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How to Rethink Feedback

Whether you are an employee, a manager, or even a CEO, giving and receiving feedback can be stressful. Oftentimes feedback is associated with criticism, which can lead to a minefield of resentment, defensiveness, and avoidance.

How to give constructive feedback is one of the hottest topics in business today. In my 20+ years’ experience coaching leaders how to have impactful conversations, I have found that feedback, when delivered well, has far-reaching benefits for individuals and organizations. So why does giving effective feedback pose challenges?

One of the most thought-provoking articles on this topic that I have read is published by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in the March-April 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review.  The article, The Feedback Fallacy, asserts that many of our beliefs about feedback, and the current trend toward candor and transparency in the workplace, can hamper learning and growth.

The authors identify and dispel three common myths about feedback.  The first is that other people are more aware than you are of your shortcomings and are therefore in a better position to point out what you cannot see for yourself. The authors call this the theory of the source of truth.  The problem with this theory, according to Buckingham and Goodall, is that humans are unreliable raters of other humans. Our feedback has less to do with the other person and more with our inherent biases.  The best we can do, the authors point out, is share our own feelings and reactions.  For example, instead of saying, “You need to improve your communication skills,” try, “Here’s exactly where you started to lose me.” This subjective feedback can be valuable, as long as it does not claim to be objective or universal. 

The second prevailing theory holds that feedback contains useful information that can accelerate learning. The authors cite counter research that telling others how to think inhibits, rather than encourages, learning. Focusing on people’s weaknesses triggers the “fight or flight” system, shifting people into survival mode and shutting down learning.  Buckingham and Goodall write, “Learning rests on our grasp of what we’re doing well, not on what we’re doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else’s sense of what we’re doing poorly.”

Finally, the authors assert that performance should not be measured against an absolute standard of excellence.  Excellence looks different for everyone and is highly individualized and context-dependent. In the case of soft skills, feedback empowers the receiver to take in and adapt feedback to their personal style and circumstances.

This posting does not address every detail of Buckingham and Goodall’s article, and I encourage you to check it out. The article examines some common beliefs about feedback that might be keeping you stuck and presents strategies that you can use to cultivate a culture of feedback that is well-managed, thoughtful, and intentional.

Here are some steps you can take to promote more productive feedback: 

Look for outcomes. The authors write, “Excellence is an outcome, so take note of when a prospect responds to a sales pitch, a project runs smoothly, or an angry customer suddenly calms down.” Stop the flow of work for just a moment, turn to the team member who created the positive outcome and emphasize that what he/she did in the moment really worked. “Yes, that!”

Replay your instinctive reactions.  Describe what you experienced when your colleague’s moment of excellence caught your attention. There is nothing more authentic than reflecting what you saw from him/her and how it made you feel. Use phrases such as “This is how that came across for me,” or “Here’s my reaction.” This helps team members see what they did well so that they can build on these behaviors for future successes.

Never lose sight of your highest priority interrupt. If you see someone doing something that really works, make that your high-priority interrupt. Stop him/her and the rest of the team and dissect the success. Not only will that person see and feel like what success looks like within him/her, but the rest of the team can also use the information to grow and learn. 

Explore the present, past, and future. When someone comes to you asking for help solving a problem, start with the present. What is working right now? This prepares the person to be open to thinking about new solutions. Next, go to the past, when a similar problem presented itself.  What did you do (what worked)? Finally, turn to the future. What do you already know you need to do? Operate with the assumption that the person already knows the solution and just needs help identifying it.      

Feedback at its best can help us thrive as individuals, inform better decision-making, and accelerate organizational performance.  The process of giving and receiving feedback might never become one of our favorite activities, but with self-awareness, reflection, and practice it is possible to develop these challenging, worthwhile skills.

To learn more about The Propel Consulting Group, contact us now.

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