Feedback—why Kiwi “nice” isn’t nice at all

On a recent trip to San Francisco I walked into a made-to-measure clothing shop. It was early trading hours and I don’t think the boss and his assistant knew we were poking around. Most probably because the boss was giving the assistant some very clear redirective feedback.

It went something along the lines of, “Okay, this is not the first time this has happened and we’ve had this conversation before. When a person comes back for a fitting, we know when they will be arriving, and the clothes and measurements must be ready and laid out in advance. Why? Because the customer feels cared for and because it’s more time efficient for us. We’ve discussed it before but you’re still not doing it – so what’s going on? How do we fix this?”

The conversation struck me for two reasons. First, it was a pretty effective form of redirective feedback (clear communication of the issue, talking about the impact, asking why it is happening, and then an invitation to joint problem-solve).

The other reason it struck me was how comfortable the boss and the assistant were having the conversation. The assistant wasn’t defensive – she listened, and provided some additional information about what was happening.  Then, together, they explored what to do and reached a clear commitment about how to make sure things will change.

Straight after the conversation the assistant saw us and came over and started chatting. She must have known we had heard the conversation but there was no embarrassment or concern on her face. The conversation was just on-the-job feedback and now it was back to work.

If this scenario had played out in New Zealand, my guess is the assistant would not have been so at ease with it. Probably the boss would not have the conversation at all. More likely they would tolerate the under-performance and complain to others about the “slack assistant”.

Having worked in the US, the incident reminded me how good Americans are at giving and receiving feedback – a combination of being goal oriented and polite. If something is getting in the way of achieving what they want they will address it, but in a polite and respectful way.

So why aren’t Kiwis good at feedback – both redirective and reinforcing? I believe it’s a combination of our Kiwi culture, a small population, and living in relative close physical proximity of each other.

From a Pakeha point of view, people settled in New Zealand to get away from a class system where they were told what to do and what their place was. Egalitarianism and fairness are very important to us. Giving feedback, especially redirective feedback, can be viewed as anti-egalitarian. The result is that in many situations we tolerate things because we are worried that if we provide feedback it will affect the relationship. “If we give them redirective feedback they may not like me.”

Here’s an example. Recently a friend treated himself to a massage. “How was it?” I asked.  “Not very good – she was too fierce.” “Did you ask her to go a bit softer?” “No, I didn’t want to offend her.” So he forked out $100 to be hurt by someone he barely knew because he didn’t want to offend her! And we all know what we say when the waitress asks how our meal is. Even if we have just been grumbling about the steak being overcooked we look up and say, “Yes, lovely thanks.”

From a Maori and Pasifika point of view, there are protocols around where, how and to whom you give feedback. Respect for elders, for example, means it is challenging for younger Maori men or women to provide feedback to an elder.

Close physical proximity to each other is also an issue. We stumble across each other all the time. If you threw a four-kilometre blanket over my neighbourhood you would get a lot of state housing and Peter Jackson’s house –and everything in between. Our degrees of separation are two to three, whereas in the States, South Africa and Australia, the degree of physical and relationship proximity is much greater. Here, there’s a good chance you will bump into a work colleague when you’re at the supermarket.

As Kiwis we like to think of ourselves as decent and fair. If we truly are decent and fair then we would give people feedback about what is not working so well. A fair and decent person doesn’t let someone keep messing up because they are worried the person might not like them for giving the feedback.

Years ago I worked with a woman who had very bad breath. It affected her relationship with other staff members and with clients, but no one told her. The person who should have given her the feedback was her boss. But he didn’t. So one of her colleagues should have stepped up – but we didn’t. It held her career back. Not decent. Not fair. Shame on us.

The good news is there are signs we are challenging our reluctance to giving feedback. The proposition for the TV ads around problem drinking is that a real friend is someone who provides feedback to their mate about the impact of their excessive drinking. A real friend doesn’t stand back and let his mate mess up their lives because he is worried they won’t like him for giving the feedback. A real friend goes there and provides challenge and support – “Mate, you’ve got to stop and I am here to help.” It takes courage – and the drinker might not like it – but in time they will respect and even love the person for doing it.

We don’t need to jettison our cultural persona and adopt a full-frontal feedback approach. Rather, we should consider that feedback, given thoughtfully and respectfully is, in fact, consistent with a culture that champions fairness. Because it’s not fair to let someone keep underperforming – not fair on them or on others who have to pick up the slack.

Richie McCaw, shortly after the last World Cup, reflected that as he grew into the leadership role he realised the importance of setting clear expectations and providing feedback: “Perhaps early on I just blithely expected people to do what I wanted them to do. But sometimes you‘ve just got to be straight and tell them, ‘This is what’s required, this is what I expect.’ Just say it. Be demanding, if it’s the right thing for the team.”

Does it matter that we are not good at giving and receiving feedback? Is it a skill that we should develop? If we want to do things better, then yes, it does. Research from the Council of Corporate Leadership reveals feedback, given respectfully and well, is the single biggest way of improving people’s performance in the workplace. So if we want to improve performance and productivity, then we need to get better at giving feedback.