Feedback is an important mechanism to improve the performance of individuals, teams and organisations. This article looks at some key (as well as some challenging) ways to deal effectively with feedback.
The more challenging aspects of giving and receiving feedback:
If this article simply tells you what you already know about feedback, it would still form a helpful reminder but let’s go beyond that and start with some more radical ways to really get the most out of feedback.
- The phrase “as long as the feedback is constructive” is often quoted, so too is “and delivered respectfully”. In principle, there is nothing wrong with either of those notions. In practice, they can rob the person receiving the feedback of a chance to improve by dismissing the feedback (which may be valid) because it wasn’t perceived to be constructive or wasn’t delivered respectfully. That’s actually a bit small minded for someone who is keen to elevate their performance. So, the strong suggestion here is to take feedback constructively rather than focusing on whether it was given constructively .
- There can be a reluctance to use the word ‘criticism’ rather than the word ‘feedback’ or ‘suggestion’ when the feedback is negative . Whilst there is nothing wrong with that in principle, there is something wrong with it if it’s catering overly to sensitivity. Sensitivity and taking negative feedback well don’t always mix. This is not to suggest that we attack people by using brutal language; it is to suggest that if we fuss about the words used in the negative feedback there may be a fundamental problem to start with.
- The choice of time and place to deliver (negative) feedback can also be an indicator of the level of sensitivity at play . If we always have to pick the right time and place then that might also be a pointer to overly sensitive reactions.
- The previous points do not contradict the principles of delivering feedback respectfully, in a timely manner, in places that are best. They are to suggest that if there is an over emphasis on these aspects then the sensitivities at play may be too strong to make the most of feedback. And, for an individual receiving feedback, a ‘bring it on’ approach is likely to be way more effective than a ‘be careful how you feed back to me’ approach . The best approach is to be someone who delivers feedback astutely and someone who just wants it, cops it and acts on it when it’s valid, no matter how it’s delivered.
- As an individual, make your starting point for all negative feedback received to assume that it is valid and work back from that . First, the fact that the deliverer of the feedback thinks it’s valid means it deserves consideration. Second, there is often some validity (even if small) in criticisms given to us, so being open to that possibility is the best approach (as well as displaying fine leadership to others in the way we react).
- Failure is feedback . This is more about the outcome than feedback that is given to us by someone else. This is about resilience, determination and persistence. To adopt the approach that failure is feedback energizes the move forward rather than stopping or slowing down in the quest for success.
- Be someone who seeks feedback, not just someone who is open to feedback (or worse, someone who resists it). If an individual sends messages to others that they are not open to feedback then they limit their own growth. Not only does seeking feedback, consistently, propel self development, it sets a very good example to others.
- Feedback only hurts if you let it. Manage your emotions when receiving feedback and, really, if it’s a little uncomfortable or even disturbing, get over that and move on to the opportunity for improvement that may be there.
- Ask yourself what’s the motive of the person giving the feedback. Yes, there may be times when that motive is less than pure but it’s often that the person is trying to help in some way or achieve a better outcome. If a positive motive can be identified on the part of the deliverer then the feedback is much easier to take and act upon.
Individuals v Teams v Organisations:
The ways feedback is dealt with can and should be different for individuals, teams and organisations. It really has to be approached more formally when there are more than just two people involved, so structures need to be in place for teams and organisations for feedback … team meetings, organisational reviews, etc. And on the formal side of feedback for an individual, it can be effective for mentors to be in place.
How to give feedback effectively:
- There are various ways to give feedback .. formal v informal, body language v tone v words, instantaneous v timed, written v spoken, discussion v demonstration, information v opinion. The most effective of these should be chosen on a case by case basis and that’s a skill in itself.
- Who the feedback is given to is obviously important . Most often it should be given to the person or team directly but there are occasions when a third party might be a better (initial) way to go, sometimes for their help in delivering the feedback or just for their awareness.
- Whilst the first section of this article suggests that a ‘bring it on’ approach is best for how to receive feedback, it’s not a contradiction to say that feedback should be delivered in a timely, respectful and constructive fashion . The difference is which side of the fence you are on .. deliverer or recipient.
