The Art of Giving (and soliciting) Feedback

Solicit Feedback & put Rocket Fuel on your career

Solicit Feedback & put Rocket Fuel on your career

Imagine a point in time when you are so interpersonally skilful that feedback you give to anyone would be completely accepted. Further, the person would follow up on what you suggested and be committed to implementing the suggested behavioural changes. Fantasy? Perhaps. But it’s possible to develop the skill of giving feedback to such a high level that this becomes a working reality.

Why Bother? Before we get into the specifics around giving feedback, we need to address the ‘Why Bother?’ question. Is the potential upside worth the grief if it all unravels? My belief is as follows: we all require feedback if we want to keep learning and growing. In sport, the best golfers in the world like Rory McIlroy continually take lessons. They know that staying on top is a never-ending game of improvement. In counselling, Michael Josephson coined the phrase ‘you don’t have to be sick to get better’ to communicate the fundamental idea that we can all improve our lives, no matter how solid a foundation you are working from. Feedback allows us to understand ourselves better and to work on both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad bits. In the words of Robert Burns: “O would the power of god he gee us, to see ourselves as others see us”. We are all flawed diamonds. Feedback allows us to polish the stone.

Definition: Feedback can be defined as “telling someone something about themselves in a way which they understand, find acceptable and which motivates them to change”. It’s like a growth promoter for your lawn – with huge potential to promote growth, but it has to be handled sensitively or the lawn can get ‘burned’ (we’ve all been burned by overly robust or inappropriate feedback). Hence the reason that some people are reluctant to enter into this space (been there; done that; never wearing the t-shirt again). However, avoidance of feedback (both giving and receiving) is a mistake that will ultimately limit your career.

2 Extremes: We can think of effective feedback as a mid-point between 2 extremes. On the left hand side of the equation is Mr Happy (manager or friend) who likes to keep everyone in good form. This person doesn’t give feedback for fear of ‘offending’ the other person. This type of manager often ends up with ‘upwards delegation’. The monkey (problem) jumps off the back of the people who work for you onto your back. If you are afraid of staff, you will not give feedback. And, like a shark smelling blood in the water, they sense this ‘weakness’ and you’ll end up dealing with a ton of grievances. So, you don’t want to be the Mr. Happy. Because, Mr. Happy managers eventually morph into Mr. Sad. Don’t believe me? Then what do you make of the following ‘war story’?

Body Odour: I worked in one company, helping them to redesign the organization structure. One of the guys in the company had a body odour problem. It was really bad. He worked alongside about 10 women in a small administrative section. To address this, the women started talking (every single day) about anti-perspirants. Product A “allows you to run through the jungle and not sweat a drop” versus Product B which “would be very attractive to women who picked up your scent” (I swear, I’m not making this up). When the chemical conversations didn’t work (the guy was oblivious to the fact that he had a problem), the women ‘upped the ante’. They moved the conversation onto a full blown discussion of ‘power showers’. One of them had just completed a house renovation and they went absolutely nuts talking about different types of showers (power showers, instant showers, ‘rainfall showers’ and so on). The guy at the centre of all this ‘engineering talk’ thought that the woman had gone nuts – some sort of water fetish. He’d absolutely no idea that their conversation was directed at him. Finally, in what must rank as one of the best examples of inauthentic leadership I’ve ever personally witnessed, the CEO asked me to come up with a ‘structural solution’ which would put this guy in charge of ‘Archive Management’ (AKA ‘filing’). She suggested that he could ‘work on his own’ in what was a remote area (essentially the ‘attic’) of the building. She even suggested that he could “use the fire escape to come and go as he pleases”. All that was needed was one tiny little recommendation from me to justify this and it would all be sorted! Of course, I wouldn’t do it. I told the CEO that a ‘Hunchback of Ballsbridge’ solution was probably not the best way forward! I coached the CEO to tackle the guy directly about his BO problem. She (eventually) tackled the problem head on – and the guy left the organization. While most of your ‘feedback’ issues will not be as extreme, you can’t chicken out on the job that you are paid to do. You have to be up for all parts of the job, even the bits you don’t like. You can’t order 2 starters and skip the main course. Managers have to sample the full menu.

Genghis Khan: At the other extreme we find Mr. Narky, managers (and life partners) who have taken the ‘assertiveness’ message to heart. They don’t actually give ‘feedback’; they give forceful instructions. Sometimes the subtext here is: “I will begin to like you when you become more like me”. The purpose is not to help but to control the ‘receiver’. Sometimes it’s to get the issue ‘off the chest’ of the person delivering the message. Sometimes it’s simply to get ‘even’. This is aggression masquerading as feedback. If you are ever on the ‘receiving end’ of this type of rant, you’ll understand the difference. Genuine feedback, based on our earlier definition, has to have a developmental purpose.

Successful Feedback: The art of giving feedback successfully, occupies a central position between these 2 extremes. There are 5 ‘rules’ to follow to make it work –all of which are very simple to execute.

