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Taking the fear out of feedback

Last week I suggested that one way to turn disappointment into a learning opportunity is to ask for feedback. I suspect, however, the prospect of doing so makes many a toe curl, for both the person asking and the one having to give it.

‘Feedback’, it seems, has become a euphemism for being told what we’ve done wrong, which is often hard for our ego to hear. But positive and negative feedback, when given and received properly, can be an invaluable tool for personal development and performance improvement and has knock-on benefits of improved communications, more cohesive teamwork, better interpersonal relationships and greater and more efficient productivity.

Feedback is also associated with annual employee performance reviews. Do I hear a collective groan? Usually dreaded by both management and staff, it is open to question whether the highly pressured and awkward situation of ‘recapping the past year on the job’ is really the best environment for the learning, dialogue, reflection and re-strategising that feedback, at its best, offers.

Perhaps regular, less formal feedback sessions, weekly or even daily, would better serve to keep us all performing at the top of our game, aligned with our teams and the organisation’s needs. A continuous dialogue reduces the stress surrounding feedback and means there should be no real surprises, come that once-a-year review. Giving and getting feedback constructively is a skill, and like any skill it improves with practice.

Feedback can be delivered up and down the command chain, as well as laterally. And it is not limited to the corporate world. We all participate in systems (family, community, social etc) and manage others in various arenas of our lives. Feeling confident offering feedback when appropriate, is a way of communicating our needs and expectations and assisting others to meet them.

What feedback is and what it isn’t: praise and criticism are opinions and personal judgments about a performance and are often vague and general (‘good job’, ‘need to do better’). Feedback, however, is issue-focused and based on observations backed up with evidence. The aim of feedback is to inspire and improve the situation or performance and does not include being harsh, critical and airing personal reactions which are not helpful.

Top tips for delivering feedbackl Give feedback in person (and if negative, in private). Sending feedback via e-mail or text smacks of chickening-out and discourtesy. However, if necessary, follow up with a note recapping the major points of discussion.

l Ask permission to give it — “Do you mind if I offer you some feedback…?” This at least gives them a moment to prepare themselves to receive it and feels less of an imposition on them.

l State observations: what you’ve noticed (not what you think of it) and site specific examples. Explain the impact of the action.

l Use “I” statements: “I noticed…”, “It made me feel…” rather than “you did this/that” which elicits defensiveness.

l Avoid “need to” comments (eg you need to be more timely with your reports) as these do not express what happened or why.

l Avoid ‘but’ in the middle of your comment — these send mixed messages. The recipient is unlikely to believe anything you said before the word ‘but’.

l Sandwiching negative feedback between lots of positive feedback can lead to messages being lost or misinterpreted. While research shows that we should be offering five positives for every one piece of negative feedback (to balance the intensity of our reactions to the negative versus positive), this needn’t happen all at once.

l Get the receiver to reiterate the points of your feedback to ensure they’ve got the message you intended. Discuss options (perhaps using the GROW model) to address issues if needed.

l Schedule a follow-up to check in on progress and measure improvements the adjustments are making.

l Offer positive feedback frequently, creating a culture of support and appreciation. In such an environment, negative feedback, when necessary, is accepted as part of that continued support for overall well-being and productivity.

l Keep notes on all feedback offered as a way to measure performance and in preparation to breeze through that dreaded annual review.

Receiving feedback graciously, hearing what is really being said and making the most of it to enhance and inform your performance, is just as important a skill as giving it.

It can be tempting to just listen to the good and tune out the rest, or get defensive and justify our actions that prompted the feedback, so once justified we can ignore it. Another extreme is to only listen to the negative and let one incident and a bruised ego pervade our self-esteem and confidence in our other abilities. In all cases, we’re probably missing the intended point.

It is very unlikely the feedback is meant as a personal attack, it’s about performance and provides an opportunity for improving action going forward. We could even view negative feedback as a gift.

Tips for receiving feedback:

l Just listen — pause on your initial reaction and resist the urge to defend or justify.

l When you’ve heard it all, whether you agree or not, thank them for the feedback

l Clarify back what you understood and where/how you can make changes if necessary.

l Arrange to follow up.

Hopefully the feedback you receive will be delivered well, but if not, do your best to extrapolate what was intended. Remind yourself it’s not always easy giving the feedback either and perhaps cut them some slack… you could even offer them some feedback on their feedback!

Julia Pitt is a trained success coach and certified NLP practitioner. For further information telephone 705-7488 or visit www.juliapittcoaching.com

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Published April 30, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated April 29, 2013 at 7:23 pm)

Taking the fear out of feedback

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