Giving (and Getting) Productive Feedback

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"Can I offer you some feedback?" For some reason, these six little words often generate a "fight or flight" response. They go through a translator in our brain and are heard as "You might want to sit down. I'm about to make you feel worthless." Many perceive the person giving the feedback as somehow superior which puts the receiver on the defensive. 

 While giving and receiving feedback can be a delicate dance, there is no denying its value in helping to identify issues and solve them. If managed in a positive and productive manner, feedback can do what it is ultimately intended to do: help improve and grow your business.

Here are a few tips to graciously giving and getting feedback – whether you want to hear it or not.

Create a Circle of Trust. It might be hard to believe, but people who receive feedback apply it only 30% of the time, according to Columbia University neuroscientist Kevin Oschner. If you haven't established a circle of trust (and I really mean an open, intimate relationship – not the kind Jack has with Greg in Meet the Parents) with a colleague or employee that allows you to say whatever is on your mind, I suggest speaking with a firm yet baby-touch. No need to be mean-spirited about it. Your feedback usually won't be productive if it's focused on making the other person feel bad or look foolish in front of others.

Take a Positive Approach. Negative feedback can be interpreted as "I did something wrong or bad and now I'm going to be punished. The threat radar turns on and the walls go up. A productive conversation will never happen. I'm certainly not suggesting you need to avoid negative – let's actually call it corrective – feedback altogether. Just make sure to include as much positive as corrective. Even if the positive is as simple as following up with a suggested solution or outcome.

Give specifics. People generally respond better to specific, positive direction. Avoid saying things like, "You need to be more talkative in meetings." It's too ambiguous and can be interpreted in a lot of personal ways. Say something specific and positive pointed at the task you want accomplished, such as, "You're smart. I want to hear at least one opinion from you in every meeting we're in together going forward."

Be immediate. Productive feedback is most effective when delivered immediately and frequently. Waiting three months to tell someone that you value his opinion and would like to hear more from him in meetings is pointless. By that time neither of you remember the situation, and he probably won't grasp how to change direction. It's far too ambiguous and relies on memory, which at best is faulty. This way, performance reviews are just another discussion and far less scary.

Stand Your Ground. When someone drops the ball at work and you have to give him feedback, start by asking his perspective on the situation. Resist saying how stupid his actions were, even if they were. Next, give the immediate, specific, corrective yet positive type of feedback outlined earlier. Ask if he understands everything you expect. Inform the person that you're there to help him or her to succeed. As the saying goes: "People have a habit of becoming what you encourage them to be, not what you nag them to be."

In addition to giving feedback, there are also times when we will receive feedback. Here are some guidelines for when you're on the other end of the conversation:

  • Suspend any defensive responses that you might naturally feel. Frankly, most of us have had negative experiences with receiving feedback so our initial reaction may be a "fight or flight" response. Work to keep your emotions in check!
  • Say to yourself: "This is information." Think of it as simply feedback—useful information that can provide you with new insights or understandings about how you or your behaviors are perceived by others. You are always in control of your own response so you get to choose whether you are going to respond emotionally, defensively, or whether you will focus on the feedback as useful, character-building information.
  • Seek specifics. Using a non-defensive tone and body language, seek additional information, particularly if the person giving you feedback hasn't provided you with specific details. "I'm sure you know that providing exceptional customer service is very important to me, so I want to make sure I understand more about how I came across in this situation. Could you give me a specific example about what you observed?"
  • State your understanding of the conversation. Just as you want to seek confirmation of your message when you're the sender, when you're the receiver you want to confirm that you understood the message. "What I hear you saying is...Is that correct?" A gracious recipient of feedback will also thank the person giving the feedback, understanding that it is a growth opportunity.

Of course there will be some give and take in your conversations with others, whether you are on the giving or receiving end of the feedback. The best feedback either elicits a change for the better or keeps good behavior steady. If you can remember to remain calm, objective and specific on both sides of the table, the delicate dance will seem less intimidating.

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Guest March 26 2017
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