- Sometimes feedback is effective if it’s delivered by asking questions rather than making suggestions or statements, to get the recipient(s) to come up with the desired changes themselves.
- Include ‘what will happen now’ at the end of the feedback discussion , to ensure that change and improvement occurs. Seek agreement for this to happen, even including time frames if it’s appropriate to do so.
- Always be specific and behavioural when giving feedback , so the possibility of it being taken personally is reduced.
- Avoid generalisations . There is a significant difference between pointing to an instance and generalising. The recipient is way more likely to engage a discussion about an instance rather than having to react to it being claimed that it happens frequently.
- Avoid implying conclusions when giving feedback . The recipient may draw conclusions about themselves or what could result if past behaviours are continued, for example, but it’s not always effective to put that to them.
- Feedback can be about behaviour, process, information, knowledge, skill or approach (maybe even some others). Be clear in your own mind which of these it is about when giving the feedback so you are not taken off track during the discussion.
- Don’t give too many points in the feedback. Stick to just one or two , to elevate the effectiveness of the discussion as well as the likelihood of the suggested changes occurring.
- Choose whether the feedback should be delivered privately or publicly … because there are some (minority) occasions when public feedback will be more effective (positive feedback, for example).
- Sometimes a hamburger approach to feedback works best … positive feedback first, then the challenging bit, then end with another positive aspect. The recipient becomes receptive after the first bit, more likely to engage the second bit and feels good after the third part.
- Sometimes it’s important to have data or information inside the feedback to validate it, as distinct from just opinion or observation. But be careful of the difference between validation and being perceived as trying to win or prove yourself right.
- Agree what the follow up is going to be beyond the feedback discussion , to maximize the impact and accountability.
How to receive feedback effectively:
- Push deeper for feedback, both within the points being made as well as for other points.
- Ensure that there is a broad range of people you are receiving feedback from … mentor(s), colleagues, direct reports, people you report to, friends. For a business, include feedback from customers, of course, and even better if that’s through customer focus groups.
- As suggested earlier, be a person who adopts a ‘bring it on’ approach to feedback , not someone others have to be careful with in the ways they feed back to you or may not even feed back to at all.
- Test yourself (genuinely) by what you’ve changed about yourself or your behaviours over last 3 months, due to feedback you’ve received and sought.
- Determine the degree to which the following are in play before feedback will be given, heard, regarded or acted upon : timing, phrasing, personality, private v public, nature of the issue. The degree to which these considerations are being made is a pointer to how mature the team, organisation and individuals are in the ways they are going about improving through feedback.
- As an organisation, always test what’s changed as a result of feedback and where it’s coming from .
Some general comments:
- Performance reviews , in some businesses, are ineffective (even the word review is questionable given it implies to look back .. performance discussion is better). The formal performance reviews are not frequent enough, often tied to remuneration reviews (and that makes them impure from a performance discussion perspective) and do little to improve the performance of the person being reviewed .. they are too often just meetings. They should be genuine discussions about changes for the future to improve performance, conducted skillfully to achieve that, with honest conversation about real issues. And they need to be conducted more frequently than once or twice a year to achieve that.
- Staff surveys , to source feedback, sometimes achieve little. They are often conducted so that staff can remain anonymous in what they feed back (and that’s sensible) but pretty much turn up the same old issues … poor communication, morale could be better, need better staff facilities. There is nothing wrong with any of that except that it too often does not solve the more fundamental problems nor take available opportunities. There has got to be a process put in place to dive deeper into the feedback, ensure it’s genuine (and not personal agenda driven) and to agree some steps to improve the place. Be clear on what is being tested, who is best to ask, how the questions are framed and what is to occur after the feedback is received. Otherwise, more damage can be done than good.
- Some organisations have an approach similar to ‘See something say something’ in place, to elevate feedback. Be aware though that for any individual to implement this, instance by instance, requires skills that some people may not have, so upskilling them on giving and receiving feedback can be necessary (and definitely effective).
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