With Martin G. Moore

Episode #6

The Psychology of Feedback: Stop avoiding leadership work

Being able to comfortably give and receive feedback is one of the most important skills a leader can have. It’s so important, that I’ve dedicated an entire module to handling conflict in my program Leadership Beyond the Theory.

So in today’s episode, we’re going to talk about why being able to give feedback is the cornerstone of leadership success. I will then talk through:

  • Why most leaders avoid these conversations

  • A tough question that will make you evaluate your aspirations to be a leader (this will take some honest self reflection, but it will help you focus in the long run)

  • The common fears we face when a difficult conversation is ahead of us

  • A great perspective on difficult conversations from NAB’s CEO, Andrew Thorburn

  • My five lenses to view feedback through, which will help you turn the uncomfortable into the comfortable (this can be – SHOULD BE – downloaded below, so that you can reference it every time you need to have a tough conversation)

My hope is that these five lenses will drive you to change your approach to feedback, and work on it until you are comfortable. If they don’t, then my only suggestion is that you should re-evaluate your leadership aspirations. Either that, or accept that you will have a career full of misery, self-delusion, and negative impact on people – which I’m sure is the last thing you want!

I also reference a brilliant article by Mark Manson called ‘The Most Important Question of Your Life’, which I strongly recommend you read.


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Episode #6 The Psychology of Feedback: Stop avoiding leadership work

One of the most critical skills for a leader is the ability to challenge, coach, and confront people. This requires many direct, honest, and empathetic conversations. But many leaders never master this, and they spend most of their careers avoiding confrontation, only having a difficult conversation when it’s virtually impossible to avoid.

  • So, we’re going to talk about why this is the cornerstone of leadership success.

  • We’re then going to examine why most leaders avoid these conversations.

  • And finally, I’m going to give you the five lenses to view feedback through, so that you can turn the uncomfortable into the comfortable.

Why feedback is the cornerstone of leadership success

One of the best non-executive directors that I’ve had the pleasure of working with is a mining industry chief executive by the name of John Pegler. In describing people’s fundamental expectations in their jobs, John put it best by saying this,

“When your people turn up to work each day, they want to know three things from their leader.
Number one, what are your expectations of me?
Number two, how am I going against those expectations?
And number three, what does my future hold?”

How would this be possible if you as a leader aren’t completely comfortable with giving your people the accurate and timely feedback they need under any circumstances?

Conflict aversion consumes many leaders in the one on one situation, and this is a career killer. Download the Career Killers guide to see the other four career de-railers and how to avoid them.

Many senior leaders have difficultly simply holding a respectful, robust, honest conversation. There are many cultural and social reasons why this is the case, and everyone struggles with it. The challenge is to get over it. Me personally, I was as bad as any of you could possibly have been. But fortunately, I was more dysfunctional than most of you.

When I had my first feedback conversation with another individual, I was terrible. I sucked so much it would be hard to imagine anyone else sucking more than I did. But because I’m a little dysfunctional, I walked out of that meeting and I said to myself, “That was pretty bad.” Rather than thinking that I should avoid those situations and shy away from them, I realised that that was a thing that I had to improve if I was ever going to be a decent leader.

I looked for opportunities to put myself back in that situation as soon as I could. Repetition and quality practice improves you, and that’s what I set out to do. Now, for me, this worked pretty well. Very, very quickly I increased both my skill and my will to have these conversations. And for may, many years I’ve been completely comfortable in any situation with any individual, no matter how tough the conversation gets.

I’m going to be pretty blunt here. If you have any aspirations of being a great leader, this is the price of admission. So, you have to ask yourself whether your commitment to being a great leader is strong enough to overcome the fear or discomfort you might feel in these one on one situations. And you need to know, there are no shortcuts to take, and there are no work arounds you can make. You’re either going to decide to do this, or you’re not. It’s that simple.

Something that might be really worth reading is a blog by a guy called Mark Manson, and it’s called ‘The Most Important Question of Your Life’.

Why most leaders avoid tough conversations

In my experience, it’s much more about a lack of will than there’s a lack of skill.

