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“Good intent in giving input is not enough. We must back up intention with behavior that is skillful.”
— Dr. Kathryn Smerek
Offering quality feedback that moves individuals, teams and entire organizations forwarded toward both individual and shared goals is one of the most important leadership skills. After all, the very nature of leadership is to move people forward.
But, have you noticed how someone asking if they can give you feedback often triggers a knee-jerk emotional response akin to readying yourself for criticism? It’s like the words enter our minds and are translated as, “Can I take the opportunity to tear you apart?”
The very nature of evaluation and offering feedback places the person giving the feedback in a superior position to the person receiving it. This can have the unfortunate effect of putting the receiver on the defensive. Further muddying the waters are differences in communication styles and abilities, and varying levels of self-confidence, emotional intelligence, and resolve.
Needless to say, while giving and receiving feedback is a valuable, necessary process in any organization, it can also be a bit delicate.
Here are four ideas for offering feedback with a productive, positive, and inspiring approach:
1. Create Safety. According to neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner of Columbia University, people who receive feedback apply it only about 30% of the time. One of the contributors for this unproductive situation is a lack of comfort. This makes sense. When faced with a situation in which we don’t feel safe, most of us are not particularly open and receptive. In fact, when we feel threatened, the tendency is to shut-down, close off and assume a defensive mode.
Safety is not something that’s created in a single conversation. If blame and scapegoating is a part of the relationship’s history, at any level, the first order of business is to focus on reversing that pattern. Likewise, if conversations that make one person feel foolish – even in jest – are embedded in the culture, you might need to focus your efforts there before feedback can be truly effective.
2. Alter the perception of feedback as negative by offering consistent positive feedback. If every time we offer feedback it’s to communicate something we want changed, or to point out faults, we train those around us to expect criticism. Likewise, if we are conscious about offering praise on a regular basis, we can encourage those around us to be open and eager for our thoughts and opinions. It’s not that we should avoid corrective feedback, of course. It’s simply important to make sure it’s balanced with encouragement and, when possible, followed with a suggested solution or outcome.
3. Make clear and specific statements. Receiving vague, general feedback that lacks specific direction and can be interpreted in a variety of ways is frustrating. When being asked to do something, or change something, most of us value knowing the specifics of what’s to be done.
There’s a sense of confidence that comes from knowing that you’re doing the right thing. Likewise, it’s difficult to feel confident about our actions when we’re uncertain about exactly what’s been asked of us. Avoid making statements such as, “You need to be more personable with customers.” Rather, say something specific and positive like, “I know how much you care about our customers. Let’s make sure they know it too. When interacting with customers, be sure to look them in the eye and smile.”
4. Offer feedback about things that can be acted upon right now. Cataloging a list of items to discuss with a team member at their next scheduled review, three months from now, requires a frustrating reliance on memory. In addition, when we offer feedback about items for which the team member can’t make an immediate change, it can have the effect of backing them against a wall from which all they can do is try and defend themselves. Truly productive feedback must be offered regularly and about things that are happening now, not about things that happened 6 months ago.
Finally, as leaders, we must accept that our people are not perfect and mistakes will happen. Great feedback begins with the premise that mistakes and shortcomings are an opportunity, not a loss. We must do our best to create a “mistake-positive” culture, where people are encouraged to learn from their mistakes as a way of advancing the organization’s agenda and goals. When this attitude is coupled with regular positive feedback regarding the things our people are doing right, productive feedback is not only possible, it’s the norm.