Getting Better at Giving Feedback

My wife and I spend the last couple of weekends with friends, and for the most part it’s been great. Having them over to our place for coffee last weekend, or eating Chinese take-out and drinking beer after an evening at the archery range this weekend. New friends and old mixing and matching.

Yet twice in the last ten days I’ve had  friends tell me they can’t be in the same room as so-and-so. Normally this wouldn’t bother me, but so-and-so were also long-time friends. Naturally I asked why. The answer surprised me. Not only the answer, even though the we’re talking about completely different people, but also because both times the answer was the same: so-and-so is a sexual predator.

Imagine my surprise.

First Impressions

First impressions are funny things. In Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw he describe a situation where teachers’ abilities judged over a year is remarkably similar to the same evaluation of the teacher based on four seconds of video tape.

It seems that first impressions are remarkably accurate, or permanent and consistent, depending on your point of view and awareness of cognitive filters. That is, once we’ve decided what kind of person we’re dealing with based on our first impression of them, we immediately shift to either ignoring all evidence to the contrary or emphasizing any and all evidence to confirm our initial bias.

Which means you have about four seconds to make a “good” first impression. That’s faster than a Mazaratti goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour.

What does this have to do with giving feedback to? Everything and nothing. In a perfect world our biases of who a person is (or should be) won’t play into our management of their performance. But people are people, and our biases and filters affect how we perceive everything and everybody. It also affect how our direct reports perceive our feedback.

Can You Tell If Somebody Is Lying?

Here’s an interesting though experiment: What percentage of police officers, detective, judges, and psychologists do you think can tell when somebody is lying or guilty? They should be pretty good at it because of their training.

Got a number? Good. Now how many of those same officers believe they can tell when somebody is lying or guilty? Is your second number higher or lower than the first one?

Here’s the research-based number: in a 1984 study of 14,000 police officers, only 33 of them had an above random chance of detecting deception. That’s 0.2%.

Focus On Behaviour Not Attitude

This means that of all bad attitude, spitefulness, ignorance, stupidity, laziness, or predatory behaviour we might meet in our daily lives probably isn’t. I’m not saying that they doesn’t exist. I’m saying the we can’t crawl into somebody’s head and know what they’re thinking. We certainly can’t and shouldn’t give feedback meant to improve performance based on our assumptions of somebody’s motivation or mental state.

Projecting our own biases on a direct report whose behaviour we’re trying to influence is not effective at best, and counter-productive at worst . What can we do about it?

Focus on Behaviour Instead.

There are three things happening before we decide why somebody is doing what they’re doing, or are the person we think they are. They do something, we feel something, we make conclusions about their motivations. They say or do something that triggers an emotion in us. The emotion becomes our understanding of why they behave that way. Body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye-contact, words used are what make us feel threatened, unsafe, disrespected, or ignored. Those feeling drive our assumptions about their intentions.

The problem is some of us leap directly to the motivation, without being aware of what the behaviour was , or even our feelings that triggered it. Our unconscious biases, based on our feeling, emotions, experience, and culture, are constantly filtering for us the things we are aware of.

To become good at giving effective feedback, we need to become aware of the behaviour that triggered the effect it has on us and the people around us. When we can name the behaviour, we can start to give effective feedback to change that behaviour.

Your Actions

Spend a week noticing your judgments of other people. Notice when somebody’s behaviour affects you positively or negatively. What was the emotion your felt, and the conclusion you drew from it?

Now, dig into this emotion – what did that person say or do that drove you to that particular conclusion?  What was their body language, facial expression, eye-contact, words they used, tone of voice, or work product? What did you hear or see that made you feel what you felt, and therefore draw the conclusion you drew?

Further Reading:

Malcolm Gladwell What the Dog Saw
Joe Navaro What Every Body Is Saying (Joe Navarro is a former FBI counter-intelligence agent and behavioural assessment expert)

3 thoughts on “Getting Better at Giving Feedback

    1. Hi Stuart, Things are well thanks! The blog’s been here all along. I’ve just shifted to writing a longer article once a week. All the daily reading and “brain droppings” can be found on my twitter feed @practicalmgrs. How’s things with you?


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