Why Feedback Really Fails

Feedback as a Gift

Photo Courtesy: iStock / @HAKINMHAN

Feedback fails because we fail to fully envision what feedback really is and what it is capable of.

What Makes Feedback a Gift

We’ve all heard it before: feedback is a gift. Commonly, a gift that no one really wants to give or receive, thank you very much. One of the greatest gifts we can collectively give ourselves is learning how to offer feedback we feel good about giving and receiving. It’s possible. We just have to think differently about what feedback is and learn how to offer it in ways that people find valuable.

To begin, I would like you to think of a time when you received a physical gift that was very special to you because it touched you, inspired you or delighted you in some way. Consider for a moment: what made that present so special to you?

Some time ago I received a handmade wooden pepper grinder and circular wooden salt box from my mother for Christmas. I enjoy learning about cooking, and I love beautiful pieces of art. When I received these gifts, I was just learning how to season food with loose salt but did not have a container for the salt. These gifts were particularly meaningful to me because they honored something that’s important to me, and they opened a new avenue for exploration in one of my favorite activities—cooking.

Feedback can, and should be, that kind of gift. One that acknowledges what is special about people, encourages them to try new things and inspires them to take action. So, why isn’t it received that way? Personally, I think the problem is the packaging. How we wrap and deliver feedback makes all the difference in terms of whether people welcome or reject the gift we’re trying to give them. Here are some of the big reasons I believe we fail to deliver feedback effectively:

We lump it all together.

We give different kinds of gifts to acknowledge and celebrate different kinds of occasions, so thank you gifts are different from a wedding gift or a birthday gift. The same is true with feedback. Too often, the guidance we get for delivering feedback lumps all feedback into one big bucket as if all feedback is delivered in essentially the same way in all situations.

At Cylient, we define three types of feedback and offer guidance for delivering each kind in different ways. Appreciative feedback gives the gift of helping people understand what they are doing well and how those behaviors make a positive difference. Remedial feedback is delivered when a person is at risk of suffering a negative consequence because their behavior is below a required standard. The gift in this case is time to improve their performance. All other feedback is developmental in that the gift is helping the person to further their own development in ways that are meaningful to them. Each kind of feedback is delivered in a different way. The lion’s share of feedback is developmental, so that’s what we’re going to focus on here.

We look through the wrong lens.

We see what we look for. When it comes to giving developmental feedback, we typically ask ourselves, “What’s wrong?” This myopic focus on finding faults leads us to treat people as if they are problems that need to be fixed. Feedback delivered from this perspective feels critical and corrective, particularly when it is delivered with the overtone of judgment that many people feel justified in using when they perceive that something—or someone—is “wrong.”

The thing is, people don’t want to be treated like they are problems. Rightfully so. They aren’t problems. People are potential waiting to be realized. Whatever people are doing, it makes perfect sense to them, and their efforts are in service of attaining whatever matters most to them. That’s why the far more powerful lens to look through is the question, “What’s possible?” Can you feel the difference in energy that question evokes? So can the people who receive feedback inviting them to consider how to push the edge on who they are and what they are capable of. That’s what truly powerful and productive feedback does.

It serves the wrong person.

If we are really, really honest with ourselves, we’d admit that the vast majority of feedback that is offered up is actually meant to benefit the person offering the feedback. The implicit message is, “My life would be so much easier if you would stop doing what you are doing and start doing what I want you to do.” As such, the focus of the feedback is almost exclusively on stopping the offending behavior. Very little thought is given to why the person is doing what they are doing, or how they may perceive they are benefiting from their actions. When you have an intention to be of service of others, the other person can tell. They can also tell when you’re giving feedback that is only of service to yourself. Which kind of feedback do you think the recipient is more open to receiving?

