Preparing for Giving and Receiving Feedback: A Guide to Doing it Right by Marty Kaplan

[This blog post was originally published on martykaplanphd.com on May 4, 2016.

My Credentials

I ought to know better by now…for what it’s worth I’ve got a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from a well-recognized institution, I’ve been teaching this stuff for decades, and I’m thought of as a straight shooter, yet I’ve screwed up giving people feedback every which way. And I’ve instinctively recoiled when given negative feedback. And worse yet, I’ve sloughed off appreciative feedback and missed chances to feel really good about myself. I figure all this is what qualifies me as an expert and gives me the credibility to tell you how to do it right…or at least how not to screw it up. So here goes, in three parts. But first, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something about why feedback is so important.

Why Feedback Matters

Simple. Without it, we have only a vague idea of how well we’re doing and what we might do differently – or more of – to achieve the results that matter to us and to our team. I’m a serious bicyclist. On long rides with my buddies we form into pace-lines to go faster and conserve energy, a delicate operation to be within inches of each other’s wheels at speeds up to 40 mph. We depend on constant feedback from each other to avert tragedy, maximize efficiency and get into a “flow state” such that we create an eco-system where we act as one. Which is really cool. And probably why I like teams so much. As a team member in a fast growing gaming company put it, “We sink or swim based on how frank we are with each other.” Enough said.

Part 1: Best Ways to Screw it Up

Say Nothing

My personal favorite. I figure they MUST already know. I mean, it’s obvious to me, it’s obvious to others, how could they not know, and if they do know and they’re not doing anything about it, then it certainly won’t do any good if I were to bring it up. So, better to say nothing, right? Well, turns out people often don’t know. Take my neighbor’s yappy dog, for months barking well into the night bothering lots of people, hoping against hope that it would stop, or that somebody else would say something, or whatever else I would tell myself for months to make it OK to say nothing. Until one neighbor explodes after months of frustration, others join in the avalanche of emotion, and pain and confusion ensues in our once sleepy hollow. Meanwhile, she had no idea how much of an issue this was. “How come,” she wonders, “no one said anything sooner? It’s not like I’ve been waking up trying to figure out what I can do to make you guys miserable.”

Go Vague

I think of this one as the smart person’s disease, and here’s why. Our minds work very, very quickly, rapidly moving from data to conclusions to judgments, of which we become highly enamored. We do this so automatically that we tend to confuse our inferences about others with facts. And once we do this we forget the data that lead us to the conclusions we’ve reached. Smart person’s shorthand, as it were. So let’s say the data is “Todd’s” tendency to interrupt us mid-thought, which we find insufferable. We lose our train of thought and feel unsupported and ignored. We conclude that Todd is self- absorbed, and judge him to not be a team player. As we prepare to give him feedback, we struggle with what to say, and finally come up with something like this – “Todd, you’d be an even more awesome team member if you were more collaborative.” Hard to argue with, but it’s so abstract and detached from the data that gave rise to it, that Todd has little idea what he can do to make a difference.

Make Up a Story

We can’t help it, it’s what we do, it’s how our species has survived against seemingly insurmountable odds. We’re neurologically programmed to quickly make sense out of our environment and to take action to defend and protect ourselves from perceived threat. But what worked in the Serengeti a hundred thousand years ago more often gets us into trouble today. Sure, better safe than sorry, but turning others into the enemy, and defending ourselves against certain attack, is a good way to bring about the very hostilities we’re trying to avert. So let’s go back to my neighbor to illustrate. The story people made up about her – again, absent conversation – was that she was inconsiderate and cruel to her dog. And in Todd’s case, that he’s arrogant, out for himself, and not a team player. Once we make the story up, we treat it as fact, tend to see subsequent behavior in that light, and sure enough Todd becomes more isolated and my once good neighbor more hostile and resentful in the face of attack.

Get ‘Em Back

This is tricky, and not very flattering. Most of us wait until we’ve reached the boiling point before we let someone know how their actions have affected us. And by then, our intent in giving feedback is not to build a stronger relationship but to cause the other harm. We’re hurt, we’ve been slighted in some way, and saying nothing is no longer an option. Keith, my business partner, is a good guy. We’ve been at it now for over 15 years, but recently he’s been out of touch. I sustained a pretty bad injury a while back that laid me up for several months, didn’t hear anything from him, and then I get a terse note from him about our insurance rates. And then, to make matters worse, he sends me a follow-up note requesting even more information. Yep, you can bet I’m ready to give him some feedback about how inconsiderate and self-absorbed he is. Under these circumstances, Keith will very likely not respond well to my “feedback.” I’d best cool off before I talk to him.

Hide Your Feelings

Good luck with this one. Because you can’t. There used to be a widely shared belief that “business was no place for feelings.” Turns out, of course, that all reasoning is suffused with emotion, and that our feelings about things arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts. We’re driven by our emotions, so it behooves us to know what’s going on inside, not easy if you’ve been taught to conceal, ignore, distort, mistrust or suppress your emotions. This is further complicated by recent findings in neuroscience that demonstrate our biological connectedness to each other. In each other’s presence we “sense” what others are feeling and unconsciously react to it. So, one way or the other, your feelings will be known by the other. Better to know what’s going on inside and find a way to describe it non-blamefully than to act “logically” and try to win the other over by reasoning. Back to Keith, what he needs to know is that I’ve been somewhat angry and disappointed by his absence – a lecture from me about “appropriate business partner behavior” will not strengthen the relationship.

