The Art of feedback

The practice of sharing feedback is a subject that is often talked about in the world of management. It is germane to every area of human endeavour. No matter which industry you are a part of or what type of work you do, you will need feedback; and if you have to get anything done by an individual or by a group of people, you will have to share feedback with them.

My daughter mischievously threw a pillow on the table when we were having lunch last Sunday. The pillow cover was spoiled. Her mother immediately yelled at her and reprimanded her for her mischief. That was a feedback for her although not the best one. Later my wife realized that she should not have yelled at her. I am sure this is something most of us have experienced in our lives. That is how parents react especially when children are young. Sometimes that is how we received feedback even in schools. It was rebuke or punishment when we did something wrong and praises showered on us on those rare occasions when we pleased our teachers.

The trend continued even in our colleges. What’s worse, sometimes in colleges, there used to be no feedback at all. Nobody seemed to care – you are on your own. While students rejoice on this new found freedom from any rebukes, sarcastic comments, total annihilation of morale, at some point they feel lonely, they yearn for someone to guide them.

Later when you enter the workforce and armed with your formidable knowledge about your area of expertise and you meet this alien creature called manager. She calls you for a feedback and lambasts you for the mistakes you have made on an assignment. You think who is she to tell me what is right? What does she know? We all love our ego and do not like being told what is right and what is not. Somehow we were able tolerate this treatment from our parents and our teachers, but we struggle to accept it when it comes from our managers.

Fast forward a few years – now you are the manager and addressing a team and you think how come these people do not know such simple things. So now it is your turn show them who the boss is. All your life this is what you have experienced and you think that it is perfectly alright to shout at people when things go wrong, or blame them for any reason you can and you want to be in the good books of your manager, lest you get a beating from her.

The perception we are conditioned to is – that feedback is based on the premise of fear, bullying or threats. Therefore the word feedback makes us anxious deep down even for the person who is about to share it.

So what is feedback really? How do you share and receive feedback? How do you make it stick? These are questions that bother even the most seasoned professionals in every occupation.

The first thing to note is that we must be open to receive feedback in the first place, otherwise no matter what the person who’s sharing the feedback does will help us. Let go of the fear first. I know, it’s easier said than done, right?

Now that’s why managers must ensure that they are doing enough to quell any fear of rebuke, humiliation or criticism that may exist in the minds of the employees.

The goal of any feedback is twofold – let the employees realize what mistakes were made and what strengths can they call upon to eradicate those mistakes. There must not be any element of negativity in the feedback discussion. A single negative or judgemental statement will make the employee defensive, it may kill his or her self-belief, and a thousand positive words after that will be rendered useless. Employees will not embrace their mistakes unless we as managers embrace them first.

You can find numerous models and theories on feedback and how to give feedback. You can choose anyone you like. But the ultimately it boils down to these two goals.

One of the methods I prefer to use is to ask a series of questions which can be clustered around two main premises:

What are you doing well and would like to continue doing? (Strengths): You guide the employee to think what they are doing well. Many a times they will not give you a direct and clear response. That’s because they are not clear in their own minds what their strengths are and that is what you are aiming to extract. You can coax them, guide them, drop a hint sometimes – just don’t be too impatient and spill out what they did well yourselves. Let them find out. It is a process of self-discovery.

No matter how compelled you feel to dive right into the heart of the matter and talk about the errors made, hold on to your feelings. It is important to bring out the strengths first.

What can you do better? Or what do you need to start doing? (Area of Improvement):

This is the tricky part. Here you want the wrong behaviour or error to be addressed. But the question is how. Once again you allow the employee to realize what went wrong and what can she do correct the situation or what can she do next time when faced with the same situation. Let her reflect on the errors, wrong behaviours – encourage clear thinking and allow them to speak up. Once again sometimes you may have to push a little for the answers, drop a hint, and guide them along the way. Be patient.

It is a simple but effective technique. You can use them any time and not necessarily wait for the appraisal cycle or a major incident to take place in order to hold this discussion. There are others as well and whatever works for you is fine. None of the methods are easy. It takes time and patience to learn and master them. The calmer you are the better are the chances to open up an employees’ heart and that is when the feedback is meaningful.

Have you ever received or shared any feedback? What was your experience? Feel free to share this article and share your thoughts on the feedback process.

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