FEEDBACK – the not so good, the not so bad, the potential ugly


The term FEEDBACK is perhaps one of the most commonly misunderstood word. Perhaps the most incorrect interpretation is thinking FEEDBACK = CRITICISM. The line separating the two is a very thin one if one looks at a classical dictionary definition of the two words.  

Criticism is: to express disapproval (of someone or something); to talk about the problems or faults (of someone or something)


Feedback is: helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, service etc.

Both of these have a common thread running through them. Both come from a process of evaluation and in itself there isn’t anything radically wrong (with evaluating). The problem arises when the evaluation comes from either a very narrow view-point OR worse comes from a personal belief of superiority. The belief of ‘superiority’ doesn’t mean that the person making the evaluation is a certified ‘superior’; it refers to the evaluators self-perception that he/she is ‘superior’.


A junior employee when asked for feedback of a manager might end up criticizing instead of providing feedback. ‘My manager isn’t good at communicating.’ This is an example of criticism while the giver might vociferously defend that this is ‘giving feedback’. Here the giver is making the following assumptions:

1.    That the manager is poor at this task because there is a benchmark that he/she isn’t achieving.

2.    That the manager is poor because people receiving the communication are correctly interpreting it AND are yet unable to perform their jobs

3.    That the entire team receives the same communication consistently, they interpret it consistently AND arrive at the same conclusion that they cannot do their job

4.    That the giver has complete clarity on how communication should be AND the manager is not doing what the giver assumes should be done.

Of the four assumptions listed above, number 4 is perhaps the most extreme interpretation or assumption about the giver. Very few givers will acknowledge this but more often than not, this is the underlying theme of any type of criticism.


What then is FEEDBACK and why is it so important in being an effective leader?

FEEDBACK is best understood as a tool that should do something for both the giver and the receiver (of feedback). In an ideal world both should learn, both should understand, and both must act on every feedback. To understand how this works in real life, it is important to understand what FEEDBACK’s primary objective is.


The most commonly heard objective for FEEDBACK’s very existence is to create good and great leaders. I tend to view this differently. I think that if anyone on this planet wants to build their own career, whether as a leader or not, they need to understand the importance of both GIVING and RECEIVING FEEDBACK. With this definition in mind the objective can be

to evaluate the process of providing input in a manner that helps the giver and receiver to benefit. This is best achieved by ensuring that an issue, process or concern is optimally handled by way of an open conversation called FEEDBACK.


FEEDBACK is thus first a process of evaluation. It is then a conversation and last but not least, it is a

resolution that optimizes a business issue or process.


GIVING FEEDBACK

Most often than not, FEEDBACK is focused on the recipient. I think it’s best to focus on the point at which FEEDBACK is born. It is born as an idea or thought in the mind of the giver. It is triggered by an issue or a concern or even a thought process that is not measuring up to some benchmark in the mind of the giver. It is here where the correct path must be set.

When evaluating a business process or issue every individual needs to move away from conventional benchmarks that are created in the giver’s mind. Whether we believe it or not, we create our own benchmarks based on our own experiences, beliefs and expectations. Here is an oft heard phrases that can have different interpretations based on where the giver is in his/her career path. This is followed by the most common reasons why people are making the statement.

FEEDBACK Statement: ‘I don’t understand my manager.’

Entry-level careerist: He speaks to fast. OR He speaks to slow OR He speaks at a level I don’t understand.

Mid-level careerist: His oral or written skills are open to multiple interpretations.

Mature careerist: I don’t understand what he/she is trying to achieve.

Like training on technical skills and soft skills, attention needs to be paid to develop skills to give FEEDBACK.


Here is a checklist of Do’s and Don’ts on GIVING FEEDBACK

1.    Make it clear that you want to give FEEDBACK – within a conversation it is important to define the bits that constitute FEEDBACK according to the giver

2.    Identify clearly the specific issue, incident, process, comment (etc) on which FEEDBACK is being given. It helps the receiver focus – worth checking with the receiver if this is clear

3.    Don’t make it personal about the recipient – more often than not a giver phrases FEEDBACK on the person e.g. ‘I don’t like the way you dress’ could be better presented as ‘I don’t think your attire is appropriate for the occasion/office/meeting’

4.    Speak, don’t yell – many believe that expressing angst in heightened tones is a more effective way of getting a point across. Actually, it isn’t.

5.    Provide an answer – there is little point in giving FEEDBACK without providing a resolution to the problem. Givers tend to think recipients automatically know how things should be done or what corrective action needs to be taken. If the giver has a specific resolution he/she would like then it is best to provide it. Receiver is not under any obligation to use it, but it helps bring transparency to the process

6.    When FEEDBACK is given consider the job done. It is up to the receiver to act upon it in a manner that could be exactly how the giver proposed. The giver must also keep his/her mind open to the fact that the process the receiver follows could be different.


RECEIVING FEEDBACK

The person receiving feedback is supposed to Receive Feedback. In reality the receiver feels he is in the ‘dock’ or on trial for his actions. Every sentence seems to be a verdict on how the receiver is performing. This is coupled with the belief that this is the end of the road for the receiver. It is thus important to receive FEEDBACK with the mindset of a student not a criminal. Interpretation of the FEEDBACK must follow rules similar to that of giving FEEDBACK. These are:

1.    Identify that FEEDBACK is being given; this shouldn’t be mistaken as any other type of conversation.

2.    When listening ensure that the issue/action on which FEEDBACK is given is clearly identified.

3.     Repeat to yourself that this is FEEDBACK and not a personal attack. Smiling through the process helps!

4.    When listening a tendency to provide an answer/a counter statement or even the urge to dismiss the statement will arise. At such times it is best to be patient and NOT REACT either verbally or with facial expressions.

5.    Body language should be watched carefully to ensure one isn’t sending a message of being tensed or otherwise in discomfort.

6.    When FEEDBACK is over curb the urge to respond immediately. It is best to let your mind absorb what was said, process it from the point of view of the giver.

7.    Never use FEEDBACK as a reason to ‘get back’ at the giver. It defeats the very purpose of FEEDBACK

8.    When the receiver doesn’t receive any direct resolution or proposed alternative, it is best to check with the giver if there is one. If one is provided, take it under advisement and don’t be under any obligation to agree or disagree with it.


The end goal of FEEDBACK is building a successful career. While leaders are perhaps the biggest beneficiaries, every individual learns from the same process. Appraisal time is thus less strenuous because FEEDBACK has been given over a period of time and not restricted to just one moment in a year. Teams become stronger, individuals within teams feel more confident and in general the morale of an organization rises. In the end it remains a win-win for all. 

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© 2020 Vivek Mehra