“Can I give you some feedback?” We’ve all heard this question. After close to 30 years in the work world, I still hate receiving feedback. (Okay, let’s be honest, I hate receiving negative feedback). I often feel that I’ve just been emotionally ambushed. This is because, at least in part, I didn’t know how to receive and use feedback.
Feedback is only useful when it results in positive professional change. It is a tool that managers, peers and subordinates can use to suggest specific actions, reveal blind spots, or help the recipient prioritize actions. If feedback is caring, respectful, specific and fits with the recipient’s goals, it can be helpful. Feedback that doesn’t meet these criteria can result in defensive reactions and dismissal of valid criticism. Senior leaders tend to get too little feedback, as their subordinates avoid communicating negative feedback. This is sometimes called the mum effect. The mum effect limits the development of senior leaders. No one wants to tell the emperor that he is wearing no clothes.
Feedback can be valuable for people who want to improve their performance, but only if the process is intentional. To get the most out of feedback, follow these five steps: assessing readiness, planning, collecting, reflecting, and acting.
In this phase, it is important to determine if you are ready for feedback. First, assess whether you are emotionally able to hear feedback. Dealing with personal, family or health issues that take up emotional bandwidth, may mean that you may not be able to handle feedback. We cycle through times when we are open to change, and other times when we are consolidating previous changes in our lives, and are therefore not open to change and feedback. Second, determine if you are approaching the feedback process with a growth mindset. Your openness to learning, changing and growing improves the likelihood that feedback will be processed and acted upon. So you need to be honest about whether you are ready for change. All the feedback in the world will not improve performance if you aren’t open to it.
Now, decide where you would like the feedback focused by asking:
- What are my personal development goals?
- What specific behaviours would I like to work on?
- Where do I need feedback?
- Is there one behaviour that comes up over and over again in past performance appraisals?
- Is there one thing that is bothering me about my performance?
- What change in behaviour would have the greatest impact on my relationships? On my performance?
Choose one or two behaviours to concentrate on. Too much feedback can be perceived as too harsh, which may result in feelings of hopelessness and being overwhelmed. This can trigger defensiveness. Next, identify the right people to provide feedback. Make sure that they know which behaviours to observe and are able to observe them. For example, if you are trying to avoid cutting-off people off in meetings, the observer will need to be in meetings with you. It’s important that you respect and trust this person because you will be asking them to provide you with honest, fair and even-handed feedback. Without trust and respect, feedback can quickly shift into an unpleasant, painful experience. Find people who have different perspectives – subordinates, peers, bosses, or stakeholders. For honest feedback, observers need to be reassured that they can safely do so, without career repercussions.
Next, gather feedback. Consider documenting it in a notebook for later reflection. Whenever possible, ask the observer to provide the feedback when the behaviour is happening. Then, ask her to describe:
- Her intent in providing the feedback.
- The specific action that you took.
- The impact that the action had upon people, the situation, or the project.
The more specific your observers are, the more likely you will be able to act on their feedback. Ask observers to provide feedback that is actionable. A female colleague of mine was once told that she was too tall. Kind of hard to change your height.
Gauge your emotional response to the feedback. If you’re feeling defensive, upset, or angry, try to delay your response. Thank the observer for her honesty and effort, but don’t respond to the content of the feedback until you have had some time to manage your emotions.
Now it’s time to reflect. Review your feedback notes. Ask yourself:
- What was that experience like for me?
- How do I think I did?
- What would I do differently if I were to repeat this situation?
- How did other people experience this situation? How was it different from my intent?
- Is this feedback consistent with past feedback?
- How big a deal is this feedback?
The point of reflection is to determine whether the feedback is valid, relevant and addresses a behaviour that is important. If you’ve heard this piece of feedback more than once from unrelated sources, it might be something to pay attention to. You control your reaction to feedback. Whether you change your behaviour is up to you. You are not required to act on every piece of feedback.
Finally, it is time to put reflection into action. This is the most difficult task of all; changing well-worn habits is hard. It requires constant attention and effort to notice the behaviour and consciously change it. Acting also requires feedback. Did your change efforts result in an observable difference in behaviour? Was this change perceived as effective by others? Experiment with different approaches the next time you face a particular situation. Don’t be too hard on yourself when change doesn’t happen immediately. Don’t give up.
Rinse and Repeat
It’s hard to think about our failings, never mind correct them. If we collect, reflect and act on feedback effectively, not only do we improve our behaviours and performance, we develop skills and beliefs such as self-reflection, self-regulation, self-motivation and self-direction, as well as a growth mindset. These are the skills and beliefs that we are trying to develop in others. Wouldn’t it be great if they had role models in us?
Hunt, J.M. & Weintraub, J.R (2011) The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.
Note: This post was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Principal Connections, the magazine for Ontario Catholic School Principals.