People do not generally wake up in the morning and decide they’re going to see how many people they can annoy before lunch. Whatever they are doing, it’s their best effort to attain an outcome that’s important to them, even when the behavior is bad or ineffective. That ineffective behavior may simply be a sign that people lack the skills to do whatever they need to do to be more successful. Telling people that their behavior is bad or wrong often causes them to feel like you are telling them they are bad or wrong. No one wants to feel like they are being judged in that way, so people argue and defend again these perceived condemnations (also known as “feedback.”)

That’s why offering feedback in a way that helps people envision how they will attain something that truly matters to them—like being able to communicate their ideas more clearly, or earning the right to become more self-directed—is essential for them to fully commit to change. Feedback that truly inspires change is offered in service of helping the recipient realize more of their potential.

We forget to include the batteries.

It’s so disappointing to get a gift that you can’t use until you find some batteries to make it work. Offering feedback without providing the coaching to turn it into meaningful behavior change is like giving people a gift but not even telling them what kind of batteries it needs to turn it into something useful.

The role of developmental feedback is to inform people that their behavior is limiting them from attaining something that’s important to them. That’s it. Simply informing someone that they are getting in their own way is not sufficient to result in behavior change. Let’s face it: If a person knew what they need to do differently to be more successful, they’d be doing it. Assuming that people can just figure out what to do differently once they’ve been informed of a perceived limitation is a recipe for a lot of frustration on both sides of the conversation. The person receiving the feedback will be frustrated that they don’t know how to respond to the feedback and the person offering the feedback will soon become frustrated that the person didn’t change.

It’s essential to offer developmental feedback within coaching conversations so that coaching approaches can be used to illuminate and address the limiting assumptions, beliefs, fears and skill gaps that are keeping the limiting behavior in place. Effective feedback conversations result in an authentic, uncoerced commitment to learn a new way of doing something. That’s what results when feedback is woven into real coaching conversations to help people turn the insights they gain from the well delivered feedback into actions that support them to attain outcomes that truly matter to them.

Why Feedback is a Gift We Must Learn How to Give

The only way to keep from flying off the treadmill of change is to keep pace. That means continuously learning, adjusting and creating in response to whatever drives change in your world. Feedback is what propels learning forward. I don’t know of anyone who has learned anything of significant without receiving meaningful feedback.

A recent Harvard Business Review article stated that learning only happens when we’re in our comfort zone. Based on a couple of decades of experience as a professional coach, I would argue that the some of the most productive learning happens when we realize we need to take a big step out of our comfort zone. Once someone understands, from developmental feedback, that their behavior is limiting them from attaining something that matters to them, it sparks a realization that we will personally benefit by learning to do something new. Meaning, the person receiving feedback will feel inspired to explore a change in behavior. That kind of deeply motivated effort, coupled with real “in the moment” coaching, is what emboldens people to venture out of their comfort zones to discover what they’re made of. The resulting behavioral changes expand the acreage of their comfort zones, benefit them and everyone whose lives they touch in any way, including the companies they serve.

I’m guessing you’re thinking, but what about all of those people who just don’t want to receive feedback? What do we do with them? What we do is greet them with compassion knowing there’s a good chance they’ve received so much hurtful, self-serving, coercive feedback in the past that they now defend against the process of learning all together for their own personal safety. That’s on all of us, not only them. And it costs all of us, not just the people who are avoiding learning.

The first feedback to offer these wounded feedback warriors is how defending against feedback may very well be keeping them from attaining what truly matters most to them—feeling safer and more secure in their work and in their lives. Offer this gift gently with the intention to be of service to the recipient. Help them to see how learning how to learn again will benefit them in the long run. Then compassionately coach them to take a big step out of their comfort zones and begin learning the skills they need to move through their fears and feel more empowered and capable of dealing with any kind of change they may encounter.

That’s the gift that well-delivered developmental feedback can—and should—deliver: the inspiration we all need to face our fears and move into action to realize our greatest potential, so we can all feel safer and more prepared to thrive in our world of constant change.

This article was originally published on the HR Exchange Network.

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