These conversations are so easy to avoid, because it’s more likely than not that your leader isn’t having the hard conversations with you and your peers, so they’re not going to push you to have them. I know what’s going through your head, because it goes through all of our heads. You need to know that you’re no different from anyone else. We all face the same set of fears and doubts.

So, let’s see if these ring a bell with you. Have these ever gone through your mind?

  • ‘What if this conversation escalates into conflict?’

  • ‘I shouldn’t criticise, as I don’t want to be negative, or potentially demotivate my people’

  • ‘I don’t really have enough evidence or examples to pull someone up on their performance.’

  • ‘What if they disagree with my assessment of the situation and I find myself not being able to justify my view over theirs?

  • ‘What if I haven’t set them up for success? Maybe it’s my fault as a leader that I haven’t given them enough support.’

  • ‘Maybe I’m asking too much of them. Am I too demanding as a boss?

Here’s a couple of classic delusions that we put ourselves under. If we come into a new team and we find non-performers sometimes we say they will improve under my leadership. Even though they haven’t performed to date, my leadership is going to be the difference. Now, that is the height of arrogance.

Or another classic one, if I give them more time, they will improve. But by the time you found yourself in a situation where you have to consider this question, it is generally the height of futility.

All of these things stop us from having the conversations we should be having, and that means we don’t have enough of them. But when we do have them, the dread and the fear is self reinforcing. So, when you’re fearful of a conversation, you handle it poorly and it doesn’t go well. Guess what? You’ve just reinforced to yourself that having a difficult conversation is hard, and that you don’t like having them. So, what do you do then? You avoid those situations, both consciously and subconsciously, like the plague. All the while rationalising why you don’t need to have the conversation, or fooling yourself that it’s not a priority compared to your other busy work.

In the most difficult cases, for example, when you have to terminate someone’s employment, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think of their personal circumstances. As Andrew Thorburn, the chief executive of NAB says, and I’m just going to paraphrase this, “If you enjoy sacking someone, you’re not fit to be a leader. But if you can’t do it, you’re not fit to be a leader.”

The five lenses of how to view feedback

I’m going to give you some stuff that should change your life in terms of giving feedback to people. I’m going to give you the five lenses to view feedback through, so that you can turn the uncomfortable into the comfortable.

I’m going to start by giving you a free kick. I’m going to give you one that I haven’t even included in the five lenses, that I think merits some thought…

This is what you’re paid to do – We’re not going to go into the act that this is actually your job, but as a leader, these tough conversations are what you’re getting paid to do. So, it’s not one of my five lenses, but I figure you sort of want to ask yourself the question, where is my professional pride as a leader? So I’m going to leave that to you.

Here are the five reasons why you need to overcome your fears, and work on becoming a leader who has difficult performance conversations whenever they’re required, with no hesitation whatsoever. When you look through these lenses, it’s going to change your perspective. It’s going to tip the balance in your favour, so that you’ll do the work of leadership, instead of either wallowing in fear, or deluding yourself with rationalisations.

#1 You have a duty of care to your people

When I say duty of care, what do I actually mean? Well, probably the best way to describe this is when you think about safety in an industrial business like mining, or constructing, or manufacturing. Line managers need to be able to command the respect of their teams and hold them to account. Not just for following rules and procedures, but for ensuring their behaviours are appropriate for the risks at hand.

Now, this is impossible unless you and the leaders below you are all comfortable with challenging, coaching, and confronting. If you have leaders below you, and you don’t address performance issues in those leaders, you’re placing all of your people in harms way. So, you have to set an expectation that the leaders need to work diligently with their people to keep them safe. They need both the skill and the will that we talk about here.

You absolutely have to have an up or out mentality when people’s safety is at stake, and the leaders aren’t confident to manage their safety. How would you feel if someone was seriously injured because you didn’t do your job to ensure that they had competent leadership? I’ve said to more than one senior operational leader in my time, “If there’s a serious incident in that business, I will never forgive you, and I will never forgive myself – because we knew that that leader wasn’t a competent safety leader, and we left them in place, and we didn’t perform as managers.”

