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Mayvin Sofa Chats: Episode 1 - "Let me give you some feedback" - Moving beyond the fear response

In our first Mayvin Sofa Chats episode, our principal consultants, Sophie Tidman and Tony Nicholls, sit down for a chat about feedback. They talk about how to give feedback, what it is, and share their own stories.
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Sophie Tidman  0:00  

I was talking with Liz Finney, we were working with a client on the SCARF model, which is based on David Rock's model, neuroscience based and we were talking about how the physical threat, an emotional threat is not really distinguished in our minds. And the example that Liz gave was that the experience of somebody saying to you, can I give you some feedback is very similar to what you might experience if you heard footsteps coming behind you quickly on a dark night. 


Tony Nicholls  0:42  

Interesting, I can imagine 


Sophie Tidman  0:45  

that fear response


Tony Nicholls  0:50  

I have written about feedback. I did write about feedback in the book. Because it's so it's such a thing in organisations, isn't it? Thats promoted as a good thing. And in some ways, I think it is. And I think it's just lost its usefulness and utility, because of the way it's thought about. The assumption is that, if I'm going to give you some feedback, Sophie the assumption I think, is I therefore know what the right answer is. And I'm telling you that you're not getting it right. So I'm gonna give you some feedback on that. And I think that's probably where that fear response comes in. Because somebody's gonna give me some feedback, which means that I'm gonna be, I'm gonna get told what I'm doing wrong, or how somehow I'm failing. So yeah, why wouldn't be frightened about that? 


Sophie Tidman  1:40  

I suppose it's, it's quite, if we're talking about power before, but it's quite high status move immediately puts you into a high status. I'm going to give you feedback now. Even if you say, can I give you some feedback now. You as the receiver of that you immediately feel on the backfoot. Like you're in the spotlight and you were the one to be judged. 


Tony Nicholls  2:01  

That's good point. You're being judged.


Sophie Tidman  2:03  

Yeah. This is this is the intention behind it is I suppose, well the assumption about the story behind it. The story about the story behind it will be about you've done something. Well, I suppose it's got a lot of school dynamic in there, too.


Tony Nicholls  2:22  

Yeah like detention. And yet, in the real world, there are moments when we do need to offer people feedback. Yes, they're doing something that harms somebody or they're not following process, which means they're creating risks. So there are moments in time when when you say I'm sorry, but I need to give some feedback. So I think it's a difficult judgement call. But I think if, if we can revisit how we perceive the process of giving feedback, then I think we can reduce the amount of anxiety around it and actually create a more welcoming culture towards feedback. So what I talk about is, I guess what we talk about as ot practitioners is, is how do we move away from feedback to inquiry? So how do we start to inquire into how we're doing, how we're doing things together, such that my worldview of what's right is held more likely, such that I could talk to you about what I think you've been doing, and my observation of what you've been doing in a way that invites your response, which could actually change the way I see it. So that we're together, we're inquiring into something that's going on, rather than me thinking I've got the truth that I need to tell you about. So there's something about that being a more dialogic process to use a word from OD where you enter into dialogue rather than a didactic process of me telling you what's wrong. And you go, Okay, fine. I'll go away and fix it. 


Sophie Tidman  3:54  

I mean, whether it even we need to call it feedback anymore. Yeah. I was talking to Steve Hearsum, he just said I just just sharing observations.


Tony Nicholls  4:05  

Right, noticing. Something I'm noticing about us.


Sophie Tidman  4:13  

What's what's happening when we work together?


Tony Nicholls  4:15  

Yeah, and I guess to offer somebody feedback is to shut down the possibility of alternative ways of doing things. Because we're reinforcing the way we do things around here by saying you're not doing it the way we used to do around here are you, I get that if somebody's causing harm. What if it's just a process point, then maybe there are alternative ways to look at things?


