The Essence of Effective Feedback
Hearing and giving feedback is one of the most impactful and challenging things a leader does. When delivered effectively, feedback guides people into better versions of themselves. When delivered ineffectively, it sets the stage for others to feel hurt, to act out, or to isolate and limit their exposure, thus limiting their contribution. When feedback is avoided, unproductive behaviors and confusion set in for leaders and the person deprived of feedback.
Why is it so hard?
We are genetically programmed to get along, our ancestors risked death if they did anything offensive enough to get kicked out of the tribe. You are here now in part because they passed on to you, the genetic information that helps you to get along and not offend. What often gets labeled as weakness by avoiding, is just a survival skill.
Most of us didn’t have great models for how to give and receive feedback as kids, so when we hear the “I need to give them some feedback” voice in our heads and imagine saying it out loud, it connects with a hurtful experience from our past and the instinct to get along overrides.
One foundational reason for why we don’t receive feedback well is; we don’t like to feel judged by others. Often, feedback comes out in a way (or sounds like it does) that immediately and instinctively moves us to defend ourselves. That common reaction is also called status management and is also more survival instinct.
If you struggle accepting feedback yourself, you are going to struggle giving it effectively too.
If you're able to allow your instinctual/survival responses to pass, a great second response is something like “Thank you” or Thanks, I’m going to look at that”. Give yourself a little time and space to reflect and then come back with an intentional response.
So giving and or receiving feedback can send the survival part of our subconscious minds into a state of fear. In our conscious, rational minds, we realize feedback is a good thing, but just under the surface, it can feel as though it goes against our instincts.
The most effective feedback leads to reflection
I was 17 when I started cooking school, I wasn’t quite sure I was committed to becoming a cook. I liked the science and all the delicious food we created, but at times, I also got bored and at that age, boredom evolved into acting out. Gravitating towards other like minded students, my fellow class clowns and I would tease each other, sabotage each others' work for fun… and do the kind of disrupting you’ve probably seen teen-age boys do.
The first quarter of cooking school was led by a wonderful human being and talented chef instructor named Boy Toy. Boy was quiet, patient and extremely kind in addition to his outstanding cooking skills.
Boy was very tolerant of my acting out behaviors, I occasionally noticed out of the corner of my eye that Boy saw what we were doing. To my recollection, he never said a word about it.
Towards the end of the quarter we had one on ones with the chef to get some feedback and prepare us for the second quarter. Boy went through and graded me on the list of skills we were to master, all pretty standard stuff. In each area, I met the skill level needed to get to the second quarter.
At the end of the conversation, Boy softly asked me if I thought this was the profession I wanted, I could sense something was coming based on my in class antics. Boy said in a very calm and caring tone “You have a lot of talent and show so much potential, but if you continue to act the way you do, you’ll never make it in a professional kitchen”.
I could feel the blood rushing to my face, It felt like I was in trouble. I don’t remember that moment other than what I’ve said above, but not long after that conversation, I decided I did want to be a cook and I did like this profession, I was scared that I may have already blown it. I was determined to become a good cook.
Had Boy called me out and confronted me during class, I probably would have dismissed him out of embarrassment. He knew that I was screwing around, disrupting other students and still, he gave me that feedback in such a caring way, pointing to potential he could see. It jolted me into a different version of myself, one that saw cooking as my profession and all of a sudden my passion.
About 15 years later, Boy did a sabbatical in the kitchen where I was the chef. We never talked about that conversation he had with me. I avoided it and hoped he had forgotten about it. But every time I saw him in my kitchen, I felt humbled and so appreciative of the risk he took by telling me his truth. It’s been 40 years now since I was in cooking school. I can recall a few things and people I was with at the time, but I remember Boy Toy with affection and appreciation.
For feedback to be effective, it has to be perceived as an act of care.
Giving feedback from a caring place is a risk. You can be rejected or minimized. Just like Boy would have been had he scolded me in class. It is the realization I might be discounted that wakes up the ego and assigns blame. For the other to be wrong, means I must be right which feels like a safer way to give feedback. Safer and less effective.
The other reason Boy’s feedback was so effective; Reflection.
Our best and stickiest learning comes when we make the connections ourselves. Boy did it all perfectly; he was patient, demonstrated care, and he put the words in a way that gave me a view of a better version of myself, a professional cook. All of this allowed me to reflect on it and make my own connections.
For on-going development, this kind of feedback is the most effective. It is usually in some way, stated with a sense of curiosity by the person giving the feedback. In Boy’s case, he started it with a question about what I wanted. In my reflection, it was that question that made the difference, it made me ask myself if cooking as a profession was what I wanted.
