Lessons Learned About Feedback

Feedback has been a constant ally in my career. My memories are like a slide show; snapshots of giving or receiving feedback mark the beginning of many stories of personal change. It moves in all directions in my retrospective; up, down and sideways. It traveled among direct reports, peers, bosses, sometimes clients. At times feedback was formal, as a part of of performance reviews. Other times it was informal, such as post meeting debriefs. My highlight reel shows triumphs and mistakes on both the giving and receiving ends of feedback.

My key conclusion is that it’s well worth the effort to master a personal practice of giving effective feedback and receiving it with grace. Feedback develops my self awareness. It’s the mirror that reflects what others see, despite what I might wish to project. Self awareness can be a little magic. It brings the spark of change – knowledge of gifts that enable my success or behavior that blocks our it. As Maya Angelou says: Once we know better, we do better. Most positive change in my life started with feedback. I am grateful to those who planted the spark.

Five Things I’ve Learned About Feedback

While I’ve benefited from great thinkers who have shared formulas and advice, my principles for giving feedback have been formed from experience. (I’ve listed my favorite feedback resources at the end for those interested in models and formulae.)

Start With You.
Reflect on your motives to give feedback. Follow the Hindu practice Help Ever, Hurt Never. Are you motivated to truly help? Can the person do something about this behavior, even to make it a little better? Is it about them or about you? Have honest and positive motives before you give feedback.

Set Boundaries.
Establish what you dowant and don’t want as a result of offering feedback. Like goal posts for football and soccer players, boundaries keep your feedback on target. If you do want the person to build awareness and don’t want to damage their motivation, be aware of the boundaries that keep the message in bounds.

Set Yourself Up for Success.
In their book, Willpower, Roy Baumeister and E.J. Masiacampo discuss the harm too many distractions, inadequate rest and poor diets have on our self control. I offer that this extends to self control and focus necessary to discuss constructive feedback. This may go on the “duh” list, but don’ give feedback when you or the other person are depleted or distracted. I learned this lesson the hard way. I attempted to give feedback to a colleague when we were both rushed. It did more harm than good when the colleague focused on my timing instead of the message. If you invest the effort to get the right message, don’t blow it by the wrong conditions.

Link Feedback to Aspirations.
Feedback that helps an employee achieve something meaningful shows good faith in your effort to help, not harm, others. Linking feedback to aspirations can be motivational. It’s a forward looking orientation that gives others a chance to make change in the only place possible – the future.

Offer a Vote of Confidence.
Include your belief that the employee can change their behavior or skills and that you will help. A vote of confidence makes feedback constructive instead of destructive. It adds to your credibility that the feedback is sincerely intended to be helpful. The single most important “must do” to maintain confidence and trust is to follow through with help and encouragement when change hits the bumpy path.

I am a beneficiary of others who cared enough to develop masterful feedback skills and the personal leadership qualities to deliver it. They encourage me to follow their example. As I do, experience may change these five lessons. And, once again, it will all start with feedback.

A Few Favorite Resources for Feedback

K. Patterson, J.Greeney, R. McMillan, A. Switzerland (2005). Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When The Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw Hill.

Marshall Goldsmith Feedforward Tool.

Goulston, M. (2010)Just Listen: Discover The Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Everyone. New York: American Management Association.

While not specifically about feedback, Willpower provides great insight into the focus and control necessary to deliver it effectively.
Baumeister, R. & Masiacampo, E.J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Books.

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