Sophie Tidman  4:39  

Yes, yes. Is it a form of coercion. I was talking to clients about moving towards self management, they weren't moving towards self management. They were moving a little bit towards letting go sort of empowering people and how people, oh they don't like that they're losing control. So feedback initially might be, I don't like that take back control. And obviously, you're not going to change anything about that if you just accept that feedback. Okay, I'll stay in my box them. But actually like, Oh, that's not quite feeling quite right to me what's going on? Because when you start empowering people, there's no rulebook, you are letting go off control. And you need to keep having those conversations about how it this going how we want it to go. I need to let go here, I need to actually be a bit tighter on this. So negotiation.


Tony Nicholls  5:31  

So again, this is where we introduce idea of this loose tight framework. So we talked before about working in regulated industries sectors there are things you can do that mean that an individual might end up in prison, or somebody might die. So, you know, you need some kind of control over things. But how do you create an environment of good governance, in the way that you have some guide rails that mean, don't go beyond these, but within those guide rails, you are empowered to figure things out. And ultimately, on building sites, in high pressure industries, you know, in factories and things. They aren't controlled within an inch of their lives, they have some scope, and they have to, they have to have some common sense around how they do things every day. So that they have those, they have an understanding of what safety means. But they don't, they're not regulated to, every turn of this spanner and of the mix of the cement mixer isn't controlled, they have to get on and do stuff. So we need to, at the end of the day, you have to empower, but there are some guide rails and knowledge that you need to pass on to allow that, which allows that freedom within the framework as it were.


Sophie Tidman  6:43  

What's the best feedback and most useful feedback you've ever received?


Tony Nicholls  6:48  

Well, I wrote about in the book, actually, so I didn't think it was a micromanager. I thought I was an empowering leader. And in many ways I was this is what I'm talking about, you know, sort of, you know, 20 years ago as a middle manager. And I thought I created an environment where people could come up with ideas and could put their own stamp on the work. And a very brave director came up to me and said, Tony, sorry, but I want to give you some feedback. Okay, and had that response, trying to brave it up.


Sophie Tidman  7:22  

And did they say, I'm sorry, I want to give you some feedback?


Tony Nicholls  7:25  

I can't remember exactly what he said. But I remember it being a rather, I need to give you some feedback, sort of, and you're not gonna like this was the unspoken next sentence. So in the truest sense, I said, Great. Okay, what do you need to say? And what they said was complete shock to me. So I was so blind to it. So I was, you know, the classic micromanagement of when a PowerPoint is created and given to you, I was dotting the i's crossing T's chasing sentences thinking this isn't quite right. This isn't how I would say it, thinking that that was what was needed in order to get it through, you know, the next level of of decision making. In rightly they were going, that's so frustrating, and so disempowering, and it's really annoying. If you need it in a certain way, why aren't you telling us we need it in a certain way? So it was, it was really useful, because it didn't just lead to me changing the way I did things. What I offered was a challenge back to say, great, I hear what you're saying, I absolutely need to stop doing that. But I think there's something we need to do collectively to shift our practices such that I need to stop doing that. In other words, when you're presenting something to me, there are some things that just aren't right, you know, incorrect grammar, for example, is just not acceptable. Or, when we've talked about a particular topic, you need to say if you don't understand what I'm saying, we need to we need to make sure we're on the same page before you're take that away, and you create something. So we all had to change your practice. It wasn't just about me changing my practice, we changed our collective practice. So this is for me, it's about where feedback is. It isn't usually about one individual changing what they do. It's a systemic thing. Most of the time. What about you?


Sophie Tidman  9:13  

There's some feedback that I think sometimes it's not even well given. But there's something in it. So I had a manager when I was in the civil service, I was a team leader. So he was two levels above me, and I was talking to him about my personal development. And he said, I just think you're not very resilient. And at the time, it was so wounding because it was not my picture of myself. And subsequently to that I went and worked in Africa and an African government, and you know, with the complexity that was the kind of cultural differences and sort of thrived in those environments, because I really value autonomy possibly and you know, and I felt very constricted in the civil service. So there was something there that stuck with me. I mean, I think there was an aspect of that he was trying to control some of my reactions. And, you know, actually a useful conversation would have been what makes this really difficult to live with. What is it, that's really riling you up about something? That was probably the root of it, something about being in that environment went against my values. And makes me not an ideal person in the civil service, in that kind of organisation, and that's it, that was eventually the useful conversation I had with myself about, oh, actually, it's not me being resilient or not resilient. It's the interaction of me and my environment and the team around me. And how that plays out. Which is actually very useful to tell me what I can live with and what I can't live with. So that could have been a useful conversation to have in the moment, as it was, I did it by myself over the years.


