“Feedback” is a scientific term from the field of Physics and it’s critical to how we learn to do things.
We learned to walk by getting feedback from our body on what helped us stand and what made us fall.
When we learn a new sport, learn to paint, or learn to dance we get feedback from
coaches and tutors and friends about how we’re doing.
Sometimes that feedback is constructive and helps us progress.
At other times that feedback is destructive and inhibits our progress.
The ability to give and receive feedback is something of an art, in that it can be done crudely or with finesse. Think back to a time when someone gave you feedback in a shoddy way. How did it make you feel? Not good, huh? Now think back to a time when someone gave you really good feedback and how it made you feel; the glow, the pleasure, the good feeling inside that said you’d done well, that you were appreciated. We could all do with more of that in our lives.
Feedback – business as usual
What do we hope to achieve by giving feedback? Essentially, we want to influence events. When we give feedback on past performance or behaviour we hope to influence future performance or behaviour. Besides shouting at people, ridiculing them and threatening them, there are many ways we might try to do that:
• a chat over a cup of coffee
• a formal one-to-one meeting
• an informal, spur of the moment one-to-one meeting
• ‘chewing the fat’ with colleagues
• stop-start-continue forms
• 360 degree feedback
• leaving a “Thank you” post-it note on someone’s desk
• recommending them for an ‘Employee of the Month’ award
• leaving a note on their file
• giving them a bunch of flowers or a book token
• giving them a raise or a promotion
• thanking or praising them in person, discretely or in front of the whole department
• giving out productivity reports
There’s a reason for listing all of these different forms of giving feedback. Most articles and books tend to focus on the idea that giving feedback is a tough business, something you have to prepare for like an Olympic athlete. Well, it certainly can be a stern test, but that shouldn’t be the norm. The list above tells another story – that giving feedback can be so much a part of everyday business that it’s woven into the very fabric of the buildings that we work in. Why? Because that’s how to make it work. That’s how to embed it into the culture of your company.
Preparing the ground
Feedback shouldn’t be a trial, a nervy, scheduled, bi-monthly face-down with your boss, it should be something that happens day in and day out for every employee in the company – top down, bottom up and side to side.
If feedback is commonplace and effective, people tend not to get phased by it. They know it’s coming, there’s no shock to the system – in fact they welcome it. The more people are exposed to giving and receiving feedback the more self-aware they are. They’re more aware of others, too; they become more articulate at assessing performance and more comfortable with praising and critiquing themselves and others.
So how do we prepare the ground for this?
Ideally employees at all levels in the company will be bought in to the notion of giving and receiving feedback to one another. If bosses have an ‘open door’ policy then so much the better, but at the very least they should be seen to practise what they preach.
2) If you can’t take it, don’t give it
There’s no better way to encourage staff to accept feedback than to ask them for it yourself. Let them see that you’re bought in to it. Not sure about that? Well grit your teeth and get on with it – you’ll learn a lot about yourself and if you act on what you learn, your staff will love you for it.
There is a skill and an art to giving and receiving feedback and employees need to be given formal training to help them develop the skills they need – managers especially, since they will be doing the bulk of the giving, much of the receiving, and they’ll need to coach their teams in the skills of the game.
After training comes coaching – an essential step if you don’t want people to just revert to type and do what they did before. Use an external coach for a few team meetings to get things under way, then coach in-house. Bring the external coach in again 4 months later to see how things are going.
5) Know who you’re giving feedback to
Whether feedback is formal or informal, takes a minute or an hour, you have to know the person you’re giving it to well enough to get it right. Even a simple “thank you” can be delivered wrongly depending on the personality type of the person you’re thanking. What Colour type are they? Are they more Extroverted or more Introverted? Thinking or Feeling? Knowing this will help you take the right approach. If it’s a performance problem, can you use the Situational Leadership model to figure out whether their skill level or will level is the key issue? Is it a case of ‘Can’t do it’ or ‘Won’t do it’? Have you got statistics or other reports to work from? Is there a pattern? The more comprehensively feedback is embedded into the way your team or company operates, the more likely you are to have all the data you require to work from.
