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The tricky art of giving feedback

A few rules and misconceptions on how to help someone improve



Image Joshua Nesh

In an exhaustive and very pedagogic article that I can only recommend reading if you haven't, Harvard Business Reviews lays down all evidences why feedback rarely does what it's supposed to. Common belief in businesses is that the most transparent the boss is, the frankest its remarks, and the fastest the employee will learn and grow. Well, as this paper points out, it is not exactly how it goes. Feedback culture, if done wrong, can be a tremendous source of violence in the workplace, leading to demotivated employees, loss of sense of purpose, and ultimately to life-deprived organizations. Feedback however can be useful, if exerted mindfully. Here are a few rules that, when mastered, makes it worth a try.


Rule #1: give feedback only when it's asked for

Take an instant to consider how you react when you're given help that you did not ask for. Be it someone holding the door for you when unnecessary, your mom doing your laundry when you told her that you would do it yourself, or a colleague modifying a text you wrote to avoid you going through it once more... At best, you'll be touched by their intention. At worst, you'll feel resentful, depreciated, and humiliated. Feedback is a helping relationship, and thus it can only work when help is asked for. No matter how strong you want someone to improve, and how certain you are of the steps that should be taken to get there, it will only cause withdrawal or self-depreciation if you force it upon them. Your propositions will only land if the person is ready to receive it, or if it's part of a collective ritual of debriefing after action (like surgeon-nurses team debriefing after a surgical intervention, or a soccer team reviewing the keys actions after a game).


Rule #2: Start your feedback by asking questions

It may seem counter-intuitive, but as in any help situation, it's better to start with an inquiry so that you can really identify what kind of help is needed. Asking for feedback can be a way to dissimulate many other problems. Maybe they just need an emotional validation of who they are. Maybe they are concerned with a very specific aspect of a contribution they just made. Maybe they are coming to you because they admire you for a certain skill and they want to learn from you. You can not know what they want unless you ask. And most times, even them don't really know what they're looking for. A simple, honest and candid inquiry can help them pinpoint the source of their discomfort, and the solution might turn out to be something totally different than feedback at all. Before jumping into observations and assertions on someone's work, make sure it is what they are really asking for.


Rule #3: Feedback needs to be relevant to a target

Feedback can only point to measurable, tangible facts and actions. Because the leeway of misunderstanding is immense when it comes to abstract qualities, feedback can only focus on the part of our experience that is accessible to factual description. It's frustrating, because most important things happen in the abstract, intangible world of emotions and reactivity, but it is a place where no one can go except the individual concerned. Keep that in mind, refrain, and limit your observations to an individual or collective target that can be easily identified and measured.


Rule #4: Feedback needs to be specific and concrete

If feedback is to be helpful, it needs to be in a setting where specific behavior can be referred to and analyzed, like in a review of action for example. Instead of using abstract terms such as "take more initiative", use specific examples: "when you pointed out that the tool we implemented is not adapted, it would have been helpful if you had participated in building a better solution."

This being said, there is a big risk associated with using examples: if they feel accused, people will justify themselves one case after another, finding very good reasons to explain their behaviors, and you will end up nowhere but in opposition. Note how it is crucial here to install a safe space and respect rule #1: give feedback only if it is asked for, or part of a ritual collective debriefing process.


Rule #5: Feedback works better if it is descriptive rather than evaluative

Performance appraisal system often deal with abstract traits such as communication skills, ambition, teamwork, that mean absolutely nothing outside of specific behavior examples. What can "more assertive" even mean? To some person it would mean show authority by shouting instead of speaking, to another it would translate at move your seat to the front of the room, to another one, use harsh language in e-mails. You can never anticipate nor control the way a person will interpret and react to a suggestion of this type. They will always make it their own, with their history, their lenses, their culture, their beliefs, their values. Thus, feedback will be more helpful if you only describe what you observe, letting the person draw their own conclusions. If possible, avoid giving any advice whatsoever, rather help the person understand why his/her reaction may have deserved her, and why she did act this way. Instead of saying "you should be more assertive" try using "last time your proposition was rejected, you did not answer nor tried to make your case." And start building from there.


Rule #6: Feedback must be given in situations where social norms can be temporarily suspended

Japan is well known for the endless sake drinks after work. It's a real cultural institution, because it deserves a very specific purpose. In this context, employees and bosses can relate outside of the very constricting rules they must follow to preserve face. But at the bar, social norms are momentarily blurred and both employees an bosses can debrief on their work without putting their honor at risk. Similarly, I know a startup company where the three founders meet every month for an informal meeting that they call the "fuck you meeting". Around a coffee table loaded with beer and potato chips, they explore the interpersonal tensions arising while working together, in a preserved space where their status is suspended. Honest and deep feedback, especially when it comes to interpersonal relations, work best if you drop the mask. Encourage offsite work, try a new "fuck you" ritual on Friday nights, find what works best for your organization to help blur the hierarchical lines.


Rule #7: Get trained!

Giving feedback is a skill that is not easy to learn on the go. Find any opportunity you can to train yourself, be it in non-violent communication, mindfulness of emotions, coaching, or any other training that will help you develop your emotional intelligence. It's not easy, but it's accessible to anyone that shows humility and has good guidance.

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