Tony Nicholls  10:01  

So what I'm what I'm hearing is the only individual had had the conversation by themselves. Why is Sophie behaving in this way? I know, I'll figure that out for myself. She's not resilient. Yeah. I'll give her some feedback. Thats a good word. I'll tell her that she's not resilient. So that because that's my truth, you then went away and did your own work and unpacked that and figured out there was something some utility in that feedback, and came to a conclusion that was very different and more nurturing and more generative for you. What if that team had to come to you with that question? I'm noticing, oh, just just a noticing, I'm noticing something about you, that is concerning me. And let's let's unpack that. So it's not about feedback. That's that's just sharing a noticing that would have been a more generative, useful conversation inquiry.


Sophie Tidman  12:03  

It would have been learning for him about himself and his reaction to me about how the team is, and me, that whole interaction. And the other, I remembered feeling quite frustrated with a teammate before and thought 'this person is really flaky' And I had a coach at the time, who said to me, who basically recalled young, and the shadow side so often, when something that we find really annoying about somebody else. Is something that has a shadow side of ourselves that we're not fully acknowledging. And of course, she put this to me, and I went, nah, I think so. But again, it just stayed with me. I didn't want to be flaky. And then I thought over probably years again, so I actually, what is the flakiness there, she she's not willing to have an opinion or make a case for something she's being very tentative about something very uncertain, not pushing a view forward. That's probably something I could learn. Eventually, you know, she was in a very difficult circumstance, a very difficult context. And she wasn't willing to make it sound better than it was, and sort of meet our kind of need for showing progress at the time. I think that was a very, something around those lines. And so it was something about Well, can I just be with the uncertainty and dissatisfaction and have this and not and not have to not be the rescuer.


Tony Nicholls  13:51  

Those two examples have been talked about there. They take time, and emotional energy, and there's vulnerability required, and there's risk involved in terms of being vulnerable, because somebody might take advantage of that. And literally, this is a longer conversation. And I'm just worrying about in the real world, being practical about it. There's an expediency to say, like, I'm gonna give you some feedback on deal with it. So it's an easier route, I guess, for the manager to take to say, here's some feedback, go ahead and do it. So the way that organisations just don't create space, allow space for the more difficult longer conversations. It's just not there. So performance management conversations, for example, are often 45 minutes to an hour if that if they happen. And they've quite tightly agenda in terms of how that works. So I've worked with managers who book that trend, and create the space for the right kinds of conversations. But a lot just don't because either they're not equipped for it. They don't even know but it exists as a possibility. Or they're actually trained to do it that way that we've just talked about in terms of being much more feedback oriented.


Sophie Tidman  15:08  

And it's the separation of task and relationship in organisations. Right? So they're on separate tracks. You do all your work. And then every year you'll talk about performance. And maybe if you're lucky, you talk about your relational aspect of that, rather than we had a meeting, this was the task, how do we do it? Right, what's going on with us? Which actually is much quicker and you don't maybe like, take on board what somebody said, and then the next time you have that meeting, maybe in a month? Yeah, actually, I've been thinking about that. And, and, and maybe I wasn't, you know, I wouldn't quite agree with what you said, there. You're improving how you, you know, how you give and receive feedback during that process, rather than this, this sort of one chance only. Which is pretty traumatic for people sometimes, it feels very contrived and unnatural for people. 


