The goal of feedback is for the coachee to have useful information to help them improve and develop. This information can reinforce positive behaviors or identify blind spots. Feedback is both reinforcing and corrective in nature.
However, all feedback is not received the same way. There’s a world of difference between “positive” feedback—acknowledgment and encouragement—and corrective feedback. Let’s face it nobody likes to hear critical feedback.
The biggest obstacle in giving corrective feedback is breaking through the person’s defenses so that they will be able to somewhat objectively evaluate what is shared with them.
We often use tricks to make feedback more palatable, like the “feedback sandwich” in which you give a critical feedback sandwiched between two affirming comments. Or the 3 + 1 feedback where you give three positive points first to warm them up to the one corrective feedback. I have a friend who told me about his experience on the receiving end of this approach. The conversation went like this:
“Becky, nice job keeping the group discussion on track today,” her colleague Paul started.
“Thanks,” she replied, feeling genuinely affirmed.
“And I noticed how you drew out the quiet people,” Paul continued. In Becky’s mind defensive alarm bells start humming softly. “He just gave me two complements in a row,” she thought, “If there’s a third I’m in trouble.”
Paul went on, “Also, I appreciate how you pushed us to action steps.” Three. She knew it! Something negative is coming next. She could feel her heart beating faster and heat in her face. In her mind, she already began discounting what he might say—even before she heard it. “Funny,” she told me, “I didn’t feel defensive at all after the first complement.”
Her colleague continued, “I wonder if I could give you some feedback…”
“Sure,” she replied. We have to say this, don’t we?
“It’s been nearly a year now, and you still lead every section of the meeting. Others, like Jeremy, are quite capable and would feel empowered if you were to call on them to lead different sections.”
“Jeremy?” Becky thought, “Why are you always promoting Jeremy? And anyway, meetings used to be a waste of time until I took over and started leading them. Now we get things done. I’m not willing to sacrifice that just so your buddy Jeremy can have his moment in the spotlight.”
But what she said was, “Thanks, I’ll consider that.”
Just about everyone feels defensive when faced with critical feedback—some are just better at hiding it!
So, how can we give feedback that people will hear? The answer is simple. Don’t give it.
Raise Awareness by Not Giving Feedback
Sir John Whitmore, a British former race-car driver who later coached executives and professional athletes, took a different view on where feedback should originate. He wrote, “Generating high-quality relevant feedback, as far as possible from within rather than from experts, is essential for continuous improvement, at work, in sport and in all aspects of life.”
“Generating” is not the term we usually use to describe the feedback process. We “give” feedback, which often triggers defensiveness. Whitmore suggests we generate feedback from within the coachee rather than from experts—you or anyone else. How do we generate feedback from within the coachee? Through powerful questions!
You can generate feedback from within the coachee using a simple three-step process.
Ask about what the coachee did well. Explore these behaviors and the results. Reinforce these positive behaviors.
Ask the coachee in what way they think they could improve. Talk about what that improvement might be and what results they would expect to see.
Generate some possible future alternatives. Coach through how the coachee will do it next time.
Let’s consider how things might have been different if Paul had generated feedback in Becky, rather than giving it. Using the three steps process for generating feedback, let’s imagine how Paul might have guided Becky through self-reflection on how she led the meeting and how she could improve in the future.
“Becky, good meeting today.” Paul started.
“Thanks.” Becky replied.
“Would it be helpful to debrief it for a minute?” Paul offered.
“What do you think you did well?”
“I kept the group discussion on track.”
“I noticed that too. Good job. What else?”
“We got to action steps today, which is an improvement.”
“How did you do that?”
“I kept pushing for people to be specific and to commit to what, who, and when.”
“Yes, those gentle encouragements, along with not continuing the discussion without action steps, made a big difference.”
“What could you improve?”
“My goal this last meeting was to make sure action steps got nailed down…”
“You did that well.”
“I was thinking that I’d like to involve others in running the meetings.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, right now I do all the planning and upfront facilitation. I’d like to see others do part of that.”
“How might you do that next time?”
“Maybe Darlene could facilitate the discussion in some creative way. She’s good at that. There are two topics we need to work on next week. I could outline the topics and Darlene could lead a discussion to generate some options.”
“Sounds good. Will you do that next week?”
“Yes, I’ll talk with Darlene later today about it.”
“Okay. Well, once again, nice work on how you led the meeting. I thought it was very productive.”
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