HRreview interviews: Duncan Lewin on feedback and emotional intelligence

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duncan-lewin 150x150Duncan has over 15 years’ corporate and private sector experience as a trainer and facilitator. He has trained and worked alongside organisations including BT, Accenture, Fullers, Canary Wharf and the UK government and has seen how communication continues to challenge many large organisations in the 21st century.

He draws from his own personal experiences in managing feedback and phobia and is a self-confessed former ‘feedback-phobic’. He speaks directly with HR practitioners about some of the common misconceptions and issues that professionals and managers face when it comes to dealing with feedback and conflict in the workplace. 

Why do you think it is important for HR professionals and managers to receive training on giving feedback and emotional intelligence?

I think being able to listen, feed back and engage are absolutely key skills in the workplace, whether you’re a manager or an HR professional. However, many people are afraid of giving or receiving ‘negative’ feedback and hence either avoid it, or become confrontational over it. My training aims to help people find a more open and receptive way to handle other’s opinions, resolve conflict and increase their self-awareness. While technical skills are highly valued in the modern workplace, I see companies are becoming far more tuned in to the value of training in emotional skills and how this can improve communication, engagement and creativity at work.

You admit you are a former ‘feedback-phobic’; how did you overcome this? Do you think feedback phobia is commonplace?

Yes, absolutely. I was terrible at hearing feedback and listening to others. Not your ideal employee! My two greatest sources of support in overcoming this were: a) learning a specific process for being able to question how I reacted to and interpret criticism, and b) taking lots of training from skilled mentors and practitioners who had already overcome their own ‘feedback phobia’. These brought me a level of self-awareness and insight that I’d never experienced before.

I think feedback-phobia is very prevalent; as an example, I’d say over 90 percent of managers I speak to would say they rarely, or never, ask for upward feedback from their staff. And this reflects the societal view at large; that if someone ‘criticises’ you, you should reject, defend against it or ignore it. Unfortunately, that simply doesn’t work in my experience.

Why did you decide to move into this area of training and skills development?

Someone recently said to me “You teach what you need to learn”. At a personal level, I have got so much out of improving my capacity to listen, reflect and communicate more assertively and honestly in my life. It’s made my life so much easier. And once I started to share my experience and coach others in what I had learnt, I heard from them I had something to offer and decided to make this the focus of my career. In addition, I think this is an exciting sector to be in; there is a lot of discussion and value being placed by companies on these skills and I hope I have something of value to add to that debate.

How would you respond to the common understanding that emotional intelligence is innate to a large extent and cannot be taught?

No-one is innately more emotionally intelligent than another. That’s just not true to me. Rather, some people have learnt ways to be in the world that shut down or suppress their capacity to listen, empathise and relate to others. For me, the work I do is about helping people reconnect to their emotional intelligence. I’m not giving them my ‘wisdom’ or ‘teaching’ them; I’m helping them find their own way to listen, relate and engage better. I have seen a huge transformation in my own emotional intelligence through the training and work I have done on myself. And I was very stubborn. So if I can do that, I’m sure that everyone else can.

Why should employers invest in training in areas such as these?

For me, these skills are hugely important to improving staff engagement, productivity and retention of key personnel. One of the highest rated factors in why people leave organisations is “feeling unheard/not listened to”. What does it cost an organisation to replace key members of staff when they leave? Typical estimates I hear are in the region of £40-50k upwards. So I think that the ability of management and staff to give and receive feedback, listen better and handle conflict more productively is absolutely essential to retaining, engaging and motivating your people.

Do you think a reluctance to give or receive feedback is caused by poor delivery in the past?

Yes, I think a lot of organisational cultures don’t support open, honest dialogue. Prior to training, I worked in several major corporates which, while they were progressive organisations in many ways, did little to support the delivery of quality upward or downward feedback.

Whether it’s the awkwardness of the annual appraisal, or misdirected ideas like the ‘feedback sandwich’, I think people can feel confused and reluctant in giving and receiving really honest opinions. However, my work focuses on personal responsibility. If you blame your boss, or the culture, or your colleagues, you’re always going to feel powerless, a victim. If you want to be more open, assertive or effective in your communications at work, you have to model that change yourself. The greater level of self-awareness and tools at your disposal, the more you can live and model the culture you want around you.

We cannot choose who we work with and therefore workplace conflicts could be deemed inevitable. Can training really be effective in the management and reduction of office conflicts?

The word ‘conflict’ can have positive and negative connotations. In a positive sense, having a range of different opinions and personalities in a team helps stimulate creativity, challenge the status quo and produce lively debates. In that sense, nothing wrong with conflict. However, where ‘conflict’ becomes negative is where team members communicate in ways that are unproductive: heated arguments, office politics or gridlock that blocks progress. For me, the source of these arguments stem from people’s inability to communicate clearly, respectfully and openly with each other. All these skills can be improved; and that can only lead to conflict being handled more productively and efficiently.

For more information on Duncan Lewin’s training visit his website www.duncanlewin.co.uk or take a look at his upcoming training sessions; Feedback: Friend or Foe? and Emotional Intelligence: Self-Awareness At Work.

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