People write books about the dos and don’ts of giving and receiving feedback; the language to use, tone of voice, body posture, affirming, repeating back and so on. But what are the key issues, the qualities at the core of great feedback that we can’t do without?
1. Give feedback with respect and for the sake of the recipient
Why are you giving this feedback? Whatever the issue and however you feel about it, you have to deliver feedback for the benefit of the recipient if you want to influence their behaviour or performance.
Having someone stomp up to you, tell you your attitude stinks and then stomp off again probably makes them feel better and certainly makes an impact, but it’s unlikely to produce lasting change and harmony.
Personalising bad behaviour or performance shortfalls are also not on, and nor is delivering a tough message in front of others. Respect from and for everyone involved is crucial if trust is to be maintained and progress made.
What are the consequences, if any, of the feedback session? Without consequences – good or bad – why should anything change? Do you want to motivate the person to achieve greater things? How? With a carrot or a stick? Some people love to chase a target, others will run from a threat, so try to gauge which approach will work for a particular person, agree the way forward and follow up after an appropriate length of time.
Praise works wonders for morale and self-esteem, even when it’s delivered along with a reprimand or a call for improvement. Most feedback is given when things go wrong – a consequence of busyness in the workplace, perhaps, but there’s always a need for praise.
If people are hurt, anxious or angry, it’s important they realise they’re appreciated and that their contribution is valued on the whole. Let them see the contrast between what’s valued and what isn’t. Give plenty of time over to what they do well, their strengths, and let them build on those things.
4. Defensiveness is to be expected
Be prepared for defensiveness – denial, blaming, upset, aggression. If you’re sure of your ground, persevere. Try to help the coachee face the reality of the situation. Probe, ask questions, present facts. Allow silences to sit rather than fill them to ease your own anxiety. Above all, maintain respect and concern for the coachee – the aim is to help them improve. Watch out, also, for constructive disagreement from the coachee; this is fair play. Listen, discuss and check your facts.
Whether you’re giving or receiving feedback – positive or negative – the ability to actively listen to what’s being said is crucial.
Strangely enough, many people find it harder to listen to praise than they do to listen to criticism; it embarrasses them and often taps into a sense of not being worthy. The ability to actively listen – preferably without prejudice – is possibly the single most important quality we can develop to assist us in both giving and receiving feedback. In fact any form of interpersonal communication demands that we open our ears more and our mouths less.
If it’s praise that you’re receiving – shut up and listen. If it’s criticism that you’re receiving – pay attention and learn what you can. If it’s feedback that you’re delivering, say what you must and then listen to the response, because within that response will lie all manner of clues as to how to proceed.
Employees don’t just want feedback, they want help! It’s great to receive praise and it’s fine to receive well-delivered constructive criticism, but employees also need help; help to improve, help to remove obstacles, help to progress in their careers. There also may be a need for consequences, and this means that feedback must often incorporate some element of follow-up.
1. Now what…?
You’ve done the feedback, delivered the praise, assessment or reprimand, agreed the way forward…now what? Is there a need for more training, mentoring or coaching?
Maybe you need to help remove some obstacles that are inhibiting good performance.
Perhaps you’ll need to monitor performance or behaviour. It can take time and energy, but regular sessions with someone will be way more powerful and effective than one-off interventions.
Whatever you do, build on the feedback you’ve given, don’t leave things where they are.
It takes time to change behaviour. Sometimes just a few days, but often weeks or even months. The strength of regular feedback is that it builds its own rewards – the longer and more often you do it, the more material you have to work with and the more skilled you become.
3. Develop your talents
If people are to work effectively together, they need to have a high state of self-awareness and awareness of others. They’ll get this from having a shared view of human behaviour – the Colour Model being one such view – and from practising interpersonal skills in a training and live environment.
And so many other qualities will spin off from here– perceptions of openness, trust, mutual respect, teamwork, co-operation, collaboration – all of these things depend on and benefit from people being able to relate to one another with honesty and ease.
If we learn to give and receive feedback effectively, everything else follows.
Click here to read why leaders should promote healthy conflict, and here for an article on stress Read up on influence, stress, metaphor, healthy conflict, listening, authenticity and conversational chemistry