How to flourish through feedback

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Avoiding “deaths by feedback”

We have all either suffered or witnessed some version of the two kinds of death described below:

Sudden death

It’s your annual performance review: Your boss hates giving feedback, and never does so during the year. S/he comes to the meeting looking grumpy, complains about all the things you have done wrong in the last 12 months, gives you a poor score (which cuts your bonus to nothing) and threatens to institute an incapacity hearing.

Death by a thousand cuts

Your manager regularly gives you the death stare when you are saying things in meetings that s/he disagrees with; s/he stares gloomily at papers on the table when you are giving a presentation and pointedly ignores suggestions you make about how improvements could be made to work processes. In the end you dread going to work and avoid taking on tasks that will put you in the spotlight.

A previous blog (“Dollops of Feedback”) suggested that feedback could be the most effective tool that companies have for improving productivity and the careers and capacities of their staff. It is an essential element in effective leadership, yet it is something that is often disliked, avoided, and given infrequently and poorly, leading to the kind of scenarios described above. Like all skills, the art of feedback is something that must be learnt and practiced and continuously improved.

This blog suggests a framework for getting it right.

Get the context right

Feedback must be grounded on a clear set of values, the company’s strategy and the current plan for implementing the strategy. Each individual must understand how they fit into that role. If these things are not in place, then feedback can only be a haphazard exercise, disconnected from the company’s interests.

It should also be apparent that everyone in the company is expected to give and receive feedback fairly and consistently and that it is seen as a benefit and a path to self-improvement. If praise goes to a favoured few, and criticism is lavishly dealt out to others in public, then the corporate culture will never reflect the benefits of feedback for individuals or the company as a whole.

Give feedback often and be specific

Most people like to know where they stand. Tell them. Use both regular formal feedback and moments for spontaneous feedback. Where something has been well done, say so. No need to flatter or exaggerate. “That was a great presentation. I really liked how you dealt with difficult questions without being defensive” is personally affirming and reinforces a positive behaviour. Constructive criticism should be focused on a behaviour or specific quality. “I thought you had too many slides and they weren’t easy to read. This meant you had to rush, and people did not have time to really focus on what you were saying”, is obviously better than saying “that presentation was all over the place – a real dog’s breakfast.” Such critical feedback should also be given as soon as possible after the event. This will mean the issue is fresh in everyone’s mind. It also means that nothing festers uncomfortably. You can deal with an issue and move on.

Try to give spontaneous positive feedback more often than criticism, however constructively phrased.

Respect is the highest value

We talk about “showing respect” because how we behave (show up) is as important as what we say. We show respect by giving our full attention (no cellphones), by facing the person we are speaking to, leaning in and looking them in the eye. It is important that we speak in an even tone, especially when delivering a critical message, and that we listen attentively to what the other person is saying.

Feedback is always to a person about a behaviour, a quality or a skill. It is not about the character or the motive of the person receiving the feedback. It is fine to say to someone: “This report does not make its case well; there is not enough supporting evidence and the conclusion is poorly argued.” It is not OK to say: “You are so sloppy in everything you do. It’s clear to me that you just don’t care.”

The purpose of feedback is almost always about developing a strength or changing a behaviour, in the interests of the company. If we alienate the recipient of the feedback by the way we behave or talk, it is highly unlikely that they will make a genuine commitment to change.

Preparation and focus

If we attach a high value to feedback, then we need to do it well. This means careful preparation, being clear about what we want to achieve and how we will do that, and gathering the appropriate information and documents to help us make our point; not because we want to be catching anyone out, but because we should not be dealing in generalities. It is important to avoid being drawn into arguments or a general gripe session. Stay focused on the issues you wish to raise, and only those issues.

Clarity of outcome

Feedback is just talk, until it is followed by action. Your goal is to entrench a positive behaviour, or to change behaviour or to improve skills. This will only happen if the next steps are agreed (“OK, you will make sure that each member of your team has SMART objectives in place by month end, and you will support them in achieving those objectives, and give me a quarterly update”;  or “So we agree that you will find a course that will improve your financial modelling skills in the next six months”).

In this way, feedback becomes part of a process of continual learning, and everyone benefits. It is a far cry from the “sudden death” or “death by a thousand cuts” described at the top of this article. If you want your company to benefit from feedback of this sort, then you will have to ensure that giving effective feedback is a skill that all managers acquire and practice. There is no doubt that it is possible, and the benefits are enormous.

How do you give feedback in your company? Thornhill has a number of tools to assist you to improve feedback processes. We can also help you to develop your in-house capacity to manage feedback at all levels.

For more information on Thornhill’s various products and services for all levels within your organisation, please contact us on

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