The give and, more importantly, the take of feedback.

By 2015-08-18Learning

Like most things in life there is often more than one way of… going somewhere, solving a problem, looking at a situation and responding to something.   A saying like “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” springs to mind!

I think this concept of multiplicity applies particularly to feedback – there’s definetly a multitude of ways.  In my experience effective organisations typically spend time building a feedback-culture by developing the capability of their management community and celebrating the practice of effective feedback.  Some, of course, achieve this far more successfully than others, but that’s a story for another time.   What I see less of is approaches that develop the capability to learn from feedback; to take feedback.   To build an organisational culture that embraces feedback because it’s people want it and leverage it’s value.

And here’s the key point, no matter how well feedback is delivered, if the recipient isn’t willing to take it then the message invariably has no positive impact and is more likely to have a negative and damaging impact!

When I consider people that seem to thrive on feedback, it is individuals with a hunger to improve that stand out.  It is individuals and teams who want to better themselves.  I watched a video of some Olympic swimmers in training and what struck me was the degree to which they wanted to know whatever their coach could share.  They eagerly stopped their routine to watch the underwater video and hear what the coach had to offer.  Immediately recommencing their routine and putting the suggestions into practice. They didn’t even leave the pool, they simply clung to the side to watch on the coach’s laptop.  There was no defensiveness, no justification, no excuse, simply a quest to find a way to be better.  Look at successful teams and you’ll see them doing the same, in fact look at great performers in any field and the approach is strikingly similar.

What I usually see and hear in the workplace however is generally the opposite… feedback is often a source of conflict, resentment and defensiveness.  We seem to, almost by default, take an approach that centres around defending ourselves.  If you want to change this for yourself or for your team or your organisation then try working with some of the following ideas:

The practice of taking feedback:

  1. Appreciate the purpose:

The foundation is understanding the value and, therefore, the purpose of feedback.  Take the time to help the team to explore this and to fully appreciate that it is fundamental to us all and how we progress in life.  The most successful people in their fields, from musicians, athletes and actors through to leaders, entrepreneurs and inventors, all use the principle of feedback in order to excel.

They are hungry for learning and the key is a reflexive loop of feedback.  They continually use this to enable changes that improve the what and how they do things.

  1. Adopt the right attitude:

The capability to suck up feedback is fundamentally an attitude.  A desire and willingness to be open and to take whatever is given.  If you watch a sportswoman practicing her craft she will repeat the same practice time and time again making changes whilst seeking (with all her senses) what feedback she can glean.  In this instance she doesn’t need a coach/trainer to give feedback she is seeking her own.  She knows her success depends on it.  A coach/trainer provides a second additional form of feedback – someone who can share a different perspective.   To reiterate the point, the best of the best are receptive and open to both types of feedback.  They are willingly seeking feedback and they happily* take it; the good the bad and the ugly.  Why?  Because that’s one very effective way of improving and if feedback is a continuous and integral part of the process then we have established an effective cycle of continuous personal improvement. That’s how personal bests are achieved, that’s how inventors and entrepreneurs succeed, that’s how best organisations evolve and succeed.

When I say happily* there is a twist.  The feedback someone receives may be brutal; what they attempted is a complete failure, what their manager shares with them is damning.  It hurts. Badly.  So for it to be ‘happily taken’ needs to be a subtle reframe.  The ability to shift away from the outcome, the result, (and hence the brutal message) to the learning that comes from it.  The happiness comes from the knowledge and the reframe that that’s is where the value is and that’s where the learning comes from.  The focus is on the learning and the application of that learning.

When I say happily*, there’s a twist.  No one like to hear negative feedback.  If something we attempt at work fails, completely, then the feedback we receive may be painful.  Our starting point is already one of frustration/anger/upset/disappointment (pick some suitable words that fit your state when you know you’ve failed at something) so the addition of further feedback your manager is likely to exacerbate things.  It hurts. Badly.  This is when we are most at risk of reacting (esp. emotionally) and defending ourselves.  So for it to be ‘happily taken’ there needs to be a subtle reframe.  We have to learn to shift to celebrating the fact that someone is attempting to help us by providing feedback and that from the experience we have the opportunity to learn, change and grow.  The re-frame is shifting from what happened, the outcome, to the learning and the future; the failure and it’s feedback might be brutal but the learning is more important.

The happiness comes from the focus on the learning and the application of that learning.

  1. Develop the capability to focus on what matters:

So attitude is fundamental.  And so is the capability to then process the feedback.  When things go badly we know it and we react, emotionally.  When someone shares with us their observations, opinions and suggestions it can be even worse.  Emotional Intelligence is a core capability in how we process the feedback.  Anger, fear, disgust, sadness are all core emotions we may experience, especially when someone is telling us what they think and it’s ugly!  The ability to recognise the emotions, acknowledge them and mange them is key.  Allowing an ’emotional hijack’ is what leads to defensiveness and to rejection of the feedback and also the person providing it.   Holding these two presuppositions is a great platform for processing the ugly feedback 1) “All feedback has value” and 2) Impact is not the same as intent.

