Why We Suck At Giving Feedback

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by Kevin Watson

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03.19.2015

Let’s be honest, we’re really not that good at feedback, are we?

We tend to give feedback by reflex, often using outdated models we’ve taken from significant people in our lives.

Broadly speaking, people fall into three categories when giving feedback:

1. Critical

Never happy, always finding something to complain about, hard on people. Generally believes that you have to keep on top of people to get results.

2. Nice

Wants to be mates, likes to entertain and have a laugh. Feedback is likely to be vague and useless.

3. Absent

Never says much, expect people to get on with it. Believes that giving people a salary is feedback enough.

Then there are some people who’ve been taught the infamous ‘feedback sandwich‘!

You know the one – say something nice, deliver criticism, say something nice.

I’ve heard praise described as the ‘bread’ with criticism described as the ‘meat’. Imagine what that says…that the criticism is the most important part!!

Well, here’s the news….the feedback sandwich simply doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work for two reasons:

  1. people giving feedback will only pay small attention to the positive feedback and;
  2. because of this most people can hear the but coming a mile off

What the sandwich implies is that feedback is for affecting a change in performance and the negative part is the most important.

How to Give Feedback that Works

First, you need to consider some home truths about feedback:

  • people are, most of the time, hungry for more love, affection, warmth and respect, particularly at work
  • sincere appreciation is like an oasis in the desert, like giving water to a thirsty traveller

Your success or not with feedback depends on how well you learn to give feedback to yourself.

You’ll tend to treat others pretty much the way you treat yourself and so the place to start is with the way you talk to yourself, about yourself and about your own results.

Learning to give yourself meaningful, helpful feedback is the single most important change you can make to how you manage others.

Say it the way you want it!

Remember, your brain can’t distinguish don’t and do as it is only drawn to positive things.

Try it out for yourself.

When someone says to you “don’t think of a purple frog!” what hops into your mind?

With feedback, you need to say it the way you want it – “think of a red frog“.

How to Use the Feedback Properly

1. Be Timely

Give feedback within five minutes, as people find it easier to both confirm good performance and change current performance while events are recent.

2. Be Specific

Start with three or four behaviours, praising, appreciating or drawing attention to them by being specific, e.g.

“I thought the way you explained that by using your story was really helpful”, or

“I noticed you listening carefully to that customer explaining her problem and I was impressed, well done”

This is the most important part of the feedback because you are drawing attention to stuff that you want them to do more of. Make it pleasurable for them to do more of it.

3. Shine a Light

Highlight a single specific behaviour that would make it even better next time, e.g.

“You could be even better next time if you remembered to write down their phone number and repeat it back to them as they told you”

4. Finish on a High

This time make the comment about their identity, NOT their behaviour, e.g.

“You’re a good salesman and I really value having you on my team”

Notice that this way of providing feedback is about recognising positive behaviours and keeping the focus firmly on future performance. This avoids the kind of post-mortem feedback that bedevils so many performance reviews.

Call to action

The way to get really good at giving feedback is to practice, practice, practice!

And the best person to start practising on…is yourself.

So, practise using this feedback model by first taking just 10 minutes at the end of the day to reflect, journal, meditate or just think about how you did that day.

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About the Author

Kevin Watson

Kevin is a highly experienced Leadership Coach and acts as Consultant to several boards of global organisations, as well as local business owners. He is passionate about making a difference by enabling and encouraging leaders who want to create and sustain meaningful change in themselves and the organisation.

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