Even if we step back from that and we look at the less extreme example of a white collar business, it’s still the act that everyone deserves competent leadership. It’s a right, it’s not a privilege. If you choose not to exercise your duty of care, you have no business putting your hand up as a leader.

So, looking through the duty of care lens first of all, will that help you overcome your fear of holding difficult conversations and move you into action?

#2 You can’t get results from a subpar team

The job of a leader is to build a high performing team that delivers results. It’s the best thing for an organisation, it’s best for your people, and it’s best for you if you have any aspirations of becoming a great leader. But it’s impossible to build a high performing team unless you can challenge, coach, and confront your people, to bring out their best.

But let me ask the question, looking through the high performing team lens, would this push you to have the conversations that you don’t want to have?

#3 Your people deserve the opportunity to improve

I can’t count the number of people during my career that I’ve given feedback to about an obvious issue with either their performance or their behaviour, and they have never heard it before. I’m talking about people who are 40, 50, even 60 years of age. A succession of leaders in their history have simply left them unchecked, either because they’re setting a very low bar as the standard, or more likely because that’s easier than having a difficult conversation with difficult feedback.

If you’re one of those leaders who’s let them go, and hasn’t given them the feedback, there’s no other way to say this, you are robbing your people of the opportunity to improve. And this compounds over time. Imagine telling a 50 year old, who has never had a straight conversation about their performance, about an obvious derail that you’ve observed. It may be the reason that their career hasn’t flourished, and they haven’t been able to reach their potential. But sadly, after years of lax leadership, people are reluctant to believe what they’re being told.

Now, I figure this is because apart from anything else, they would have to face up to fact that they either didn’t know, or chose not to do anything about an obvious issue. So, what’s going through their heads? My last eight bosses told me I was doing fine, and now you tell me I’m not. It’s not me, it’s you.

So, would you commit to overcoming your fear of difficult conversations if you looked through the lens of not robbing people of the opportunity to improve?

#4 Everyone knows the strong and weak performers

This means that not managing the weak performers marks you as a weak leader. And good people will leave your organisation. One of the things that constantly amazed me is that leaders think that other people can’t see performance problems in the people around them. That’s just ridiculous, it’s Emperor’s New Clothes stuff. Everyone knows.

Now, if you as a leader don’t deal with poor performers, you kill the culture of your team. Your good people get demotivated when they don’t see poor performers being dealt with, and they start to underperform themselves. Until of course they become dissatisfied with themselves, and decide to leave. There’s an old axiom that says, “People join an organisation, but they leave a leader.” 

So, if you were to look through the lens of everyone else knows, would you commit to overcoming your fear of having difficult feedback conversations?

#5 If you need to let someone go, you need to be super confident that you’ve done everything in your power to have helped them

Now, sometimes people choose not to perform, and you have to make a tough decision to let them go. But even if it’s not a clear termination for performance reasons, even in other circumstances. For example, when a company is forced to undertake a round of redundancies, people’s performance always comes into the selection process.

How would you feel if you haven’t given those people affair opportunity to perform? Everyone chooses how they perform and behave. Sometimes this has nothing to do with you as the leader. You could have done everything right, and they still just won’t make it. But, before you take a difficult step, which will no doubt have a significant impact on someone’s life, don’t you want to be 100% comfortable in your heart of hearts that you did everything you possibly could? And at the time of termination, that’s too late. This is not an excuse to delay the inevitable. It’s a call to action, that you can’t be confident unless you give early feedback, and regular followup on any performance issues.

If you were to look through the lens of the worst scenario, will that push you into action to hold the difficult conversations when they need to be held?

Whether you look at these five lenses individually or collectively, if they don’t drive you to change your approach to feedback and work on it until you become comfortable, then my only suggestion is that you should reevaluate your leadership aspirations. Either that, or you’re just going to have to accept that you’ll have a career full of misery, self-delusion, and negative impact on those around you.


  • EP 9: Giving your boss feedback – Listen

  • EP 22: Feedback Made Easy – Listen

  • EP 116: Receiving Feedback – Listen

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Enrol Now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory- Learn More


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