Feedback: Criticism or opportunity?

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions” or so says Ken Blanchard. But I’m wondering how many of us truly have an appetite for it. After all, it has a way of feeling like bad news much of the time.

Why is that I wonder? Well, first of all a very common view of feedback is this: Feedback equals criticism.

When I looked up the word criticism, here are some synonyms that greeted me: reprehend, censure, reprobate, condemn, denounce. Okay then, I can’t wait to get me some of that!

Often too, the experiences we have around performance management time can bring on an allergic reaction to feedback because, despite good intention, it is often delivered badly and received equally badly… a breakfast of champions complete with sour milk.

Perhaps, then, the task for all of us is to shift the perspective of feedback from one that equals criticism to one that equals opportunity.

So, where is the opportunity in both providing and receiving feedback?

For the recipient there is opportunity…

…for personal growth

We only see ourselves from the inside out. The value of having others observe us and give us information about what they see helps us “round out” our impression of ourselves.

…to make positive change

Information about ourselves gives us a chance to make changes that have some personal meaning. The hardest part about making change is the commitment it takes to sustain new behaviour. Knowing why a change is important helps us to remain on course and raises the potential for experiencing positive results from our efforts.

For the provider there is opportunity…

…to build relationships that include trust

Feedback becomes a gift when it is presented sincerely and without judgment. As well, when it is given as part of a conversation rather than a laundry list of things to fix, it is more palatable for the recipient and allows for deeper understanding on both sides.

…to convey belief in the recipient’s capabilities and potential contribution

Giving feedback allows us to paint a picture of what we believe another is truly capable of and to shape our expectations around those beliefs. If we simply demand a certain level of performance without inviting input or considering what people might need to make it possible, we will likely be met with resentment rather than interest.

Okay, so this might address some of the why for shifting a negative perspective of feedback to a more positive one (and there are doubtless more reasons for doing so as well) but it doesn’t speak to the how. So here are a few thoughts on that:

As providers of feedback, if we take the opportunity perspective we must:

Be clear about what we’re looking for

This means that if we are going to observe someone going about their work and then provide meaningful and useful information to them, both parties have to be focusing on the same things. Feedback, after all, is comprised not of a single conversation but a series of conversations that lead to change and growth.

Make conversation and observation a daily habit

Sitting down with someone once a year to talk about performance and outcomes does not encourage an opportunity based perspective on feedback. Instead, it becomes something one dreads. Having daily conversations with people and making daily observations about their activities facilitates good and useful exchanges of information.

Avoid the “poop sandwich” approach

Who is not familiar with this? It starts with something positive; ends with something positive and then sandwiches the negative you-know-what in between.  I personally don’t like this approach because it feels contrived. And, by the way, no one is fooled by it.

As recipients of feedback, in taking the opportunity perspective we must:

Participate in the conversation

In my experience, people who say nothing during a session that includes personal feedback can have plenty to say when the session is over, and to people who can only commiserate. While this might feel good at the time, it really isn’t very helpful. Participating in the conversation means asking questions. It sometimes means disagreeing and challenging. But it also means there is opportunity to understand as well as to be understood. That alone has great value.

Take the view that feedback is as often positive as it is negative

Whenever someone says, “May I give you some feedback?” It is tempting to say “Uh-Oh. What have I done now?”

To be open to receiving feedback I think we must also do our best to wipe out the negative “tapes” that play in our minds. In short, an open mind helps.

The truth is, these discussions are rarely easy. They take thought, and work, by both parties. And, because we have this tendency to equate feedback discussions with personal shortcoming, we avoid having them; wait to the last minute to have them; or rush through them in a way that does more harm than good. I think shifting our perspective away from criticism and toward opportunity might help.

What do you think?


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