Feedback is critical in every arena of life. For good or ill, it can permanently alter our self-perception, businesses and relationships.
Failing to take on board good feedback can lose companies customers, investors and revenue, whilst a preoccupation with negative feedback can do just as much damage.
The ability to appropriately handle facts and the attached emotions can play a vital role in how individuals and organisations are viewed.
The way in which feedback is both delivered and received – and whose feedback we choose to focus on – can be pivotal to successfully starting, growing and maintaining a business with engaged employees and satisfied customers. Simon Day, the Evaluation Champion of Toastmasters International, explains how to use feedback effectively with your employees.
When delivering training on feedback, I often begin by asking my audience to ponder a single statement:
Reflect on an experience of feedback that really affected you. Where were you? What was happening? What was said? How did it make you feel?
People hold on to negative beliefs
This simple exercise quickly reveals some starting truths. An overwhelming majority of delegates recall a negative experience that happened in the workplace, often more than five years ago. How much more productive would they have been in the succeeding five years if they hadn’t been carrying such negative beliefs around with them on a daily basis?
I was reading one of those ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ books once – as you do when you feel the need – and I came across a story of a young boy. He had come home from school drenched from head to toe, even though it wasn’t raining at the time. Upon inquiry, the boy informed his mother, smiling, that bullies had pushed him into a large puddle on the walk home.
Indignant on behalf of the child and concerned that he would be smiling in response to such a terrible act, she sought to provide comfort to her son: “I’m so sorry you had such a terrible day!”
The boy’s response was telling: “Oh, I didn’t have a terrible day, Mum. I had a great day – I just had a bad five minutes!”
Strive to remember positive feedback
Though we know we should adopt the attitude of this boy, it’s easier said than done. We know we should not allow one negative encounter to ruin our day.
We should be more careful to retain, even record, positive feedback more readily and use it to reinforce our self-esteem and confidence when we fall upon hard times. Yet we don’t.
We have an unhealthy preoccupation, even obsession, with negativity. We live in a world where doom and gloom sell – the best gossip is who said what to whom and who did what behind closed doors. Problem is, negativity becomes our focus and therefore the focus of the majority of our conversations.
If, on any given day, nine positive things happened followed by one negative thing, we would not be able to simply focus on the positive.
At best, we mention the negative thing and cause it to dilute the positive.
At worst, we abandon the positive and allow the negative to consume everything else.
I’ve done it – on occasion, my first words to my wife after walking through the door are about the idiot who cut me up in traffic on the way home. By the time my rant’s over and she gets to ask, “How was your day?” I realise I can’t recall anything positive.
I’ve not only distorted my own perception, I’ve neglected my wife’s emotional needs by failing to ask about her day and the atmosphere at home has been soured.
To further prove my point, when I pose those introductory statements to audiences, I always start with the negative first. Why? When people have come up with the negative feedback they remember and are reliving the emotion connected with it, they really struggle to come up with anything positive. It’s almost like we are wired to focus on the negative!
Worse than this, sometimes people recall negative events from years – even decades – ago. If we are holding onto something for that long, it can do permanent damage to us, even if it is something the other party has long since forgotten about.
I fear that if left unchecked, one careless or overly critical piece of feedback, even given in jest, can do irreparable damage to another person. I would go so far as to argue that a person who does not openly acknowledge the critical role of feedback in someone else’s development is in one of two camps:
- Either they are ignorant of just how vital it is, or,
- They demonstrate a potentially fatal level of carelessness about how they speak to others.
Both are extremely dangerous.
Feedback can empower or entrap
Feedback can do one of two things: empower people to achieve more than they believe they can or entrap them in negative beliefs that prevent them from achieving what they know they can.
When delivering training on feedback, I use an acronym called FAST. It’s a reminder that if we don’t alter our habits quickly, more people will suffer. However, changing our approach to feedback quickly can help motivate and engage employees.
According to a recent survey I read, companies with engaged employees are typically twice as successful as those without. Poor feedback costs companies money and progress. Who wouldn’t want to sort that out – FAST?
Giving effective feedback
Effective feedback should be:
From the heart
If people don’t feel like you care about them, they will not care about your feedback. Simple as that.
Each feedback encounter should have something the recipient can act on. If it is simply criticism, it’s not worth giving. People need to know how to improve and be guided, not berated.
Feedback that is not specific shows a lack of care and a level of ignorance. If you do not know the recipient’s job role or situation well enough to provide specific strategies and solutions, you are likely the wrong person to deliver that feedback.
People need specific areas to work on, and not too many points. One or two specific areas is more than reasonable.
Feedback needs to be prompt. Use wisdom; if the situation is raw and has emotion attached to it – for example, if the individual knows things have not gone well and is upset – it is generally advisable to leave some time for them to calm. However, schedule in a time – and honour it exactly.
If a follow-up meeting is needed, calendar it – and honour it exactly. Inconsistency or negligence – especially with someone else’s career – can be disastrous.
Giving better feedback
In order to improve the quality of feedback delivered in our organisations, I suggest three specific actions:
1. Attend feedback meetings promptly
Be prompt to all feedback meetings and exactly honour any follow-up commitments. This will cultivate a culture of trust and collaboration.
The more time that elapses between the event and feedback, the less impact it will have. Timeliness is key.
There’s an old adage: “Actions speak louder than words.” If a time is agreed for feedback to be received and the one delivering it runs over in a previous meeting, arrives late or does not show up at all, what is really being said? “You are not my most important priority.”
If that is how the person is made to feel, feedback will be meaningless and treated with contempt. If someone receiving feedback turns up late, it is a sign of disrespect to the deliverer.
2. Talk about the person before the process
Empathy is at the root of all meaningful human communication. I have a fundamental rule when I am delivering feedback: I do not address the subject of feedback until I have asked the recipient three questions about themselves.
I may ask about their weekend, family, health, interests, recent events, goals or aspirations. This encourages me to show a genuine care and concern for them and learn more about their lives.
This sometimes even provides additional insight into how the individual might be being affected – positively or negatively – by external factors. This then helps me to personalise the feedback based on what they might be prepared to take in.
3. Praise, Recommendation & Challenge
In my experience of teaching and coaching, I have learned that feedback is most effective when it is broken into three distinct parts:
First, I always offer praise. This brings a feeling of pride and prepares the individual to openly receive subsequent advice.
Secondly, I suggest something specific that can be done to move the work forward.
The third part is the challenge. This is the invitation to implement and practise the advice given in the second part. I have found this pattern accelerates the rate of progress.
Let us create a feedback culture, driven by respect, empathy and compassion, within our organisations. If we give well-structured feedback from the heart and ensure it is actionable, specific and timely, progress will accelerate, relationships will be strengthened and outcomes will improve.
About the author
This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Simon Day. Simon is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. With more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland, find your nearest club at www.toastmasters.org
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