Feedback – Food for the Soul

A great meeting ended on a sour note. When the meeting leader asked a quiet participant if he had anything to say, he took a sniper’s stance and answered, “I think we’ve wasted enough time already”. He laughed, but he didn’t seem to notice that the energy was sucked out of the room like the air going out of a balloon.

As he was going out the door, he took another cheap shot about the donuts being the best part of the meeting. I wanted to take him aside and ask him to think about how he could make his comments more constructive, but I began listing all the reasons why I shouldn’t:

  • This is a small thing.
  • You don’t know him well enough.
  • He might not take it very well.
  • Is he worth the trouble?

Most disturbing of all, I told myself, you’re not tactful enough to pull this off productively.

All lies. Of course I’ve had this conversation with myself before, so it’s easy to recognize when I lack the courage to stand up and say what needs to be said. I also thought, this is probably the least of his problems. This inappropriate behavior is so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be said.

I call this the “Don’t you have any parents?” syndrome. Subconsciously I was thinking, doesn’t anyone love him enough to tell him that his behavior is rude and crude? If his parents, his wife and his friends don’t care enough to correct him, how can I possibly help?

Aversion to feedback can have a crippling effect on business organizations. This defensiveness can stunt professional growth. Yet most people are hungry to both give and get feedback.

No news is not good news; bad news is better than no news. For instance, if you tell a joke, there are three possible reactions – positive feedback, negative feedback and no feedback. Dead silence is usually the worst. You don’t know if you’ve offended your listeners, if you blew the punch line, if they didn’t get it or if your delivery was off. Negative feedback is far better than no feedback, because at least you know what you did wrong. “How am I doing?” is one of the most important questions you can ask. Getting feedback from all angles should be a continuous pursuit. Let people know that you want their honest feedback because it’s essential for your growth.

Even when you receive feedback that’s off the mark, it’s important to communicate your appreciation and avoid any signs of defensiveness. When you’re sensitive to how you receive bad news and you express gratitude regardless of content, you’re more likely to keep feedback flowing your way.

You know you’re on the right track if people challenge you. When people are comfortable challenging your ideas it means you’re accessible and open to feedback.

So how do you go about telling the hard truth? “I have a tip for you that might make you a more effective leader. Would you like to hear it?” can be a great opener. It gives the listener a chance to be receptive to new possibilities.

Another way to open up the clogged feedback arteries in your organization is to model the kind of behavior you expect from others.

An “open door” policy is a start, but you need to actively seek information about how things are going. It’s not enough to be hungry for growth and learning. One of the ways to get good feedback is to give good feedback. But sometimes we are reluctant to speak up because “he doesn’t report to me” or “he’ll think I’m a know-it-all.” Instead of viewing your feedback as potentially devastating, look at the bright side. You may save the recipient from getting fired or you may open up new opportunities for promotion.

Telling the hard truth doesn’t come easily at first, but your own personal growth takes off when you step outside your comfort zone.

Never forget that feedback is a gift. However, few people know how to make their words a silver box with a ribbon on them. To start with you must communicate that you believe in the your listener’s future. Some other tips to consider:

Feedback should be timely. The worst thing you can do is save your feedback for the yearly review. Nobody benefits from that kind of surprise party. Instead, give feedback immediately, remembering to praise in public and criticize in private.

Telling people what’s wrong without telling them how to do it right is rarely productive. People often substitute the unwanted behavior with one that’s even less desirable. If a meeting runs over time, offer some suggestions to keep it on track.

Avoid recognizing only star performers. With those who are less than stellar, look for incremental performance improvements that deserve recognition.

Make sure your feedback is specific. “Way to go!” and “Good job!” aren’t as productive as saying exactly what’s working and what’s not working.

To illustrate – my partner and I were planning a workshop segment on giving good feedback. At one point I commented, “I love what you just said.”

She laughed at the irony, “You’ll have a more powerful impact if you try this, ‘What I love about what you just said is.'” What was perfect about her feedback is that it was immediate, specific, she offered an alternative and she gave me a reason to change.

Lastly, remember to be generous with your feedback. Let people know what you appreciate about them. Often. When you can give people a glimpse of where they need to go next, you hold the door open for their next opportunity for growth.

Written by Martha Lasley