Making feedback powerful

This piece was originally published in The Chemical Engineer on 15th November 2018.

Let’s take a look at how we might usefully apply our communication skills to the matter of feedback.

A while ago, I was collecting my daughter from a dance workshop.  Each child was taking a turn to perform their improvised dance sequence.  At the end of each performance, the teacher invited the other children to offer two stars and a wish; in other words, two things they liked about the performance, and one suggestion for improvement.  I was blown away by how genuine, uninhibited, constructive and relaxed these 8-year-old’s were about sharing their thoughts on each others performances.  Thinking about it later, it dawned on me that professional engineers and scientists could learn a lot from this.  Giving and receiving constructive feedback is something we struggle with, and yet the potential benefits are great.  Let’s take a deeper look…

Feedback -what is it?  Let’s define it as, one person providing constructive observations, with the intent of helping another person to be better at what they do.  This could be in the form of written comments, or face-to-face.

What are the benefits?  An increase in personal effectiveness brought about by feedback, clearly benefits the individual’s career prospects and their motivation, and this in turn benefits their organisation.  But if a culture of feedback prevails in the organisation, the positive effect is amplified to things like increased staff retention, closer collaboration, and higher levels of innovation.

Why is feedback so difficult?  Because we perceive the words “I’ve got some feedback for you” as a threat.  We prepare ourselves to be challenged, our weaknesses exposed, our personalities criticised.  This makes it difficult to receive feedback in a rational way, and can make us ultra-cautious about hurting people’s feelings when giving feedback.  We end up saying something like “she’s a really nice person to work with”.  This is a lovely thing to say, and will undoubtedly be true, but as feedback goes, it is useless.  Why? Because a comment like that does not help the person get better at what they do.  So, let’s have some top tips for giving and receiving feedback which diffuses the threat, and maximises the benefit.

Top tips for giving feedback

  • Base your feedback on observed behaviour, not personality.
  • Own it. Use “I”  Describe what you thought or felt.  It works like this.  You could say, “there was too much information in your presentation”.  This is a judgemental statement which immediately makes people feel threatened.  You could get the point across in a constructive way using language like “I struggled to process all the information in your presentation.”
  • Make it specific. Basing your feedback on specific events or situations gives the person a clear idea of what to try to do differently.
  • Avoid advice. First, you are not the expert on that person, so your advice is likely to be wrong.  Secondly, advising people creates dependency.  Next time they get stuck they will come back to you for more advice.  This is not good for you or them.
  • Make it supportive. Choose your words carefully to minimize threat.  You want the person to know that you have their best interests at heart.
  • Make it challenging. Give people something to work with.  What might they do more of, what might they do differently?
  • Have more positives than negatives. Psychologists claim that people perform better when there are more positives than negatives.  Try to point out more of the things that you like and less of the things you didn’t like.  Remember two stars and a wish…?
  • Make it timely, but pick your moment. Don’t wait until weeks after the event before supplying your feedback, but equally, choose a moment when you both are relaxed.
  • Do it informally. An informal chat in neutral surroundings will be less threatening than a formal session in your office.
  • Offer it, don’t force it. Feedback is a gift.  People may not want to receive it.  Don’t be offended if they say no.
  • Replace “but” with “and”. “Your presentation kept to time, but I was experiencing a bit of information overload.”  “Your presentation kept to time, and I was experiencing a bit of information overload.”

Receiving feedback

  • Don’t wait for feedback, – ask for it. After you’ve chaired a meeting, met with a client, or run a training session, for example, just ask a colleague what went well, and what they thought you could have done differently.
  • Receive it as a gift. Someone has gone to the trouble of packaging some observations with the intention of helping you get better at your job.
  • Don’t dispute it. If you dispute the feedback you are rejecting the gift.
  • Be gracious, just say thank you.
  • Clarify if necessary

Sometimes feedback does not seem to make sense.  However, other people can see us more objectively than we can see ourselves, so it’s worth going away and having a think, – they might have a point.

Finally, some thoughts about the difference between written feedback and face-to-face feedback.  About the only good thing going for written feedback is the permanent record that it provides.  However, written feedback is limited because we cannot see the other person in real-time.  Face-to-face gives us more scope for higher value feedback because we can empathise using body language and listening.

There is one more big advantage to face-to-face feedback. When two people sit down and share the gift of feedback, it raises the level of mutual trust.  The increase in trust will enhance the quality of that professional relationship, leading to higher quality collaboration in the future.  Now, if you have a culture of face-to-face feedback embedded in your organisation, the sky’s the limit.

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