The second presupposition needs a little explanation.  In my experience, the vast majority of people attempt to give feedback because they see it as worthwhile and helpful.  They may not deliver it in an appropriate manner and they may lack empathy and tack.  Again the best see though this.  They have learned to focus on what matters and they don’t allow themselves to be distracted by anything else.

  1. Develop relationships that enable:

Who is providing the feedback is also crucial.  Where we have a strong and healthy relationship founded on trust then ‘discussing the brutal truth’ is easier.  It’s easier to say what needs to be said and it’s easier to receive it.  I’m far less likely to suffer the emotional hijack as I don’t feel threatened, or embarrassed etc.

If I don’t trust and respect the person giving me the feedback then I’m far less likely to a) want to listen to them or b) take any heed of what they have to share.  Typically, their opinion and, therefore, their feedback are often dismissed.  This is usually the case of all relationships, in and out of work and, in actual fact, it is the quality of the relationship that is crucial to the culture of a team.  A team founded on healthy open trusting relationships will deal with whatever is thrown at them and they will deal with it together.  They don’t blame and find fault with each other, instead they collaborate support and learn.

Taking time to build and nurture relationships is important to many aspects of work, and feedback is no exception.  The paradox of the relationship element is that with the right attitude and capability individuals will obtain and use feedback from anyone.  It just makes it easier and often richer when the relationship is good.

Remember that it’s the applicable learning we get from the feedback that is most valuable and seeking that above everything else is the difference that makes the difference.  If you really want to learn then you will, no matter how the feedback is delivered!

So how do I use this in my team?
A. Overtly and inclusively… work with the team to:

  1. develop a clear and shared understanding of ‘why feedback is so important to us all.’  Individually and collectively they need to appreciate the true value and worth of feedback.  This is not an imposition of your views as a leader it needs to be a genuine collective exploration of the value and purpose.  Explore relevant sources of feedback for both individuals and the team and help them make connections to how this translates into value.
  2. explore the emotional side of human beings and the impact feedback can have.  There is great opportunity to show some vulnerability and build trust.  As a leader your personal experiences of being hurt by feedback help others acknowledge that this is normal.
  3. help the team with a feedback framework and some supporting principles.  There’s a host to choose from (do some research or get in touch) and one of the simplest and most effective is SID.

Situation – describe, in detail, the specifics of what you experienced… “When xxx happened, I heard you say yyy and watched you do zzz.  This should be the objective facts (your objective perspective of the truth!)  There is no judgement in here. No good or bad, just how they behaved in that specific situation.

Then the Impact of their behaviour – the consequence of their behaviour.  The outcome of what they did… “the customer became even more irate and angry… they have cancelled their order and are looking to source from somewhere else.”

And finally the Do – share your ideas/suggestions/instructions (depends on the situation and the impact!) as to what the individual could/should/must do.  This SID framework is brilliant for both the positive and negative feedback.  And my final pain on this is it’s even better if you can coach the person through the SID framework.  Ask questions to get them to reflect and review the Situation, the Impact and what they will Do.  Much more buy in an commitment than being told!

  1. D) build an agreement with the team to embed five core principles into how you will work together going forward:
  2. All feedback has value
  3. Impact is not the same as intent
  4. Adopt a constructive and open attitude to receiving feedback
  5. Don’t react.  Acknowledge and manage emotions and focus on the learning “What can I learn from this?”
  6. Treat each other with respect.  Give feedback for the right reasons and learn to give it in a constructive and empathic way.

Then role model and practice it.  And it starts with you…your leadership here is critical.  With all the above in place, if the team experience you seeking, taking and acting on feedback from them then you are most of the way there.  If they perceive the opposite then don’t be surprised if nothing changes or, worse, things regress.  To practice this in a team setting we use a Whirlwind exercise to give one-to-one feedback.  Based on some key statements.  At the end of team meeting get them to give each other feedback using something like “What I appreciate about your contribution is…” and “I think you would make an even better contribution if you …”  Again as a role model you need to be involved in this process.  The feedback is given simultaneously in pairs. So if you have a team of 8 (including you) then four pairs stand or sitting opposite each other.  The feedback is short and isn’t a discussion.  Each person shares their feedback with their partner and their partner shares their feedback with them. It only takes two minutes (a minute each way.)  Then everyone rotates, clockwise, one place and the process repeats until everyone has (in this instance) given and received seven pieces of feedback.  Please note – when there is an even numberof people one person must remain in their position (where they are sat or stood) and the others rotate clockwise around them (they stay still.)  This ensures the pairings move through and everyone gets to see each other.  If you have and odd number in the team then just have one person stand alone at the head of the two sets of pairs and everyone will move clockwise and in turn have a ‘time out’ in this individual spot.  If you’re not sure about the process or want any help with developing a feedback culture please get in touch.

And finally, if you have any feedback for me on this blog – fire away.  I don’t care how you put it.  If it’s positive please tell everyone and if it’s something I need to improve then please tell me first and let me rectify it.  I promise to take it graciously.


Chris and the team at Prospa.



Chris Lee

About Chris Lee

Chris has 20 years experience in Learning and Development having worked for a number of large multinationals. He has built a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field of L&D including Organisational Design and Development as well as Talent and Performance Management.

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