  1. Acceptable Source: Feedback will only be accepted if it comes from an acceptable source. If you think that the person giving you feedback is a ‘jerk’ it’s very unlikely that you will do anything with the information. If you are someone’s boss (or parent) then there is a legitimate reason to give feedback. But if you are someone’s peer or friend, it’s more delicate. If you don’t know the person well at all, then walk away, no matter how well intentioned you may be. I remember sitting in the terminal at Chicago airport once when a lady sitting beside me, whom I’d never met before or had not spoken to, told me that my glasses needed to be cleaned. Was she right? Yes? Was the feedback welcomed? No!
  1. Developmental Motivation: The person has to sense that the purpose of the feedback is developmental i.e. it’s for their benefit – not yours. You have to ask: what’s your motivation in telling someone something about themselves? Are you sure there’s not a sub-text to make yourself feel superior? Telling someone that they need to ease up on booze or cut back on their food intake might be a way to compliment yourself about your own habits in these areas. If the ‘receiver’ does not experience this as a ‘developmental conversation’ – they may well perceive feedback as an ‘attack’. If this is the case the person will not change and you put the relationship at risk.
  1. Feedback Clarity: The message needs to be clear. You need to employ language that psychologists call pinpointing. You don’t say to someone “I think you are lazy”. You say: “In the last month, you’ve been late for work 4 times” (don’t forget, its quite OK to catch someone doing something right; feedback is not always negative).
  1. Medium Security: This one sounds a bit more complex. It’s the idea that ‘people change from a position of medium security’ (I stole this idea from Dr Rick Gilkey in Emory University). When people are in high-security mode, they become arrogant and don’t see the need to change. When they are in low security mode, they are defensive and need to ‘protect’ themselves against feedback. Think of it as a castle that you are trying to get into. You can attack the castle but that’s going to be hard work and often not particularly successful. Better to get the person to let down the drawbridge and invite you inside. The way to do this is to put the person in a position of medium-security. Tell them what you like about them. Compliment them on specifics where they have performed really well. This will send a message to the person that you ‘value them’. Once they are in this ‘medium-security’ position, it allows you to give developmental feedback. You have created the ‘conditions’ for the person to be open to this. Well done! There’s a tiny little post-scriptum on this one. The compliments have to be sincere, not simply a good news/bad new sandwich as some form of ‘tactic’. If this was a board game we’d call it ‘Real’.
  1. Clever Timing: Feedback needs to be given on ‘Portuguese Time’. It has to be relaxed. When someone is harried or frustrated, that’s not the time to offer your nugget of wisdom to help them function better. You choose a timing that would be helpful to the person receiving the feedback; don’t treat this like ‘another issue’ you want to get off your ‘to-do’ list before the long weekend.

Giving feedback is a very important skill for anyone who wants to make a living as a manager. The really good news is that it has application across all areas in life, work, social and domestic. While you don’t want to rush in, neither should you chicken out. You are looking to hit that sweet spot in the centre of the line. The reward? Sometimes there is no particular reward. The organisation you work for may not even notice how good you are in this area and the ‘fruits of your labour’ may not become apparent for some time. But, eventually, you get to see results. The people who work for you begin to grow and develop – becoming self-sufficient and able. Your kids will learn to fly on their own – and (perhaps) come to see your feedback as instructive (I’m looking forward to that day myself!). And they will know that you’ve been central to this. Giving feedback is a skill practiced in private that doesn’t get a lot of public acknowledgement. But that’s hardly an argument not to do this.

Soliciting Feedback: Most organisations are not good at providing feedback. Even those organisations which have performance management systems and KPI’s to beat the band. The real bravery here is to actively solicit feedback. To find out how you are ‘really’ seen. There are a couple of different ways to do this (and it needs to be carefully managed). But, if you really want to put rocket fuel on your career, this is one hell of a good way to make upwards progress. Would you be brave enough to find out what they really think about you?


PS: Lighter Moment: No sting in the tale!

Guy walks into a Pet Shop and says: “I want to buy a pet wasp”. The shop assistant says: “I’m sorry sir, we don’t sell them”. The guy says: ”Well, you have one in the window!”

Someone said to me recently. “I always wanted to have 4 kids. But, now that I have 3, I’d really like to have 2”. Anyway, my son Cillian is developing quite a black sense of humour (I’ve absolutely no idea where that came from). His latest non-PC offering… “You can say what you like about the deaf…”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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2 Responses to The Art of Giving (and soliciting) Feedback

  1. Once again, a great article Paul.

    One handy tip on finding a moment to give some negative feedback. Ask person you want to give it to to give you some feedback. They will often gladly do so, and then may ask you to return the favour. You have shown them it’s ok to receive feedback, which may help lower their defences.

    And what to do when someone gives you a pat on the back but you’re not quite sure what they are asking you to do again, eg:

    “That was awesome!”

    Ask them what was awesome.

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