Train Yourself to Give Better Feedback

Why I Hate My Brother

When my brother was six he started playing soccer. He was athletic (I wasn’t), and because he scored a goal or two every game, he go more motivated to work hard. The harder he worked, the better he got. The better he got, the harder he worked.

Unfortunately, after every game he had to tell us in excruciating detail the play-by-play of every goal he scored. If he’d had a good game and scored four or five goals, supper would be a long, boring, torturous recitation of every kick, dribble, pass given, pass got, and shot on goal. I hated those family meals, and so him, and made him pay as only older brothers can.

Change is Hard

Hey, I was eight. The thing is, we’re not much different now that we both have almost grown-up families of our own. He brags about his daughters (and rightly so), and I still can only bear the sound of his crowing in smaller doses. I’ve learned to steer conversations a little better, or to take the dog for a walk. Neither of us have changed much since we were kids, and neither of us are likely to change without a near-death experience. Which I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Not even my annoying little brother.

Change is hard, change is unpleasant, and change often won’t happen unless there is an overwhelming and pressing need to change. The culture, emotions, feeling, and beliefs that lie beneath the surface of our outward behaviour are powerful and hard to shift. Ask anybody who’s tried to quit smoking. The physical addiction to nicotine only last three days. The emotional connection to smoking last a life-time. My friend Karl recently told me that he still dreams about having a cigarette occasionally, and he’s coming up on 15 years smoke-free.

Driving Change in Others

So if change is unlikely and difficult, how do we affect change in the people who work for us? How do we drop the behaviour that holds back our team, department, or company. How do we bring out the best in our staff and develop them? What models do we have for successfully delivering feedback? Many bosses avoid giving feedback, or if they do it is so poorly delivered that it doesn’t improve performance, it degrades it.
We can’t make people change their behaviour. Especially if the feedback we’re giving is poorly timed, unspecific or un-actionable, or ignored. So the first thing we might do is train ourselves to give good feedback. Like a six-year-olds’ soccer game, we’re going to make it easy by sticking with the basics and having fun.

Yes, negative or corrective feedback is still necessary. Especially in cases of safety, abuse, or theft. If you see one of these situations you should and must step in to correct the problem. Yet “The deepest human need is the need to be appreciated”*, and we can leverage that while we learn to recognize when and how to give feedback.

Your Action:

Say thank-you to somebody every day this week.

  • Be specific

    Be specific enough that people know what particular action they’re being thanked for and can repeat it.

    Did Marcia work late to make sure the invoices got out on time despite the network problems? When Marcia does that we get paid on time, we have better cash flow and it reduces our borrowing costs. Thank-you.

    Did John the back-hoe operator spot a mistake? That would have cost us a lot of overtime, rework, wasted material, and probably affected the schedule and our on-time bonus. Thank-you!

    Did Francis finally land that key account after six months of effort? Thank-you and keep it up. What can we do to service this key client well, and use them to attract others like them?

    Catch them doing something right and recognize it. If you can’t find people doing something right in your company then you’re not looking hard enough, or you’re not in the right company.

  • Be timely

    Don’t wait to say thank-you. The longer you wait, the less useful any feedback will be.

  • Be sincere

    Look for genuine positive actions that deserve recognition. People will know if you’re faking it, and that only reduces your credibility. If you’re not one that recognizes others out loud very often, they will be skeptical at first anyway. Be ready for that, but be persistent. Eventually you and they will both be trained to expect and recognize positive behaviours.

Other Videos

The surprising science of motivation – Dan Pink’s TED talk
How to find the bright spots – Dan Heath on why focusing on the positive pays off especially in times of change
How to get things done – at the top of Tom Peters list is thank-you notes.

*William James, with thanks to Tom Peters

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