Tony Nicholls  16:02  

It's not in the moment, either. No, you're talking about historical things, that almost somebody's been writing down for 12 months ready to play back to you. And it's, if you're like me, you can't remember them. And and you think, well, how relevant is that now, 12 months later. So I think this is where two models come together for me. So two areas of theories already thinking around, spending 30% of your time in high performing teams talking about the task, and also your relationships. So this idea that you're reflecting on what's going on for you in the moment in the meeting, as the meeting progresses, as the conversation progresses and you give that enough time. So I think those two models come together for me in creating a habit, where you're performing task, and you're at same time reflecting on how you're performing the task and how you are in relationship with each other whilst performing the task. And that, for me, is a secret source of organisations that is just not thought about and, and given space and time. And actually, because when you when you think about the Reddy model, when you say, you know, 30% of your time, not on task, it's more than a day a week, he said that to a CEO, they're gonna go, I don't think so. But if it's actually part and parcel of the conversation, day in day out, it's almost not noticeable. It's not noticeable in terms of time. But he's massively noticeable in terms of the way that relationships are developed and trusted, developed and psychological safety develops, etc. 


Sophie Tidman  17:33  

What's it costing you not to do it? Right, the moment as well, like the number of times that I mean, just performance management conversations and the massive fallout, when people are like 'What!?'. Why did we why was I not told this before and suddenly, just seems to come out of nowhere? 


Tony Nicholls  17:50  

So we talked before about engineering out the human side of organisations. So performance management systems, for me, are classic attempt to engineer out difficult conversations, thinking that you're forcing people to have difficult conversations, but you do it in such a way that it actually becomes more conflictual. More conflict, more emotionally draining, more damaging. Because they're not hold in the moment.


Sophie Tidman  18:17  

I still have a lot of interesting conversations have the interesting, curious conversations before it gets to be difficult. Because often we say, oh, let's have you know how to have difficult conversations. But it's, it's kind of very difficult framing that to clients, because nobody wants to have a difficult conversation. But actually, let's open the possibility that this could be a really just a huge learning conversation. Where's the curiosity?


Tony Nicholls  18:43  

Thank you for bringing that work curiosity up. What was just popping into my mind is the the things that I would like to see all managers develop, we're talking about basics of management. And we usually talk about time management and, and self awareness and having line manager conversations. But there's some other basics around just developing a sense of curiosity, and developing a sense of an ability to notice, those two things are fundamentally just not talked about in organisations. But I think they're hugely important to notice what's going on in the moment in our relationship as we perform the task. And to be be curious about what's going on and why and where are the productive patterns? And where are things working? But also, where is it? Where can we do better? It's a positive intent towards improving things in the moment. I think those two things curiosity and noticing. I'd like to see more and more in the lexicon of management. But I just don't think it's there at the moment.


Sophie Tidman  19:37  

I did a feedback. I did a session with Steve Hearsum and with a client the other day, and we were talking about feedback, because this is an organisation where they were like, Oh, we don't have the space for feedback. Nobody gives me feedback. And all they give it through kind of a very senior manager who's like, am I responsible for this? What am I? What am I supposed to do with this feedback? Why aren't you having these direct conversations? So Steve being the sort of courageous practitioner that he has suggested we do some feedback in the moment in front of the client. And it was because he's teaching on the masters and masters module for at the moment, I'm one of the students and we also work together. So we're also peers. So he did that. And one bit that struck me was he was talking about how I am professionally, there was a kind of, you know, how he experienced me when he was working with me, which was quite kind of reflective, thoughtful, professional. And then on the Masters, it was like, oh, learning Sophie is just like, a bit more kind of, like much more playful. Probably more extroverted, moving things along quite fast. Which was, I didn't really realise there was so much different. So it's quite useful for me, but the way we had the conversation, people really reacted, they were like, oh, my gosh, that was so positive. And obviously, sometimes you have difficult things to say and feedback. But it makes it so much easier, doesn't it? When you're kind of saying, this is how I see you, I'm seeing you and I'm seeing you in all your glory, as well. And also, yeah, there can be a shadow side to that, that's what I found always very difficult in organisations when they said, these are your strengths. And these are your development points. So we're not saying weaknesses but that's what we're really saying. Rather than kind of saying, let's, let's see where you're overusing your strengths or where are you getting in your own way.


