All the time.
Next question please.
Maybe this needs a little more explanation. Everybody seems to agree feedback, lessons learned, and appraisals are good things. We correct errors, refine processes, and do our jobs better if we have feedback. Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Think about Olympic athletes: world-class gymnasts or soccer players or swimmers have world-class coaches that keep the athlete on track (no pun intended), give observations and minor corrections which over time accumulate into a world-class performance.
Feedback is a good thing, but nobody seems to enjoy giving it or getting it. The phrase “Can we talk?”, or “Can I give you some feedback?” raises the hackles on the backs of our necks. Many of us have experienced the dreaded annual review where some sort of useful conclusion is drawn about our performance from last calendar year, delivered by somebody who likely doesn’t want to be there either. This esteemed document which affects our promotion and pay prospects for more than the next year details all our faults, er sorry, opportunities for improvement.
Is it any wonder that something that’s really important and only comes once a year, even if done supremely well but an outstanding manager, causes us stress and discomfort?
This is not the kind of feedback I’m talking about.
Think about some of the good bosses you’ve had over the years – the kind that made us feel safe while at the same time helping us and making us want to be better. They found a way to give us regular insight to our performance while at the same time motivating us. They gave us the tools we needed to do the work, a clear set of expectations, and a sense that somebody cares about us. They did it without forms, human resources intervention, or intimidating or burdensome processes.
Really outstanding managers and leaders give feedback continuously, without effort, and without being controlling, threatening, or mean. The secret? Good feedback is immediate, frequent, short, specific, sincere, and mostly positive. The most important points are that it’s frequent and mostly positive.
People are funny creatures. They want to avoid pain. They’re continually on the look-out for what might cause pain. Our ancestors did not survive on the African savanna by being oblivious by the proverbial lurking lion. By wanting to avoid fear, uncertainty, and doubt we become focused on it.
Corrective feedback is meant to avoid mistakes, or at least avoid repeating them. But the signal corrective feedback gives us is that we screwed up. If we get told enough times that we screwed up, we begin to focus on avoiding feedback itself, and not on correcting or improving what triggered the feedback in the first place.
Positive feedback reinforces the behaviour you want. When you reinforce a behaviour, you get more of it. When it’s time for corrective feedback, the person who is receiving that feedback will be more open to it. It’s easier to hear criticism from somebody you trust, with whom you have a relationship with, and who you know has your best interests at heart. Trust happens over time.
Rushing into constructive feedback before you’ve built that relationship is counterproductive. I’m not saying you should avoid corrective feedback. I am saying that we need to build the circumstances by which constructive feedback will have the most influence and is more likely to have a positive impact.
Giving positive feedback is also good practise. If you want to get good at something, there’s no better way than through repetition. Start with the easier positive feedback, and you’ll be better at giving corrective feedback later on.
Start with frequent and positive feedback. Yes it’s hard to do, and yes it will freak people out at first. Your patience & persistence will pay off.
Next time: How to give positive feedback.