Tips for ensuring honest, usable and valuable feedback is communicated
Bill Hoberecht -
Understanding the perceptions of others and building upon their expertise can be a valuable technique for improving personal performance. Far too often, however, the value of feedback is not realized. This can occur if the feedback is misleading, is delivered at the wrong time, or it is just plain invalid. Here are some tips for delivering and receiving feedback that is honest, usable and valuable.
Delivering and Receiving Performance Feedback is Thorny
Effectively constructed and delivered feedback can be exceptionally valuable in helping a person or team to develop and improve. But the world of “feedback” is fraught with problems. Individuals who provide feedback sometimes fall into a trap of providing overly negative or overly positive feedback – these situations are not necessarily the best means of encouraging superior performance. Individuals who receive feedback sometimes discount the feedback or swing to the other extreme and accept all feedback without considering whether it is actually valid.
Help avoid these problems by giving consideration to some key aspects of feedback. As you prepare to deliver or receive feedback, some of the tips and observations in this article may help improve your experience – you’ll have a better chance of ensuring that honest, usable and valuable feedback is communicated.
Counterfeit Feedback Isn't Useful
Some "feedback" discussions are actually ineffective discussions that are masquerading as "feedback." Artificial feedback just isn’t the real thing and will rarely, if ever, yield positive results. Consider these two frequently occurring situations:
- Overly negative, focusing on problems. In this case, a “feedback” discussion is typically conducted in response to recent performance failure of an individual. In such situations, the nature of the feedback will tend to be primarily negative and will rarely be corrective. In essence, the exchange of feedback information is really a complaint or blame session, with almost a total focus on opinions about faults and problems. Emotions and stress tend to dominate, with an absence of rational discussion on causes, gaps, needed improvements, and agreements on ongoing coaching to avoid a repeat. As welll, this is a missed opportunity to reinforce effective behaviors that are beneficial to the organization.
- Overly positive, ignoring problem areas. This is the ‘the sun shines everywhere, all the time” scenario. This is commonly the situation when a person requests peer feedback and there is no accountability (for that peer to actually help improve the person’s performance); in these situations, the tendency is to have pleasant conversations that accentuate the positive and completely avoid discussion of performance gaps and problems. I have found these to be discussions laden with superficial praise and compliments, and little, if any, helpful identification of strengths or performance gaps. Often the compliments are very specific or are rather vague and don't provide any context of overall effectiveness. (This type of feedback frequently appears in employee’s notes on their yearly achievements, and is considered, by the employee, to be evidence of superior performance).
This type of feedback is not legitimate as a vehicle for improving performance – it can leave an individual feeling unduly discouraged or naively optimistic about their level of performance. This highlights the dangers of ignoring an implied obligation (of the participants in a feedback discussion) to provide honest feedback.
In the world of feedback, ‘more’ is not always ‘better.’
Occasionally I have seen feedback information that is far too expansive to be usable – the feedback to an individual covers far too many points to be effectively assimilated by an individual. Indeed, it creates a situation where the individual may inadvertently overlook the more significant points of feedback.
Having a deeper discussion on a small number of feedback points is far more effective than a superficial discussion on a larger number of feedback points:
- Most times, it can be helpful to point out several excellent behaviors or skills or behavior. I generally suggest focus on only two or three key ‘strengths.’ This allows us to clearly hear and understand those areas where our abilities are helpful and of value.
- In identifying performance ‘gaps,’ ‘weaknesses,’ or ‘areas for improvement,’ I generally think in terms of identifying only one or two areas for discussion. This feedback is most valuable if it not only identifies the ‘gap,’ but also describes the impact of this gap on individuals, teams and the organization (I have found that omitting this latter aspect of feedback significantly decreases the value and impact of the feedback).
A three-point test for validating feedback as being valuable to you
Perhaps the feedback you receive is always valuable to you; however, there’s always a chance that feedback directed to you could be wholly invalid. I recommend a simple three-question sanity check for considering the validity and value of feedback that you give and receive - these three factors are worth considering when interpreting the feedback that you receive:
- Does the person providing feedback know you? Someone who knows you has a greater appreciation for how you approach a situation, how you work with others, your skills, communication style and much more about you. With this understanding, they are much more qualified to provide helpful feedback.
- Does the person providing feedback understand your job? The specifics of your role and your job, along with the specific situations you encounter are relevant in providing and interpreting feedback. (e.g., suppose you are working in a consensus-driven program; it doesn’t help to provide feedback that you must be more aggressive to get a job done).
- Does the feedback “ring true?” Sometimes it’s good to get feedback (about strengths and gaps) that reinforces something that you already knew about yourself. It is equally helpful to get feedback about something that you hadn’t previously recognized, and now that it has been brought to your attention it makes a lot of sense. However, if you get feedback that just doesn’t make any sense (after discussing it enough to understand what is being said), chances are that this feedback just isn’t relevant. (Yes, I recognize that there is always the chance that this feedback may be in an area where there is a huge gap in understanding the significance of the comments – the feedback discussion should adequately address this possibility). One other symptom of feedback that doesn’t ‘ring true’ is feedback that is entirely one-sided (either negative or positive) and, as a result, is incomplete because of certain omissions.
As a general rule, when someone provides you with feedback, you’ll want to seek to understand the feedback and how it applies to you. There’s no reason for not engaging in conversation to get clarity on any points of confusion. It is legitimate to consider the validity and value of feedback offered to you, but it’s generally not effectively to openly challenge or reject the feedback that someone has taken the time to review with you.
Whether you are delivering and receiving feedback, you’ll find that honest, usable and valuable feedback is best exchanged when you actively participate. When delivering feedback, make the effort to ensure that your feedback is not misleading, that it focuses on the major points and that it is suitably complete without being excessively large. When receiving and understanding feedback, reflect on that feedback and give fair consideration to the legitimacy and value of that feedback.