So that's definitely a perspective I like to take is, we have strengths, and then we overplay our strengths. And also have an appreciative lens on everything we do. Positive, you know, positive regard, in unconditional positive regard for the person and their intentions. And sharing things as I'm making an assumption that Steve shared his noticings Yes, rather than saying well I'm gonna give you some feedback now. There's something about his shared his noticings as a act of neutrality. I noticed this, that I noticed this without the judgement that might lie behind. So our original conversation around somebody saying you like resilience is a judgement, rather than I noticed this about you, which is a very different and that you both come to the conclusion of whether or not that's about resilience or not. So my sense is that Steve offered something as a noticing. Which is a less subjective, less judgmental observation.


And I think there's, there's a kind of curiosity for me. Curiosity for himself. And then curiosity about what is the thing that is Steven Sophie as a system, that has its own unique dynamic, as a marriage would, which has its own life as well.


Tony Nicholls  22:58  

I've no doubt Steve went into that conversation, genuinely accepting that his noticings were just his noticings. And we're not necessarily the truth about what's going on. Yes. They're just what he was interpreting and sensing in the world. And and allowing space for you both to have a conversation about that, which we were then make sense of it together. That would then have utility for you both. 


Sophie Tidman  23:23  

There's something about attachment to your, the stories you're telling, and separating that out from the this is what I saw the physical reality of you. Speaking, sort of. What was it? What was it that I did? Presumably, yeah, offering up experiments. Example for the group. This is what I saw. And this is what interpreted from that.


Tony Nicholls  23:49  

And have you taken anything from that? So we think about practice, then this these two, two sides of Sophie, the professional Sophia and the participant?


Sophie Tidman  24:01  

Well, my original question in the beginning of the Masters was around how can i, where can I find my authority? And sort of linked to that my authentic voice in Mayvin where I was relatively new. So it speaks to that a little bit. So is this something that I'm an OD professional? And this isn't, this is a arena where people what's I mean, what's the average age of an OD consultant?


Tony Nicholls  24:34  

Got to be in their 40s.


Sophie Tidman  24:35  

Well I will be in my 40s next year. So feeling a bit kind of inexperienced younger. Maybe that is a mask I put on, just owning my expertise a little bit more so I can actually shift back and be more playful and also kind of, well, it's not always appropriate to be like that. But it's more about, actually, maybe I'm over playing it sometimes.


Tony Nicholls  25:11  

Maybe and you know, you're representing Mayvin as a brand. And therefore there's a, there's a responsibility to that and a level of professionalism required, etc. So I think so, you know, James was talking earlier about different aspects of practice. And you know, when you're playing tennis and versus when you're standing up doing facilitating a meeting, there are elements that are very different, but they're also there's always you there, your practice is there. So we have a sum total of our parts as it were, I was reading one of the advanced practitioner programme papers today, yesterday, and somebody written I am the sum of my parts, I am my practice. So something about recognising where those different elements play and shine and rise to the surface and not. But I'm really curious about how you could bring more playfulness into the professional space and vice versa. Not that you neutralise them or you somehow plate anyone down, there becomes a richness to your practice.


Sophie Tidman  26:14  

So it's not about averaging it out? It's kind of like giving each space to shine. Because I do really like being reflective, as well and thinking big thoughts.


Tony Nicholls  26:27  

I certainly notice there can be a big difference in my presence when I'm facilitating, based on how energised I feel. And there's a playfulness that comes out in my facilitation, and sort of comedic element to my practice that comes out when I'm feeling energised and focused and other days, it's not there. So that, you know, it's an energy thing. And it's difficult to do anything about that. If you've got to turn up and you've got people waiting for you. You're not quite in that zone. But I do wonder how maybe I can have a more open conversation with my co facilitator because often with a care facility to say, look, do you want to take this space because I'm probably better taking this space or I've got the energy for this. Let me take this. So there's something about me foregrounding my checking in with myself around how I'm feeling that day and I want to feel up to up to.


Sophie Tidman  27:21  

so checking in around energy.


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