Rules for giving and receiving feedback

Columns

Dr. Joel Small discusses methods for providing positive and generative feedback

Feedback, both positive and remedial, can be a powerful tool for developing people and enhancing the performance of organizational teams. However, when used improperly, feedback can become a demoralizing and dehumanizing weapon that destroys teams. Given this distinction, it would be wise for all leaders to learn the basic principles for providing feedback that is both positive and generative.

It is important to realize that even remedial feedback need not be negative. Somehow, today’s society has made the terms “remedial” or “corrective” synonymous with terms like “negative” or “punishing,” when in fact, corrective feedback can be both rewarding and positive. As an example, large organizations are beginning to embrace the concept of a coaching culture in which leaders are trained in facilitating positive behavioral change by leading team members to a place of positive empowerment through increased personal awareness and positive corrective feedback. If done properly, those trained in this technique are reporting both immediate and sustainable behavioral change in their organizations.

Before we discuss the rules for providing feedback, it is important to acknowledge the critical role of purposeful leadership as the stabilizing factor in any organizational culture. More often than not, I find that offices suffering from default leadership are the ones that experience the most severe, and often irreversible, staff problems. Without the guidance and clarity provided by purposeful leadership, an organization is more likely to descend into anarchy as everyone is left to create his/her own set rules within the workplace. When an organization descends to this level, feedback is at best meaningless.

So here are my rules for giving and receiving feedback:

1. Behavior should manifest organizational values

This is critical. Once mutually accepted, organizational values become the benchmark for what is acceptable behavior within the organization. When giving feedback, either positive or corrective, we should always use organizational values as the background for our comments.

2. Direct communication

Triangulation occurs when complaints are made to a third party rather than directly to the offending party. This is a very common scenario in organizations and is one of the reasons ill feelings exist and tend to linger. Triangulation should be banned from our organizations. Leaders must avoid the tendency to become part of the triangle by insisting that all feedback take place directly between the involved parties.

3. Positive focus

All corrective feedback should be given with the intention of creating new and positive behaviors that align with the organizational values. To be an agent for change, the one providing the feedback must highlight the positive consequences of the new desirable behavior. We are most effective when we paint a positive vision of a brighter future for the feedback recipient.

4. Provide feedback for the good and not so good

Corrective, or remedial feedback, is much more effective when the leader is also willing to provide positive feedback that highlights a job well done. The recipient of corrective feedback is more likely to take the comments to heart when the leader has historically praised them for the good things they have done. Many of us are guilty of forgetting to offer positive feedback when we should. Even worse, we often try to soften the corrective feedback by including praise for past positive behavior that went unmentioned when it occurred. The recipient of this feedback can easily see through this duplicity, and the net intended effect of the feedback is seriously diminished.

5. Feedback should be given often

Waiting for a yearly performance review to offer feedback is the worst possible method for facilitating sustainable change in our team members. If we were to ask our staff, I feel certain that they would overwhelming agree that they benefit more from ongoing performance feedback as opposed to a yearly feedback session.

6. Remain future focused

Nothing is gained by dwelling on past negative behaviors. Instead we should facilitate change by creating a vision of a brighter future based on the desired positive changes. Again, it is always wise to recognize how these desired changes are consistent with the mutually accepted practice values.

7. Follow-up

If corrective feedback is to be effective, we must acknowledge when positive change occurs. Nothing is more disheartening than an earnest effort to change that goes unrecognized. This is the time to offer positive feedback on a job well done. Without this follow-up feedback, change becomes unsustainable, and future corrective feedback becomes ineffective.

8. If you give, be willing to receive

The very best organizations have leaders that encourage feedback from their team regarding their effectiveness as leaders. By asking for feedback regarding our leadership, we create an openness that promotes a healthy feedback loop. Furthermore, research has shown that our staff is the best prognosticator of our future success as leaders. Their assessment of our leadership capabilities has proven to be more accurate than a host of professionally designed and administered leadership assessments. Given this finding, it would be wise if we listened closely to what our staff has to say.

In summary, feedback is important. It is our means for facilitating individual change as well as organizational stability. Learning to give and receive both positive and remedial feedback is one of the most important steps in becoming the leader of an exceptional organization. Utilizing these rules for effective feedback will enable us to bring out the best in the people we serve.