Improving Feedback*

Most people are lousy at giving helpful feedback. But, without frequent and candid appraisals of our behaviour, we’re incapable of addressing deficiencies, recognizing strengths overdone or finding needed perspective. Without feedback, we can’t get better.

Given that maxim, is your approach to providing feedback effective? And are you really that interested in hearing honest feedback about your own performance? Those who don’t like receiving it, rarely offer it well.

When we give feedback, we often forget we’re giving it to a human being. Despite our good intentions, this lack of mindfulness results in the message not getting through. What counts is not what’s said, but what’s heard. Not understanding this fundamental principle is the primary reason why most feedback is unhelpful, if not harmful in some cases. It’s received as criticism, not as counsel. People don’t like being told what to do because they value freedom of choice – so give them choices to make … ones that will more likely accomplish your objectives.

Feedback comes in different forms: as approval of effort, as advice about appropriate behavior or as an assessment of performance against a set of expectations or standards. The type of feedback given must reflect the intent. Giving it is a strategic exercise. This means asking some important questions before you begin. You need to know how to separate advice from appreciation or evaluation because each type of communication raises different defence mechanisms and emotional responses.

It’s always a good idea to invest in boosting someone’s confidence with a simple “thank you.” Because it will substantially increase their productivity and engagement to the mission. This acknowledgement of effort says I value you and what you give me. Who doesn’t want to feel appreciated? But, if the feedback is not sincere, people will quickly see it for what it is – false praise. Even though it sounds nice, it’s empty flattery and therefore meaningless.

Never offer feedback in an angry or resentful tone. Despite your good intention and no matter how it’s phrased, your words will be heard as negative, harsh or judgmental. Because people respond to tone, not intention. So regulate your disappointment or frustration before you offer feedback. Criticism is to your relationships what smoking is to your health. If your impulse is to condemn, denounce or disapprove, it ruins important relationships.

Learn the difference between criticism and feedback. Criticism focuses on what’ s wrong; feedback focuses on how to improve performance. Criticism deals with the past and blames; feedback looks to the future and encourages change – it deals with behavior, not personality. It’s collaborative, not coercive. It respects autonomy rather than control. It says “the choices are yours,” not “I know what’s best.”

If your objective is to nurture positive changes in others, criticism is useless. It fails because it embodies two things humans hate the most: having to submit and being devalued. It usually starts out low key but invariably escalates over time, forming a downward spiral of resentment and remorse. We accept what is consistent with our self-image and reject what doesn’t fit that concept.

We hate to submit to others because we are built to cooperate. The valued self aligns with others; the disparaged self resists. If you want change, start by valuing the other; if you prefer resistance, then find fault and attack. Defence and escalation will ensue.

If we know this, why do we criticize? Because it’s a form of ego defence – we don’t criticize because we disagree, we do it because we feel dishonoured, underestimated or misunderstood. Never allow your ego to get in the way of your objectives. Those who criticise others are easily offended or insulted. And if you happen to be overly critical of others, you’re likely the last to know. If someone tells you you’re being critical, you probably are. Meaning is what the receiver thinks, not what the sender implies.

The crucial element in good feedback is specificity. Telling someone they did a “good job” doesn’t help them know which things to stop, start or repeat. Skip the generic back-patting (“You did great!”) and tell them specifically what they did well: “You handled that conversation calmly and expertly. The client now clearly understands we’re on his side. That will go a long way towards increasing his comfort with us and closing the deal.” Only then should you proceed to explain whatever changes you might prefer to see made in future interactions with the client.

We don’t have to ask for feedback on our performance; we can get it by observing how others react to our actions, especially in difficult circumstances. Try to discern what others say about you when speaking casually on matters of common interest or concern, especially those that may be delivered with subtle sarcasm or offhand humour. Turn the sound off and focus on their non-verbal gestures – like subdued smiles, shifting eyes or other contrarian cues when you’re speaking with them.

Listen to your own self-aggrandizing remarks. Does the identity you wish to project, and think you are, resonate with others or does it lead to deaf ears and blank stares? Encourage and be receptive to confidential feedback: people tend to give unvarnished counsel when they think it won’t come back to haunt them.

To get better at this invaluable skill, we need to ask for, then assess, feedback as objectively as possible. Ask friends, advisors or co-workers what it is you overdo or don’t do that you should. Tell them to be frank and eliminate generalities. Listen to what they say, then tell them “thanks, I appreciate that.” Never offer an opinion on what is said, even if what you’re told is entirely incorrect. Your purpose is to encourage feedback, not teach them to sugarcoat the message or wonder why you even asked in the first place.

There are a hundred wrong ways to ask for feedback but only one right way. Don’t ask people what they think of you, ask them how you can improve. Feedback is how you become a better version of yourself. If you sense the feedback is overly harsh or belittling, rather than focused on your well-being, set some guidelines. Say “I want your advice, not your criticism. I want you to talk about the future, not the past. And I want you to tell me what I should do, not how I should do it.”

* For a different insight into “Feedback,” read my essay in Becoming … what you really want to be.