That was horrible! what makes feedback work...or not

David Swink

When used effectively, feedback can be a powerful tool for improvement. 

We are all on learning journeys. At work, we are learning new professional and technical skills. In our communities, we are learning to make a difference, be a good friend, neighbor, or weekend athlete. At home, we are learning how to be a better child, spouse, partner, or parent.  Without effective feedback, it becomes almost impossible to get a realistic perspective on how we are doing and what impact we have on others.

Many people avoid having feedback conversations, particularly difficult ones that evoke emotional responses. At work, managers often wait until the annual performance review to give feedback, blindsiding employees about events that by then, are ancient history.  Employees may hesitate to give feedback to their bosses for fear of retaliation. Some parents are afraid to give feedback to their children for fear of alienating them. Research by Gallup shows that in the workplace, giving no feedback may be more detrimental than giving mostly negative feedback.  Learning how to give and receive feedback can help increase your confidence to conduct these conversations and creating a culture that embraces feedback.

Setting the Stage for FeedbackCreate a Culture of Trust

One of the most essential elements of giving and receiving feedback is the ability to create a trusting environment where feedback can thrive. To be able to give you honest feedback, a person needs to trust that you will listen to them, and not retaliate if you disagree with their input. To really hear and incorporate feedback, you need to trust that the person giving you feedback has your best interest at heart and that their motivation is to be helpful. If there is a high level of fear and low level of trust, feedback will either not occur or it will potentially damage relationships.

To help create a trusting feedback environment, it is helpful to make agreements about giving and receiving feedback both at home and work. Talk about how and when you like to receive feedback. This establishes a positive framework for normalizing feedback as an important part of the relationship.

Emotional Bank Accounts

Give as much positive feedback as you do negative feedback. Think of it as having feedback equity in an emotional bank account.  Catch people doing things right and acknowledge it.  It’s a lot easier to give negative feedback if you have given the person ample positive feedback in the past.

Feedback GuidelinesBe Specific

When giving feedback, use behaviorally specific language.  We have a tendency to be vague with our language when giving feedback.  We hear feedback statements like:

“You need to be more of a team player,” or “You did a great job.” That kind of feedback may get your general point across but it doesn’t convey enough information to help the person know exactly what they did or what they can do to improve. Instead of “You need to be more of a team player,” you might say, “I noticed in the meeting today that you didn’t invite other members of the team to contribute to the discussion. I think you might generate a better solution if you got more input from others on the team.” This feedback conveys specific information about the behavior, so the person understands what she/he did.

 Be Timely
The closer to the event you address the behavior, the better. The exception to this is when the situation is highly emotional and the feedback can be delayed for a while. In that case, wait until everyone has calmed down before you engage in feedback. It is very difficult for people to hear feedback when they are in a high emotional state.

Prepare Your Comments
If possible, think about or write down some points so you are clear about what you are going to say. This helps you stay on track and stick to the issues. Do not think about it as a script, but rather a conversation guide.

Design the Space, Place and Time
Do you have this conversation over lunch or in your office?  Is this conversation best had on a Friday afternoon before a long holiday or first thing on Monday morning?  Do I sit behind a desk or reserve a conference room? Do I do this on the phone or face to face? Choose the space, place, and time that will be most conducive to productive conversation.

Manage Your Non-verbal Behavior  
Most feedback (there are exceptions) is more effective when delivered with compassion and empathy.  Those emotions are expressed mostly through voice tone and other nonverbal expressions. Communicate your desire to help the person be his/her best. In emotional conversations, the person to whom you are speaking will unconsciously tune in to your non-verbal communication more than what you are saying with words.

Consider the Individual’s Feedback Style  
Some people want very direct feedback.  Others need a little more indirect approach with a lot of validation.  This is highly dependent upon your relationship with the person and her/his personality.

Separate Intention from Outcome
When people make mistakes, they usually don’t mess up on purpose.  Many times however, we assume they did do it on purpose.  Don’t get hung up on their intention.  Focus on the behavior and its impact. Separating intention from outcome sounds like this in a conversation between a mother and a teen: I think your intention was to be independent and meet new friends. The impact, however, was that I didn’t know where you were and I was afraid you were in danger.

Feedback StepsYou might use the steps below in preparing and delivering feedback.  To be effective, however, these steps should go hand in hand with the guidelines above.  Remember that feedback is a conversation not a lecture.

SituationDescribe the situation and context in which the behavior occurred. You may want to ask the permission of the person to discuss this.

Example: “Can I talk to you about your presentation in the team meeting yesterday?”

BehaviorUse behavior-specific, non-judgmental language to describe the behavior that occurred.

Example:  “I noticed that when people asked you questions that you crossed your arms and looked away as they were talking.”

OutcomeState what happened as a result of the behavior and dialogue about the outcome to test for buy-in. Explore their perception and listen without judgment.

Example:  “As a result, very few people asked questions and may not have fully understood all of your data.  I don’t think that was your intention but I think that was the outcome. What were your observations?”

Alternative BehaviorSuggest a more effective alternative behavior or ask them to suggest one.

Example: “I might have looked at the person as they asked the question and thanked them for their question.”

Alternative OutcomeDiscuss what the possible outcome(s) if the alternative behavior is enacted.

Example:  “As a result, you probably would have gotten more questions and people would have been more informed when they left the meeting.”

Other ConsiderationsModels of human interaction cannot be applied in all situations, so obviously there are times when this feedback step model may not be the best choice, such as in a crisis.  In a crisis, feedback may need to be quick, tough, direct, and delivered with authority with little conversation.

When giving feedback to people from different cultures, one must consider cultural nuances in communication, deference to authority, and other factors.  For more information about this read Andy Molinsky’s blog in Harvard Business Review.

Carefully choose the communication medium that you use.  If you need to give feedback to someone that is geographically distant, don’t automatically use email.  Because nonverbal communication like voice tone and facial expressions are missing, the feedback can easily be misinterpreted. What has worked for you when giving and receiving feedback at home or with friends?

What is your workplace doing to create a culture of trust where feedback can occur as a valued process for continuous improvement – individually and for the organization? Do people that you work with feel comfortable giving you feedback?

With the permission of David Swink, Chief Creative Officer at Strategic Interactions, Inc. The firm specializes in live, simulation-based learning programs that teach leaders critical communication skills, including how to create and sustain high performing virtual teams. For more information, visit http://www.strategicinteractions.com


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