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Feedback: When things are less than 100%

Giving positive feedback when things go well seems logical and reasonable. When things are less than 100%, providing effective feedback is more challenging. The first thing many of us do is to say the first things that come to our minds, which often reflect frustration or anger. As always, the first person that needs to be considered in any situation is ourselves and our own behavior.

The question I ask is, “What am I trying to accomplish here?” If the answer is learning, growth, and change, then a frustrated, critical response will not provide success. What considerations go into my thinking on this issue?

First, the fact is that most of us are our own worst critics. We usually don’t need help to identify our failings. Secondly, neuroscience shows that it is just about impossible to change  our mental and behavioral wiring when we focus on what we don’t want to do. If we think about what we did wrong, we’re only reinforcing the circuits that create that behavior. It’s much more effective to create new circuits. Thirdly, negative interactions can send someone, and the entire work group or team, into distress and anxiety; which leads to bad morale and long-term performance issues.

I propose a different approach, one that will bring insight and learning.  Begin by taking time to plan for the conversation. Do what you need to do to calm your emotional response by taking a walk or whatever you do to release negative energy. Remind yourself that your goal is to focus on the work behavior in the project or incident, not on the individual. Then schedule a time to talk one-on-one when you both have energy and privacy for the conversation.

Begin by acknowledging that the conversation might be uncomfortable and that you appreciate the person’s willingness to take time out to talk. Be clear that your goal isn’t to dissect what happened, analyze the problem, or put their job in jeopardy. State that your goal is to help them do their best, learn, and build their potential. Follow with a good opening question that asks them to reflect, “I’m interested in how you think you did in this situation. On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate work?” You can follow with some other questions and statements, making certain to keep the conversation at the learning level – not in the details. Remember, avoid the impulse to suggest a solution, give advice, or tell your own story. Your role is to lead the person to their own “aha” moment of insight.

Here are some example questions that can help guide the conversation:

  • What did you learn?
  • What did you observe about how you worked? About how you worked with the team?
  • Tell me more about that . . .
  • What insights are coming into your mind?
  • What resources, knowledge, or skills would have been helpful in this situation?

Conclude by asking how you can support them in developing the new behaviors or skills they’ve identified. Plan to meet regularly to discuss how they are going about carrying out their intentions to create new behaviors or learn new skills.

By allowing the person to reflect, gain insight, and learn, this process has the potential to develop increased trust, better communication, and foster change. It still may not be comfortable for everyone, but the outcomes will be significantly different from the old “calling on the carpet for discipline” process.

I encourage my readers to try this feedback process with your team members or family members or whatever organization you find yourself in. Reflect on how it makes a difference for you and the people around you.

Read about giving feedback when things are going well.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I would like to highlight the other side of the issue, namely how to handle feedback as the receiver: The reaction most people have when they receive feedback (even if constructive) is very often the same as what you describe “The first thing many of us do is to say the first things that come to our minds, which often reflect frustration or anger. As always, the first person that needs to be considered in any situation is ourselves and our own behavior.”—and some of the counter-measures are very similar.

    I can particularly draw from my experiences in the workplace where I was (de facto) a professional reviewer of work and giver of feedback for more than a year: Unfortunately, I was naive enough to just give factual feedback about what was wrong, what could be improved, etc. (The kind of feedback I would have wanted, being very focused on the issues and not the persons.) Unsurprisingly, seen with hindsight, I made more enemies within just a few months than in my preceeding ten years in the workforce…

    Knowing how to give feedback the right way is very important for those who wish to improve matters; however, in the big picture, the skill of being able to receive feedback in a constructive and gracious manner is the more important—and one that appears to never be taught.

    Notably, I have made the experience that those who combine maturity, intelligence, and a willingness to improve, react constructively even to overly hasty or rude feedback (e.g. something said in anger); whereas those who lack greatly in these characteristics tend to react negatively even to thought-through and constructive feedback padded with several layers of diplomacy. (Among the many reasons, I particularly suspect the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

    May 22, 2010
    • friesengroup #

      Thank you for your observations and excellent personal example. I agree with your comment, “Notably, I have made the experience that those who combine maturity, intelligence, and a willingness to improve, react constructively even to overly hasty or rude feedback…” This is a good description of the social and emotional intelligence that all of us need to demonstrate in the workplace. I have often learned as much from reflecting on my own reaction to feedback as from the specifics of the feedback.

      If readers aren’t familiar with Dunning-Kruger, I encourage you to follow the link above.
      Kathleen

      May 23, 2010

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  1. Feedback: When performance is poor « Resources for Organization Development

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