Why Do Leaders Struggle to Give Feedback?

There are leaders who feel their jobs would be great, were it not for the management of their people

Ever struggle with giving feedback to an employee? Ever try to give constructive feedback to someone who blew you off or got angry?

For the last many years, psychologists, behavioral scientists and human resource professionals have tried to train leaders to give feedback, and yet, little has changed.

Why do leaders struggle with this particular skill set?

Upon interviewing more than 20 health care professionals in the C-suite last fall, a number of insights were shared.

This challenge partially stems from a subconscious push-back leaders have, a pang of fear when they realize that delving into dialogue that contains critiques can pose potential consequences they may otherwise try to avoid. The human brain is wired to avoid threats and pain.

One CEO said:

"Being the boss, feedback is the hardest thing for me to do, to tell someone they suck, not in those words, but that's how it comes across." 

Research shows when someone at work tells us something about ourselves that we don't want to hear and runs counter to our beliefs about ourselves, we're not inclined to listen. In fact, it may ruin the relationship.

Four primary concerns emerged in the interview series:

  • Fear of conflict
  • Fear of de-motivation – The employee will start looking for a new job and leave
  • Fear of personal rejection
  • Fear of negative public backlash

​Part of the problem with most feedback training is that leaders receive tools that help them control the narrative while receivers then are positioned at the mercy of their managers, situating them in threat mode. 

Another challenge can be focus.

A while back, I dealt with an employee-relations issue in the clinical department of a major organization. Walking down the hall, I talked to the clinical director and asked how much time he spent communicating with employees. His response was abrupt: "Talk to my employees? I don't have time for that!"

Is time the real issue?


Some organizations report they are striving to reduce the number of line items that their leaders are tasked with – from 53 down to 15 – so executives can actually spend their time leading.

There are leaders who feel that their jobs would be great, were it not for the management of their people. 

So here is the solution:

To be an effective leader, stop pushing for feedback. Stop giving feedback and start asking for it.

Stephen Moulton is president of Action Insight. He helps leaders select, grow and retain talent. He has more than 20 years of human resource leadership experience and is the author of The CEO's Advantage, 7 Keys for Hiring Extraordinary Leaders, as well as the forthcoming title, Reimagine Feedback. Connect with Moulton on LinkedIn, at 303.439.2001 or email Stephen@actioninsight.com

Categories: Management & Leadership