Feedback is fierce

The most successful organizations – by which I mean those whose employees are motivated, engaged, and carry a growth mindset – embrace a culture of feedback. People in these organizations look upon feedback as a gift and an opportunity, and share it from a place of care and desire to see each other grow. They know that, no matter how difficult the feedback is to give, it needs to be given because they are being – as I heard Lorne Rubis once put it – our “loving critic.” And they know that feedback is freeing because, once it’s out there, they can do something with it (as opposed to being blind to what they’re doing or saying that isn’t going over well with others).

Specific, Timely, Actionable, and Ready

In my experience, feedback that’s the most meaningful and useful is:

  • Specific – you can point to exactly what was said or done and the impact it had
  • Timely – the behaviour happened recently and the conversation isn’t put off until a mid- or year-end review
  • Actionable – you can do something with or about this feedback

It can be a person sharing their feedback for you or them courageously sharing the feedback that’s out there about you. This second one can be difficult because we have a tendency to want to protect people’s feelings. The reality is this feedback is out there and the perception has come from something you’ve done or are doing; better you know about it now than in six or twelve months. And, ideally, the feedback process is safe, open, and collaborative so the receiver can probe and ask questions to get at the root cause instead of the symptoms.

The one piece that can derail the act of giving feedback is understanding how the person likes to receive feedback and if they’re ready to hear it. Don’t know? Just ask. You may be geared up and ready to go, but they may need til this afternoon or next week to be in the right headspace to really hear you. And unless it’s a matter of life-and-death (or they keep putting it off and putting it off), that’s a pretty fair request.

For instance, my preferred way to receive feedback – especially when it comes to areas to work on – is (in descending order) in-person, via video, or via the phone. An email leaves me unable to understand tone, inflection, or explore further by asking questions. After I’ve read the email, chances are I’ll get in my head and may even start telling myself stories like, “You’re really letting others down,” or “Get ready to freshen up that resume.”

I also have to be in the right frame of mind so setting aside the time is important to me. If I’m moving through a full day of mentally taxing meetings and try to sandwich a feedback session somewhere in between, it isn’t going to produce a great result. I won’t be as open and receptive because my head will be debriefing what just happened and gearing up for what’s next. Instead, I’d rather setup a dedicated time and pad it a bit on either end so I’m ready going in and have a few minutes to decompress coming out.

Structure and Share Effectively

There are many ways to effectively structure and share feedback using a variety of models. For example:

  • Start, Stop, Continue
  • Situation, Behaviour, Impact
  • Did-Wells, Next-Time, and Action Plan

The first page of results of a quick Google search for “feedback models” will give you ample material to draw upon as you figure out the different approaches that work for you and others. A word of advice: at all costs, avoid the temptation to use the “Shit Sandwich” – no one likes it and rarely will they gain valuable insights from it. “Clear is kind” as Brené Brown says.

As you embrace giving and getting feedback, remember the need for it to be specific, timely, and actionable. If you’re making someone aware of something or offering guidance without specific examples of recent behaviour, you’ve stepped towards the realm of coaching and advising. As well-intentioned as you may be, this can leave the recipient wondering if there really is a problem or if you’re helping them avoid a future misstep. If I can channel Brené Brown and Susan Scott a bit here: Advice is nice, feedback is fierce.

Try-Learn-Improve on Repeat

Where to from here? There’s no shortage of material on the topic of feedback. I recently listened to a podcast by Adam Grant which featured Ray Dalio share Bridgewater’s head-on approach to feedback. I then read Ray Dalio’s book “Principles: Life and Work” which dives deeper into why it’s so important to be open and honest with each other. Patty McCord described cultivating a culture of feedback at Netflix including “feedback days” in her book, “Powerful.” And the first place I really learned what proper feedback looked and sounded like was working through “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott with a cohort of team members at work.

As you go about your own exploration, honestly ask yourself how you are at providing, seeking, and receiving feedback. How would others around you (especially those where you work) answer if asked those same questions? If the answers sit somewhere near “not good” or “okay…I think,” find someone you trust and get started on asking for and giving feedback. It will feel awkward, uncomfortable, and hard at first but, as you practice and learn more about what does and doesn’t work, you’ll step into a wonderful world filled with courage, compassion, vulnerability, empathy, care, freedom, and growth.

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