Of Feedback, Sambuca, and the Future

I look forward to Friday nights. Usually I’ll be at the archery range followed by a beer at the local watering hole with my lovely wife and fellow archers. I was especially looking forward to this week since I won an archery tournament last weekend up in Edmonton. Woohoo! I was ready to celebrate.

Alas, I’ve come down with a cold. I’m sitting at home watching an Auction Hunters marathon instead, and trying to kill my infection with Sambuca. It seems to help the sinuses. Maybe not, but by the time I finish writing this I won’t care.

Nothing bad (or good) lasts forever. I know I’ll whine and snivel my way through the weekend, and be back on my feet and ready to rock by Monday morning. Attending the team meeting and doing my client preparation for the week. The ability to look to the future is a good thing. Without it we sometimes tend to wallow in our present miseries, and maybe even get stuck there.

Without knowing or imagining what’s going to happen next we might feel trapped and helpless, or even overwhelmed. Many inspiring things in life are future oriented, and they pull us along into the desired next state.

The Value of Concrete, Visual Language

A concrete and visual future can be  inspiring, but warm and fuzzy future is useless. The brain is a visual (and emotional) machine. That’s why when CEO’s want a collectively motivating vision, mission, or purpose, it’s based on concrete visual language. On of my favourite examples is this quote often mis-attributed to General George S. Patton

“I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.”

That’s very concrete language, no?

Recruiters also use visualization. First, if they can see the job they are recruiting for, they have a better chance of filling it with the right person.  Secondly, if they see you performing the job, based on your description of the work you’ve done in the past, then you’ve got a better chance of landing it.

What’s This To Do With Feedback?

Practise doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practise does. Feedback needs to be future oriented. It also needs to be specific and concrete. Pointing out to one of our direct reports that they screwed up / performed brilliantly is not enough.

We have to be specific enough that they know what they’re being criticized / praised. It is necessary but not sufficient to point out the error. They must also rehearse how they are to change their behaviour in the future. Even if this rehearsal is only mental. Otherwise, what you’ll get is the same behaviour next time.

We also have to cast their thinking into the future.  They need to take the responsibility for fixing the problem, changing their behaviour, or doing things differently. This is the purpose of feedback. They need to be able to see themselves doing it differently next time.

Without this last step in the feedback process what will usually happen is that they’ll just do the same thing again. Not out of habit, not out of laziness, not out of stubbornness or thoughtlessness. They just won’t think about it because they haven’t “seen” it done differently.

The Last Question

Assuming we’re giving corrective feedback, the last question in any feedback process needs to be  a variation of:

“What are you going to do differently next time?”*

Questions engage the mind of the person being asked. It allows them to take responsibility for the outcome. Asking the future-oriented question gives them the problem to solve. Instead of waiting for you to hand them the solution.

Which is the point of giving feedback. They change their behaviour. They take responsibility. If you have to do everything for them then what’s the point of having employees? Give them something to do about it, or even mentally rehearse for the future, so they don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over.

So, what are you going to do next?

Other resources:

Manager Tools Podcast


Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose – The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership

*If you’re dealing with positive feedback, the question “What are you going to do differently”. A “Keep it up.”, or “Keep doing that.” works better instead.

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