Make feedback expected, so it’s accepted

Vanguard Leadership Performance Consultant Matt P. shares his insight on creating a feedback culture—and as he mentions, it doesn’t need to be scary!

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “I’m open to feedback. Please share it with me as soon as you have it.” But once there’s something to share, feedback becomes the “gift” everyone wants to return.

For over ten years now, feedback has been an integral part of my professional (and personal) life. As a corporate trainer, leader, and now Leadership Performance Consultant, I recognize that feedback is an essential ingredient in the development and growth of others (myself included). I rely on both dispensing and receiving it. And others rely on my ability to articulate its importance and understand its impact to their career.

It’s normal for our skin to get too “thin” when it comes to feedback. And aside from the good game a person may talk, feedback is generally avoided. You can predict the result: Development stalls, or even halts completely. Feedback doesn’t need to be scary. And although it’s often misunderstood, it isn’t complicated. My advice: Run toward feedback! Dispense it with empathy, and receive it with gratitude.


So what is feedback?

Well, at its most basic, we use feedback to “grow, show, or know.” More specifically, this means providing “developmental” or “evaluative”  (sometimes both) feedback to help someone. And that someone shouldn’t necessarily be an employee who is getting a message from a leader. Feedback works best when it’s given peer-to-peer, leader-to-direct, and direct-to-leader. We’re all in this together. So what are the nuances between developmental and evaluative?

At the highest level, developmental feedback is based on a desire to grow or develop someone at an individual level. It provides detailed information on how behavior or performance can be changed or maintained. It also gives minimal indication or performance relative to others. In contrast, evaluative feedback is usually for a defined period of time and aligned to a specific competency. It’s often tied to specific rewards or compensation, and focuses on outcomes or relative impact to others. Lastly, feedback is not coaching. But feedback informs and drives coaching. Feedback is factually based and past tense. “In yesterday’s meeting, you did XYZ. Here was the impact.” Coaching gets into where you go from here.

Often times, people give compliments in lieu of feedback. “Great job in today’s meeting!” Thanks. But what was so great? This is a prime opportunity for specifics. “Great job” is more of an opinion—a compliment at its best (at its worst, it avoids giving detail and thoughtful insight). Instead, try linking what someone did to the expected results of the job, or something the recipient is working to improve. And don’t worry; you can still be complimentary: “Great job instilling confidence in your stakeholders yesterday. During the meeting, you answered every question with detail, affirmed next steps, and assigned deadlines appropriately. As a result, everyone left with a better understanding of his or her responsibilities, as well as where the project is going.” See the difference?


Find your approach

In order to be truly effective, feedback needs to become habitual—think brushing your teeth or going to the gym. Each of us should be looking for opportunities, regardless of role or level, to make feedback more deliberate and disciplined. If you’re asking for it, reflect on what you can do to solicit for it, and make it safe and easy for others to provide it. Don’t get defensive. Seek to understand, thank the messenger, and reflect on what you heard. If you’re giving it, be thoughtful and specific with the message, and show that you’re invested in someone’s growth, not looking to nit-pick. Provide it often so it becomes routine and is expected by others.

So often what I observe is that feedback is only given when someone does something that falls on the furthest ends of what I call the “Nailed it! Failed it!” spectrum. If Cynthia does a “great job” in a meeting (Nailed it!), she gets a compliment (again, not feedback). If Cynthia messes up (Failed it!), she gets feedback about what she did “wrong” (and coaching may or may not accompany it). Resist the temptation to live on the fringe. Most of what we do in our careers are neither “Nailed it” nor “Failed it” case studies. We live in the “in-between”. And here lies the greatest room for feedback to work its magic.

Here’s an example: “Matt, I appreciated your participation and insight in yesterday’s staff meeting. Can I offer you some feedback? I noticed a few times throughout the meeting you were checking your phone. During one of these instances, you weren’t able to notice the non-verbal reaction several teammates had to something you said. Keep in mind that looking down at your phone instead of reading the room may serve as an impediment to your ability to counter resistance, read the room, convey commitment, and or effectively influence others.” This is an instance of where giving a precise and meaningful piece of feedback can help a teammate understand the impact of his behavior. And, should he chose to act on it, get better!

Make feedback more habitual by carving out time in one-on-ones, team meetings, and/or coffee chats with colleagues. After a while, others will see feedback for what it is—a conduit for insight and development, not penalization. The more people understand that it’s being given not only to address large skill gaps (appropriate, though not the norm), but to reinforce positive behavior and improve performance and overall development, the more people will seek it out—even expect and appreciate it! Create a safe, empathetic environment for giving and receiving feedback, and strive to make feedback more expected, so it’s accepted. Only then will it truly be the “gift” that everyone wants to receive.

— Matt P.

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