Managing Feedback

Quite frequently feedback is just a polite word for criticism.  The very sound of the word causes some people to shake their heads, cross their arms, get that stern look, and tune out.  No matter how we sugar coat it with jargon, giving feedback generally means telling someone that, in your opinion, there is something wrong with what they are doing or the way they are doing it.  That's why it's not surprising that many people avoid giving feedback to others, particularly, those above them.  The fact of the matter is, the higher up in the organization you are, the less likely it is that you will get honest, objective feedback about your performance.  However, It doesn't have to be that way.  Learning to give and receive feedback effectively is a skill that can bring about long term benefits to you, the people you work with, and your organization. 

Feedback or constructive criticism that is properly delivered is accomplished by communicating timely information to others in such as way that they can benefit.  The key word here is benefit.  As a general rule, when the intent is to benefit the other person, the feedback will be well received.  There are, of course, exceptions.

The Gift of Feedback

What would happen if you never received a critical comment from your boss about your work?  How would you feel if you were never told about problems  . . . if you didn't know where you stood?  Your performance probably would suffer.  The reverse is also true.  When you receive timely feedback you know how you are doing.  You can reinforce those things that are going well, and take corrective action where needed.  You are comfortable in knowing what is expected of you, and you probably feel less stress.  Feedback is indeed a gift!

Learning to give and receive feedback is useful in other important ways.  It promotes personal growth, both for yourself and others.  It provides information to act upon to your advantage.  It helps you to challenge yourself in new ways.

Well intended and skillfully delivered feedback builds trust and confidence.  It fosters openness and candor within a work group.  People become more trusting and interdependent, which leads to better communication, cohesiveness, and teamwork.  So, why not build on your feedback skills and encourage others as well.  It is truly a worthwhile goal.

Thinking Things Through

Before giving feedback to a colleague or even your boss, think about how you will go about it.  You should begin by defining the problem and the specifics.  This will help you avoid generalizations such as "always" and "never."  It also prevents you from being vague.  Telling someone to "fix the problem" is not usually effective.  Target a specific behavior that allows you to communicate feedback precisely, and make sure that your criticism is based on a valid criteria.  For example, criticizing a sales person for making too few customer follow-up calls won't have much impact if he or she is above quota.  If, on the other hand, this behavior has resulted in order cancellations, you will have his or her undivided attention.  Your credibility will rest on having a valid criteria.

Focus on the affect of a specific behavior and let the other person deal with the cause.  For example, the sales person, mentioned above, would be motivated to provide a reason for a lack of attention to customer support.  When someone is motivated to explain the problem, he or she is more likely to accept responsibility for it.

Timing is critical.  Poorly timed feedback can cause defensiveness, particularly if it is done in front of others.  Pick the right time and place.  Imagine yourself in the other person's place and ask; "how would I feel about the feedback I am getting right here and now?"

When you give feedback to a subordinate it is a good idea to start with a positive attribute.  Let him or her know what aspects of their work you are pleased with.  As you provide feedback make it a dialogue not a lecture.  Get his or her reaction, and be sure to state the benefit.  Finally, contract for a solution by enlisting his or her help.  Solutions usually occur when there is mutual support and agreement.  Offer to help.

If you give constructive feedback to a peer, be especially sensitive to the relationship.  Try to find a point of shared interest such as a departmental goal.  Discuss what is at stake, and how one person's contribution can benefit everyone.  It is also a good idea to ask for permission before you give feedback to a peer.

If you give feedback to your boss, try to understand both sides.  State his or her point of view as you see it.  Does he or she concur?  If you understand his or her problem you can offer a suggestion for change.   If the problem affects you directly, ask for support in bringing about change.

Perceptions Are Not Always Reality

Make an especially good effort to understand the other person's position.  How you perceive a situation may not align with the other person's point of view.  If he or she feels that your perception is wrong there won't be any motivation to change.  More importantly, your feedback is likely to be taken as a complaint.

Try to find out how the other person feels about the importance of the feedback.  It's a good idea to state up front that this is your perception.  Does he or she also see it that way?  If you seek agreement, then involvement and support for change will be far more likely.

Credibility Counts

Feedback without some knowledge or expertise is like giving advice to someone on their golf game when you consistently loose rounds to them.  You won't be taken too seriously.

Quite obviously you can't be well versed in every area of the work scene, since in today's organizational environment, people will tend to know more about their work than you do.  So at the very least, make sure that you understand the problem.  This means showing enough knowledge about the subject to gain support for your idea or suggestion.

Sell Solutions

Anybody can criticize performance.  Having the foresight to develop a useful solution is what's important.  By suggesting a well thought out solution, you will let the other person know that you have put some energy into solving the problem.  You will be perceived as genuinely supportive, and motivated toward helping someone to reach their goals.

When you suggest a change, describe what the result will mean to the other person.  Identifying the benefit further suggests that you understand the problem.  Your credibility will be further enhanced, and the other person will naturally be inclined to become more involved in the solution.

It takes practice to change a behavior, and the more ingrained it is the more practice is required.  Provide frequent and positive reinforcement along with suggestions, as appropriate.  Stay involved and share your perceptions with the other person.

Spread the Word

Wouldn't it be nice to work in a place where people communicated with each other openly, often and with candor?  The answer, of course, is yes.  But, the real benefit from working in such a "caring" environment is improved performance.   It is a well documented fact that when frequent job-related communication exists between colleagues both up and down the ladder, performance improves.