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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Power of Feedback

Amidst some of the more philosophical writings this one is a very practical essay. The topic: the power of feedback and how to provide and receive it.
Feedback as you know it is a communication and coaching tool. Let me start by adding another perspective: feedback as a show of respect and of caring, at least when exercised with the right intentions and in the right way. When providing feedback you show that you take time and interest in the other person, and that his or her well-being or growth is of concern to you. You might think that this is too rosy a picture, since feedback has the taste of “not doing well enough” or “my manager not being satisfied and therefore correcting me”. But without the caring and respect, you could be left to wither, fail, and then be discarded. This is not what generally happens.
However, to me it’s a funny or better concerning thing that in many companies and in other contexts with people (think of families), relatively little feedback is given. Even in the case of positive feedback it’s not provided in abundance (although it varies significantly between cultures), but when the feedback is negative, or better, corrective, it becomes an activity that is often avoided, feared, postponed, worried about, dreaded, and carried out in a sloppy manner, whether we’re talking of leaders and managers in a business context or parents, partners, and family members in a private context. Just to be clear, I’m not referring to demanding, complaining, nagging and variations of these that we all are guilty of at times. That’s not what I call feedback. That’s called taking out your frustration on others.
Knowing that without feedback we’re like one-eyed or even blind people locked up in our limited, boxed–in thinking, stumbling around and left only with introspection and contemplation, this is a strange phenomenon. Just look at some fields where feedback originated and is crucial, like engineering and machines including computers. They have feedback loops without which those machines would not run smoothly or not run at all. Or think of the feedback that our bodies provide us on a daily basis, and actually any minute of our life, whether we like it or not. We feel a rumbling in our stomach, tired legs, water welling up in our eyes, our heart beat go up etc. Without this feedback we wouldn’t know when to eat and rest nor would we know when to take care of our sadness, fear, or anger. We would soon turn ill (which happens whenever we ignore our body’s feedback long enough anyway) and eventually we would go extinct.
Or consider a difficult and dangerous military operation as we have seen recently in Pakistan. How can such an operation ever show the power and results of team work without feedback that is specific, clear, well-intentioned, timely, and purpose-oriented? I think I made my case for the use of feedback. Of course you can hold many different beliefs about feedback, like seeing it as the hard part of managing, as bringing bad news, or as something that shouldn’t be necessary, but, I’ll state it again: feedback is a show of respect and of caring and a necessity for survival, not just for maintenance. Without it, there is little growth or change, whether it be in our career, our relationship, or our parenting and its results.
As a leader I am sure you want to provide the best, most effective support and resources for your staff. This includes corrective feedback that supports your staff in making the right choices and bringing about the needed changes and growth. So how to accomplish this through feedback.
Some handy tips when providing feedback:
-          Be short and specific, avoid long lectures and monologues.
-          Use I-messages (I see …, I believe …, I think …).
-          Describe what you see rather than judging and condemning what you interpret.
-          Avoid sandwiching the corrective feedback in between two compliments. These compliments will likely not be heard nor taken seriously because the focus will be on the corrections.
-          Similarly: No sugar coating the feedback. Say it as it is, in specific terms, in positive terms, in action terms, with respect, and with a listening ear to the responses of the person.
-          Avoid involving others (“John also said that you …”) – speak from your own observations and from your own experience.
-          Provide timely feedback and do not drag old problems out of the closet.
-          Play the ball, not the person.
-          Be direct and specific, no beating around the bush or speaking in vague terms (“Your attitude will have to change” – why, how?).
-          Communicate your intentions and the broader purpose of the feedback.
-          Empathize with resistance towards the feedback. Be prepared for defensive, avoiding, or counter attack responses.

Corrective feedback needs to be followed by clear agreements on what changes need to be made and when, on expectations and on measures to establish growth and improvement so that both sides know what to expect and work on (not much different than in parenting, really).
I intently say both sides, because it is very well possible that your staff member needs something from you in order to be able to perform better and show the desired behaviors and outcomes.

By providing feedback you provide the person with the necessary information and tools to be more successful in their job or life – it’s about bringing out the best in people you relate to whether they be staff or family members. Isn’t that what you and the person both want? If not, the problem is a totally different one than having difficulty with providing candid feedback.
To maintain a high performance level and to improve, your staff needs the ability, the willingness, and the eagerness to learn, grow, and perform. All three aspects, but especially the ability of your staff to improve and perform is in part dependent on receiving feedback and on the context and atmosphere in which the feedback is provided and viewed. So rather than looking at feedback as that dreaded management task you can see it as one of your many tools to positively influence attitude, behaviors, and outcomes if you are able to turn it into a win-win situation.
And now to the other side. It’s not just providing corrective feedback that is considered hard by many. On the receiving end it’s often the listening and responding to corrective feedback that can be a great challenge. Even under the best of circumstances, i.e. the most clear and respectful feedback given, it is still likely that the person receiving the feedback feels criticized, attacked, unfairly treated, or misjudged, ready to strike back without really listening to what is being said.  
Some advice when receiving corrective feedback:
1.    Listen carefully rather than shutting down and preparing for your defense.
2.    Ask clarifying question so that you know what is meant and what is expected of you rather than immediately jumping to counter attack.
3.    Place opinions next to each other rather than treating them as opposing views.
4.    Take time to process what is being said, especially when strong emotions are involved.
5.    Provide feedback back about what you need to be more successful and about how you perceive this feedback conversation.
6.    Have the courage to see and admit mistakes, blind spots, and areas for growth- put otherwise: have the courage to show yourself human.
To wrap it all up, feedback is a communication, coaching, and management tool as much as it is a show of respect and caring. Feedback is a way to encourage and support people to find or create their own solutions and to ask for and use resources more effectively.

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