This article is adapted from Claire Rason's piece in the Professional Services Marketing Magazine, Centrum.
Some of us will have received feedback that lifts us; many will have also been on the receiving end of feedback that does not feel like much of a reward.
In this article, I explore how we can make sure feedback, even when it’s constructive, can be given with kindness. I will explain how understanding the art of feedback can have immense benefits to both the recipient and the provider.
What is feedback?
Feedback can be seen as an umbrella term to cover so many things, from personal affirmations or put-downs, to sophisticated client feedback, and everything else in between. Done well, feedback is a way of promoting individual and firm growth, done badly it can knock people’s confidence and in extreme cases damage relationships and impact career progression.
This article is going to focus on the art of giving information to another with a view to critiquing past performance or given with a view to encouraging a change in future performance (sometimes called feed-forward).
Where do we go wrong and how should we approach feedback?
With the rise in online reviews, we’re constantly being asked for our opinion. Reviews matter and many companies focus on how to improve their scores to make sure they are seen as the best – well, the almost best. There is a reason only nine out of 10 prefer Whiskers – we don’t trust companies with 100 percent positive scores, as we expect to see some room for improvement.
What does that mean? There will always be some constructive feedback in the mix!
The trouble with the move towards online feedback is that it is faceless. We’ve lost the art of giving feedback in person and don’t always see the impact of feedback given in haste or at the height of an emotional response. We have all been there, we’ve fired off an email because we have been cross, bored, or thrilled. We haven’t stopped to process our response and once we hit send there is little we can do. We may feel better, but it’s no surprise those emails are the ones that can cut deep.
There is a reason we have moved to online feedback, and it is not just because of the ease with which we can give it, it’s because giving feedback face-to-face is hard. Most of us don’t wake up in the morning intent on hurting someone, and there is a real fear that our feedback – if constructive – will do that. That turns feedback into a somewhat meaningless dance where the giver avoids being honest and the receiver tries to read between the lines.
At Client Talk, when we train we always bring in coaching tools and techniques alongside information sharing. In our view, this is the only way to achieve behavioural change. We want people to be self-critical but we also want to create a peer group where learning can continue outside the classroom. To do that, we encourage participants to regularly give fellow participants one piece of positive feedback and one piece of constructive feedback. The structure that we encourage people to use for this exercise is three-pronged: Behaviour – Impact – Action.
How to give feedback
1. Give feedback on behaviour
The starting point for feedback is to think about the behaviour you want to comment on. This is important. Individuals can change their behaviours – they cannot change who they are. This is where most feedback fails: “The presenter wasn’t any good/was boring”; “I don’t like the way they speak to me”, or “You aren’t good at managing a team”. All of these may be well intended but they are directed to who the person is rather than what has been witnessed.
Unless you are giving feedback to a family member, you are unlikely to have insight into everything that is going on for that person (and even then, you probably don’t). You are also unlikely to have witnessed enough behaviour to be able to comment on someone’s character. Comments based on who someone is are likely to be affected by bias and the feedback will be subjective in nature. Behaviour is objective. It can be about one event or perhaps numerous events. Offering information on behaviour(s) provides an objective starting point for feedback.
2. Give feedback on their impact
Just as behaviours are objective, the impact the behaviour has on you, or others, is also tangible. The fact a presenter spoke about something you already knew (behaviour) might have had an impact on you that you felt bored and so failed to warm to them (impact). For the more self-aware, presenting feedback in this way provides an opportunity for reflection. Could the presenter have known that you were already aware? What does the impact mean: do you always feel bored when receiving information that you already know?
Focusing on the impact also provides a separation from the receiver’s intent. The presenter might have intended to make sure that everyone in the room was at the same starting place, however, the impact was that the participant was bored. This separation of intent and impact makes feedback less judgmental. It also provides the opportunity for the giver of feedback to pause and reflect, making it less likely the feedback will be given in haste.
3. Give feedback on actions moving forward
To make the feedback of use to the receiver, it should conclude with a way forward. ‘Action’ here refers to what you would like the person to do more of or cease doing. It provides the person with something they can change. Continuing with our presenter example, they could find out what people know in advance, or they could be more explicit about the ground to be covered.
Again, this strips away assumptions. More importantly, it provides another opportunity to move the giver of feedback from a state of “automatic response” to one where they give a more considered one.
By using this formula for feedback, the giver of feedback is allowing themselves a moment to pause, to reflect on the information they want to share and they are framing it in a way that is both objective but also constructive. It is this type of feedback that is a gift. It is also this type of feedback that creates a positive culture within organisations.