I was talking with a coachee recently about feedback and what she really wanted from it, and the part that feedback plays in feeling appreciated. And with another coachee about what a waste of time feedback usually is. So what does good feedback sound like and how much feedback should we give?
I wonder how many of you actually ask for feedback on a regular basis? My guess is not too many. If I was to ask you how you knew when you had done a good job, what would your answer be? Some people 'just know'. I'm like that, I know if I've done something well, and I know when I could have done it better. And if I'm honest if someone else doesn't agree with me, it won't actually change my perspective much. Now that isn't arrogance, I don't always think I know better than someone else, its just that I have a clear set of internal guidelines on what is good enough. I usually have quite high expectations so am quick to notice that there is room for improvement, but I'm not a perfectionist so spend time dwelling on any imperfections. Its just that I don't need anyone else to tell me their view of my performance.
As this is a fairly deep seated part of my personality, for a long time I shunned praise. I was able to listen to criticism, particularly constructive criticism, but praise was simply uncomfortable. In learning to appreciate the importance of gratitude, I've learned that the correct response to praise is 'thank you', and in learning to say thank you, I've also learned to accept praise. Praise is a gift that someone else has kindly offered, be generous enough to take it.
But just because I'm not looking for praise doesn't mean everyone is like me. In fact for all you leaders and managers out there who don't need feedback heed this warning well - not everyone is like you! At the other end of the spectrum some people know they've done a good job because someone else tells them they have. Once upon a time I thought people who needed to hear feedback were lacking in confidence, but that is actually not true. They are just wired differently to me and that external validation is essential. I remember one mentee telling me for a long time she wasn't sure if her boss thought she was doing a good job or not, but that she had worked out that when he didn't give her feedback, that was actually 'feedback by omission' that she was doing well. She didn't lack confidence, she just needed feedback.
Some managers only offer 'constructive criticism' so if your boss doesn't give you praise then ask yourself if they are just giving you 'feedback by omission':
when the absence of feedback = praise
Like any spectrum, most people aren't at the extreme ends, they sit somewhere in the middle where feedback is useful and welcome. So if you are going to give feedback, do it well. Easy yes? Well no, not really. Its a skill like any other that takes thought and practice. Been on the receiving end of the feedback sandwich? You know, negative comments sandwiched between positive ones. There are several problems with this way of giving feedback. The first is that people begin to associate positive comments with the expectation that something negative is sure to follow. This is only made worse when the manager concerned says 'you did that well but...' 'But' successfully turns the positive comment into something meaningless.
The second problem is that the 'filling' of negative feedback is cushioned between often thick slices of good stuff so that the net effect is it gets lost. Sometimes the feedback sandwich is used by managers who are focused on the negative stuff, and the positive feedback either side is thin and vague. At other times the manager is trying so hard to be kind that the negative stuff, the stuff that really needs to be improved, gets well and truly hidden. Neither serve any useful purpose.
Perhaps the thing that has been getting in the way of good feedback is our beliefs that sit behind it. Beliefs such as 'they know they do a good job, why do I need to tell them', or 'If I tell them what needs to change they will be hurt'. Talking to a lot of leaders and managers many of them don't consciously remember to give specific praise. A passing 'well done' is easy enough, but actually noticing something that has been done really well and drawing attention to it is much rarer. Its a shame really because that act of specific praise does more than just make someone feel good momentarily. More importantly specific praise lets someone know you have really noticed what they have done well, and in drawing their attention to it, they will unconsciously continue to pay attention to doing it well again and again.
So if more specific praise will have significant benefits, what about feedback about things that aren't going so well? In the same way our attention is drawn to the specific that went well, if you choose to highlight something that has gone less well, there's a good chance that's where their attention will stay. Pointing out all the things that have gone badly just tells someone what you don't want, it doesn't help them understand what you do want.
If you were to choose to believe that the colleagues in your teams all wanted to do their best and succeed, then what they also need is to know and understand what success looks like to you too. This would also include them wanting to know when they are not succeeding so that they can change what is happening. Good feedback would include where they need to improve, what success criteria you are seeking, what support is available to achieve them, and if necessary, if there are any consequences if they don't meet them.
Feedback is all about helping people to see the world as others do. When an unsuccessful candidate for a job asks for feedback, please take the time to tell them what they would need to do differently to be successful next time. Be as specific as you can. If a colleague is not performing to the standard expected, tell them specifically what they would be doing if they were meeting the expectations. If you want people to succeed don't tell them where they are failing, tell them what else they need to do to be successful.
And back to those of you, like me, that have an internal critic to give feedback. Remember that others need to hear feedback from someone else. And if you want to be sure your internal feedback is on the mark - seek out a coach to hold a mirror to your reflections