There is another type of feedback that can still come by way of caring, but in this case, the realities of you, the feedback giver and they, the feedback receiver are far apart. We call it reality coaching. In this kind of feedback giving, the goal is to either get aligned, or to separate the person from their current misguided actions.
A slang and old school version of this is known as the “Come to Jesus talk”. Although I’ve used the term 1,000 times, I am no longer a fan of it. Due to the controlling connotations it carries. When I used the term, and when I heard it, it had an “I know what’s best for this person, and I’m going to tell them” flavor.
Where does effective feedback come from?
So often, we are tempted to give feedback from a place of fear. Our fear does not announce itself properly to you and say calmly, “Excuse me Sir, you are now entering a state of fear” Fear blasts you with a chemical surge and left unchecked, unconsciously drives behavior. When someone triggers this type of fear, it often manifests as anger or blame.
Feedback out of fear (aka - anger/blame) will work, but it is a blunt instrument and creates collateral damage. You may get behaviors to change for the short term, but you are also eroding trust, damaging the possibility of real growth and development and, you are teaching people to hide their future mistakes from you. Giving feedback from this place is one-sided, it (temporarily) meets the needs of the person giving the feedback, but does not meet the needs of the person who actually needs the feedback.
There are many angles from which to look at and improve your feedback giving skills. I’ll list some others below. For this article, my goal is to provide you with the essence of what makes feedback effective.
The essence of effective feedback:
Leads to Reflection; Think of your role in giving developmental feedback as one of starting a conversation around a question that the receiver can reflect on, if you can reflect with them, all the better.
Mastery of your survival impulse to give feedback from the fear/anger/blame perspective. Let your impulse pass, and access your compassion for the receiver before giving any feedback.
Acknowledgement of care for the person. Prior to giving feedback, reflect on your intentions and connect those to the intentions of the receiver..
When Realities are far apart, invite a conversation about reality either aligning, or finding a way out for the receiver. (this is worthy of more exploration at another time)
Here are 12 ways you can start a reflecting conversation when you would like to provide developmental feedback:
I’m curious about…… Tell me what you intended to have happen there.
I’m betting you didn’t want to have this result, but I felt confused when…
I don’t need to be right about this, here’s what I see…
I know you’re working on your…….. Here is a little input from how I’m seeing it.
Would you like to know how that landed on me?
I’m thinking we could both benefit from a little insight, let’s debrief that situation.
You may not be aware of this…
I’d like to better understand your intentions, tell me what happened…
I’d like to share some feedback with you about…
I see an opportunity for growth, let’s look at….
I need to understand this better, tell me what you intended to happen
I wonder if you're aware of……...
Some of these sound the same, and maybe they are close enough to be grouped. The bigger point is to start a dialogue with the receiver that gets to their intentions, and then see together if their actions are in alignment.
Following the Mobius process is also a great way to give feedback. And is probably the one I use most often. In that process, you start with what’s present that is working well, or is a contribution. Then you state what’s missing for you, that if you had it, would be more effective/satisfying.
The key to a Mobius conversation is to convert what’s wrong into what’s missing. Everything you can possibly come up with as wrong, by its very nature, points to something you want that’s missing. Converting wrong to missing is a great way to get the blame out of it.
Here is a quick example of how that might sound. Imagine that you have a co-worker that continually dominates the conversation in meetings….
Following the essence of feedback above, I first notice and allow to pass, my impulse to approach them out of anger/blame.
Then in the right place and time, I might say; “I really appreciated your input at the meeting, your insights on the Growing Edge Blog were ones I hadn’t thought of before”. [Then a response from them.]
“One thing missing for me was being able to hear how others responded to your comments, I was wondering if you noticed that too”?
Something close to that will open up a way for the both of you to reflect together on the issue, opposed to you focusing on correcting the behavior of dominating the meeting.
You may also be aware of a concept called Radical Candor. This TED talk gives another powerful perspective on giving feedback. I highly recommend it and you can feel free to use this chart to guide your own learning.
If you’re like me, giving feedback is a challenge. There are no definitive or perfect ways to master, but you can work towards mastery of yourself, and that is not a perfect path either. I still give feedback that is less than effective, but, I believe in it enough to keep trying to master my own impulses.
We have had interest in leading discussions with some of these blog concepts. If you would like to break up your leadership meeting and have a facilitated discussion on this, or any other leadership topics, contact me, and we’ll set up a free one hour facilitation.