work arrangements.
“Generation X wants to work hard but not be taken advantage of, so the best way to communicate feedback to them is to offer ideas as to how they can work smarter, not harder and acknowledge, but not too lavishly, successes and deal directly with areas for improvement,” said Williams. 
This is in direct contrast with the over-indulged Gen Y group who will dominate the organisational landscape.
“Gen Y has been described as high-maintenance, yet they have the potential to be the most high-performing generation, given their levels of education, advanced technological skill sets and high-set expectations.
“They have grown up on praise and tend to rely on it from authority figures to know they are on track. As a result, Gen Y can struggle with processing feedback. Reassure them that the feedback is designed to support their career progression – a major driver for this group.”

Feedback Works Both Ways

Communication is a two-way street and being able to receive feedback is just as crucial as being able to deliver it effectively. Williams says this can only be achieved when both parties play an active role in the communication process.
Receiving positive feedback about your strengths and what you bring to the organisation will brighten your day and that of your staff. Negative feedback acknowledging room for improvement or unconstructive behaviour can be challenging to accept and often sparks anxiety in the recipient.
“Whether the recipient of positive or negative feedback, keep an open mind during the discourse and think of ways you can turn the interaction around so your team can move to a better place.
“Ask yourself if you understand the feedback; take time to digest it and if unclear, go back and ask for clarification. If appropriate, consult a neutral third party to discuss,” Williams says.
After the feedback has been given, Williams advises to decide on an appropriate time to act; this could be immediate or after some ‘down time’.
Once a certain grace period has passed, revise the feedback and actions taken to ensure your workplace is continuing to move forward.

12 steps to giving constructive feedback

Preparation is the key: Put time and thought into the process of preparing your feedback. Collect concrete examples to illustrate points.

Secure a suitable venue: Hold the session in a private place. Turn off your mobile!

Adequately brief the reviewee: Make sure the reviewee has clear expectations about the nature of the meeting and ask the reviewee to prepare by setting their own objectives.

Ensure a supportive context for the feedback: Frame your communication carefully so that the reviewee understands your perspective. Only use “I” statements.

Remain positive: Lead with positive feedback than deliver constructive feedback. Focus on behaviour that can be changed rather than on personality.

Ask the reviewee for feedback on how you handled the session: This can be an opportunity to build bridges and show your willingness to learn.

Honour any agreements made during the meeting: Confirm agreements in writing after the session and always follow through.

Lead by example: Demonstrate the behaviour you wish to see. Introduce a culture where ongoing feedback can be provided rather then having to wait until a formal performance review.

Do not be afraid to give feedback: positive or negative. If you want Gen Y to change, tell them why, in a way that lets them know the importance of the task to the company.

Choose your language carefully: Try to be age-appropriate but do not jeopardise professional pride in order to sound ‘cool’. Gen Y will laugh behind your back whilst Gen X will resent being patronised. Baby boomers tend to dismiss insincerity.

Choose your tools: Text messages, office MSN, email, phone, face-to-face – all of these are now highly accepted feedback tools. They can all reach a target audience and have the desired impact. BUT these tools need to be used appropriately for the type of feedback being delivered. Gen Y and even Gen X are more open to technology and are more inclined to respond to feedback delivered this way.

Understand the emotional drivers: Gen Y is keen, eager and moving too fast to think through their actions properly. Gen X and baby boomers know how to play the game and often act for personal benefit.
Karen Williams is principal of Message Stix, a Brisbane-based change and communications consultancy specialising in corporate culture and change strategy.

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Karen Williams

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