Making Feedback Work

‘Feedback’ is one of the top three issues that can cause conflict or sour working relationships.
The reasons for this are many. In some cases, the feedback ‘giver’ may be abrupt, overly negative or passive-aggressive (“yes, you did an ok job with that” through gritted teeth). But the receiver of feedback also plays a role – they can resist, defend, deny or go for broke and self-deprecate (“please hit me on the other cheek because I’m so bad at XXX”). For myself too, despite years of training experience, I must admit there’s still an anxious moment before I read the Course Evaluations sheets at the end of a training session… ‘how am I going to be judged now’.

For this reason, I was attracted to the recently published and quirkily entitled ‘Thanks for the Feedback. The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well: Even When it’s Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered and Frankly Your Not in the Mood’
Harvard Negotiation Project authors Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone have tackled this subject from a less frequently explored angle – what it is that clogs the airwaves in the ears and eyes of the receiver of feedback. There is learning in this text from both receiving and giving feedback and I’ve pulled together a few of the key points that I found most useful here:

Investigate the story behind the ‘label’:

More frequently than not, feedback comes in the form of simplistic labels. Most unhelpful examples of this might be ‘lacks motivation’, ‘poor attitude’ but it’s not just the negative characterization that’s the problem. Rather, it’s the fact that when we are communicating with one another our tendency is to share only the ‘headlines’ rather than the details of what exactly we mean and how we came to that conclusion.
Even if we do share what sounds like the ‘raw data’ in an attempt to be objective, (‘you missed two deadlines last month’) we seldom are enlightened enough to share the subjective filtering or background ‘story’ that we applied to this that made it a problem. In this example that might be things like ‘Those deadlines are with key customers’, ‘I’m really frustrated’ or ‘I am wondering if I didn’t emphasise the importance of this enough to her’.

To complicate things further, the person listening to the feedback will be applying their own particular filters and subjective ‘story’ to what they are hearing. So ‘you missed two deadlines’ can be heard as anything from ‘I made two small mistakes and that’s all this guy noticed’ to ‘I am the worst XXX that worked in this job’.

Remedy:
As a feedback receiver, don’t fall into the trap of reacting to the label, instead ask questions to figure out how it was they reached that ‘conclusion’ about you. For feedback givers, take the time first of all to clarify your own thinking as to why a particular behaviour or action is a concern and then share as many details as possible that will help the listener understand this.

Be mindful of our ‘hard-wiring’

Whether we like it or not, our genes do influence our lives. Research would suggest that how we react to negative feedback is mediated by three factors:
Baseline: This refers to our temperament, are we generally ‘happy clappy’ types, content with most of what life throws at us or, at the other end of the spectrum is there a restless or even gloomy undertone going on for us a lot of the time.
Swing: Are we easily tossed around on the waves of life? Or are our emotional reactions more straight lines than peaks and troughs?
Sustain and Recovery: How long before we move on from the negative or positive feelings? Interestingly, research shows a 3000% difference across individuals in this.

Remedy:
For feedback givers, put this on the table as a discussion in contracting around giving feedback. For example, when contracting around performance appraisals, talk about how it is for that person to hear feedback and what works well for them. Normalise the fact that people have different’ hard-wiring’ and invite them to share their own experience. Share your own hardwiring around feedback with them also.

For feedback receivers, while we have limited control over how others will view and respond to us, we have 100% control over how we react and let this affect us. So if you have a tendency to ruminate on negative feedback shift your attention instead to ‘how well can I bounce back from this negative message about myself.

Don’t have conversations where you talk past one another:

Here’s an example:Manager: ‘I just want to give you a bit of feedback about the Project with Grate Widgets Ltd. that you have been working on…you are doing a good job but they raised a couple of issues in a meeting a couple of weeks ago that they aren’t happy about’It would seem like the topic the Manager wants to talk about is ‘issues client isn’t happy about’. But the Team Member responds ‘Why didn’t they come to me directly if there was a problem?’ so in effect they are changing the topic of the conversation to ‘issues I’m not happy about’.

Both of these topics need ‘air time’ so the most skilful answer from the Manager would be to say ‘Ok, so I can see that you’re also not happy about some aspect of this…we need to talk through that also…which will we start with?’

Remedy: As a feedback giver, understand that if the listener feels triggered, they are likely to respond defensively. In effect, what they are saying is ‘I don’t like what I’m hearing’ and will need acknowledgement and to be listened to around this concern as well. As a feedback receiver, be mindful that your upset or annoyance at what you are hearing might cause you to focus exclusively on your own identity needs and miss out on hearing some valuable information about how you could improve.

Cultivate a ‘learning’ mindset:

This refers to our fundamental mindset about how we view people’s (and our own) abilities to grow and change. Yes, I know I’ve just referred to how fixed our hard-wiring is but that’s only part of the story of any person’s behaviours and actions. It’s easy to fall into black and white thinking – ‘he’s a good teacher’, ‘she’s very domineering’, ‘I’m no good with people/figures/computers’, ‘he’ll never make the grade’.

Remedy:
As a feedback giver, talk about this and promote this kind of culture in all your feedback conversations. Notice when people feel triggered and put this on the table as part of the discussion ‘Yes, I can see this is hard to hear but let’s focus on what you can learn and how I can best support you in this’.
As a feedback receiver, notice when your own thinking spirals into negativity and you have transformed ‘you could keep tighter deadlines’ into ‘I’m physically incapable of ever doing anything on time’.

Model the giving and/or receiving of feedback well:

In receiving feedback, to what extent do you model an open and curious attitude to being questioned or hearing someone else’s opinion. Are you a ‘Yes but’ or ‘Tell me more’ kind of person?

When we are really triggered by feedback, do we welcome this and say ‘hmm that’s interesting, I wonder why that bothers me so much and what can I learn about myself here?”

In giving feedback, to what extent to do you match the following criteria:

  • Clear, specific – refer to a particular issue or behaviour, not ‘awfulising’ everything the person does
  • Timely: not six months later
  • Constructive ‘It would work better if’ rather than ‘You are careless…’
  • Ensure you get your ratios right – unlike our diet, to grow and flourish as people we need more sweet than sour so focus on trying to catch people doing things right rather than wrong.