Feedback Part 2: Getting as good as you give

By November 10, 2021 Performance

Hello again. In part one of this article, we addressed feedback, our motives for giving it and how to ensure you examine your motive before you open your mouth.

Now that is sorted, you can deliver the feedback in a way that is taken well.

It is vital to know the go-zones and no-go zones of feedback.  Derek Biddle, occupational psychologist and co-author of Leading and Developing for High Performance describes the layers of an onion.  The inner layers represent our personality and values – who we are fundamentally and the standards and codes by which we live our lives.  These are incredibly personal and tough to change (you could argue that we shouldn’t have to change them and certainly not because someone we work with/for thinks we should).  These are the no-go zones for feedback.  Comment on people’s personalities or values and you could be accused of hitting below the belt. The outer layers of the onion represent our attitudes – our approach to and views on things and behaviour – the outward signs of our attitude.  These are the go-zones for feedback.  They concentrate on what a person does, not who they are, they are easier on the ear and more likely to be acted upon.  It’s the difference between telling someone you desk share with (a likely scenario as office space shrinks to fit the needs of the hybrid workforce) that their messy papers, Post It note pandemic and nonexistent filing make it impossible for you to work and can you both sort out a better system: above the belt – and telling them they are a shambles with no idea how to organise themselves and you bet their home is in a right old state – below the belt.

It works with positive feedback too.  Telling someone they’re a fabulous person is nurturing and kind but more akin to feedback you give a mate and not terribly useful.  Fabulous in what way exactly?  And how can I transfer my “fabulousness” to benefit other areas of my work? Better to be told specifics – your positive impact on the team, your ability to manage a project well, your inspirational pitching style – with examples – than to be fobbed off with sweet but rather sweeping statements.  So, keep your feedback above the belt.

A lot has been written about techniques and structures for feedback. Take it with a pinch of salt.  In some places of work, it would be a start just to get people doing feedback at all, let alone trying to weave it around a fancy process. It goes a long way if you keep your feedback open, honest and respectful. Being open and honest is not enough.  One person’s idea of being open and honest could be another person’s idea of brutal.  The third part – respectful keeps any major offloading in check.

While we’re on the subject of technique, beware the unsubtle ones like the Praise Sandwich (sometimes referred to with a different, altogether less palatable sandwich filling). The idea behind it is to sandwich some negative feedback between two bits of positive feedback thereby softening the blow.  Guess what?  We all know when it’s being done to us and it gets used mainly when you have only wafer thin positive bread to act as bookends for a massive wedge of negative filling. “Thank you for turning up to work today – just about everything you do in your job is rubbish – but I really like your earrings.”  Okay, an exaggeration but you know how it goes.  Better to say what needs to be said, check how they feel about it and what their view is and then look ahead.  Any feedback that is constructive should be followed by some sort of action plan.  If it is positive feedback, then acknowledge what has been done well, discuss how they can be even better and/or spread that success and look to the future.  If the feedback is about something you want them to improve, it’s a case of looking at how that might be done.  The essence of constructive feedback really, is that life goes on after it.  There is a future, a way to improve, a path to move on to.

Finally, there is a big element of getting your own house in order when it comes to feedback.  You may be skilled at giving it, but how elegant are you at receiving it?  We worked with a client when he was setting up a new team from scratch.  Once the team had bedded in, he looked to work on his own self-awareness with a “full-circle” feedback tool that encouraged his staff and colleagues to give him constructive feedback about his work style, leadership and communication.  The results were detailed and clear, in many cases extremely complimentary and motivating, in just a few, a little tough to take.  But he took them all, welcoming the feedback and acting on it where he felt appropriate. His example inspired many of the team to be more open to feedback and make it a regular feature of their team culture.  So, before you unleash yourself on unsuspecting colleagues, with your own special brand of feedback, do a quick check that you too can receive feedback with grace.  Listen to it, ask questions about it, decide what you are going to do with it and above all, thank them for taking the time to give it – genuinely and not through gritted teeth.

They say all feedback is a gift.  Sometimes it can feel like a badly wrapped one with unwanted contents.  But it usually has something to offer and a colleague or team member being prepared to share a perspective with you – that takes guts, so take a deep breath and welcome it. They may even surprise you and say something positive.  Now that’s a gift worth having.