Be “Kind”

We human beings share an irrational, mostly unspoken fear that if we were truthful with each other about what we thought and felt, the “fabric of society would instantly evaporate, and every marriage, friendship and business partnership would dissolve. Civilization, held together by a fragile web of tactful phrasing, polite omissions and white lies, would collapse in an apocalypse of bitter recriminations and weeping, breakups and fistfights, divorces and bankruptcies, scandal and resignations, blood feuds, litigation, wholesale slaughter in the streets and lingering ill will” (New York Times, 6/16/13). Wow. No wonder then that we worry about how we’ll say what we need to say to others, diluting our message so as to minimize imagined damage. Wanting to be kind, Rick, the CEO of a rapidly growing medical practice tells me I seemed to have been “off my game” at the Board meeting, but fails to mention the specific ways I missed the mark, thus depriving me of the information I need to better my game. So who is served by this act of “kindness?”

Tell Someone Else

Seems harmless enough, and comes so naturally to us…to talk with Lawrence about how things are going between me and Deborah, my once awesome colleague. Lawrence “gets” me and agrees with all the things I tell him about how she’s let me down. And having “discharged” these feelings, I’m no longer feeling the need to talk directly to Deborah. In fact, I’m feeling pretty good now; it’s obvious that I’m right, she’s not, and I’m well on the way to lining up a jury to support my growing case against her. The problem with this strategy is that Deborah and I never have the conversation, she never gets the information, and my beliefs about her and our relationship become self-reinforcing, thus compromising our ability to collaborate effectively. That, plus now the team vibe sucks, and people are wondering if juries are being sequestered against them. Not good for building trust and teamwork.

Wait for the Right Time

I know you must already know this, but the longer you wait the harder it gets. Telling yourself that “now’s not the right time” might be so in some instances (and there’s a very good argument to be made for timing and context which I’ll discuss later), but it’s more often a stalling tactic designed to avert discomfort than it is a strategy to build a good working relationship. Back to my expressive neighborhood pooch and its unknowing owner-person, I kept thinking that I’d tell her when the time was right. I’m still reeling from the embarrassment and shame I feel for not having come forth earlier, and my sense of having let her fail (by not giving her timely feedback) on my watch (because I’m her neighbor, I happen to like her, and I’m committed to building strong positive relationships at home as well as at work).

Don’t Take Responsibility

This one is a little complicated, but when someone disappoints us by failing in some way to meet our expectations, we tend to put it all on them. They’re at fault, and they need to know that. Our disappointment clouds our objectivity and makes it hard for us to see the interconnectedness of things, and how our actions may have (inadvertently) contributed to the situation. Let’s go back to Keith, my business partner, who I blame for being inconsiderate and selfish. He could well argue that I hadn’t been clear with him about how much of a physical mess I was in and what I needed from him during that time…and he’d be right. Apparently his mind-reading skills are lacking. But the tendency to blame and finger-point is powerful when we feel we’ve been wronged, as is our tendency to deceive ourselves into believing that we’re faultless, the hapless victims of someone else’s thoughtlessness. Fact is, when we point our fingers at someone, the conversation has ended and the battle has begun. Not an effective way to strengthen the relationship.

No Thank You(s)

As a species we’re wired for negativity, constantly scanning the environment seeking out potential threats and taking action as necessary to ensure our survival. It may sound dramatic, but it’s a biological fact. But while our survival undoubtedly hinges on how well we anticipate and respond to danger, our ability to thrive and more fully achieve our potential is fueled by appreciation. Hard to believe I found a way to bring Mother Theresa into this, but it was she who said that “there is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than there is for bread.”

Without affirmation and positive feedback, we lose self-confidence (“Did I make the right call?”) or become cynical (“Nobody really cares whether I work hard or not”) or miss opportunities (“I had no idea how much people valued that”). More importantly, without some measure of day-to-day appreciation it’s difficult to build relationships and trust, which are essential to a well-functioning workplace. So when someone does something you value, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, let them know it matters to you, and in so doing, that they matter to you.

So much for what not to do. Let’s flip this conversation around and talk about how to do it right.

Part 2: How to Do it Right

Pay Attention to Pinches

I’ve enjoyed working with a model developed by a former engineer turned academic turned consultant called the Pinch Model (Jack Sherwood). He argues that we get into trouble with each other when we experience a “pinch” in the relationship (which he defines as an unmet expectation) but instead of bringing it up and dealing with it, we allow it to grow until it eventually forms into a “crunch.” Earlier I described how this happened in my very own neighborhood. A client of mine renamed this the Pinch-Punch model – when things have been allowed to fester, the “conversation,” if it does occur, becomes more of a battle for survival. Don’t do that! Give someone feedback as close to the pinch point as possible.

Create Safety

OK, I’ll say it. Getting constructive feedback sucks, and most of us even have a hard time with positive feedback, which makes us squirm. Giving feedback properly helps it suck less, but it’s still tough for both giver and receiver. It’s because we’re wired for negativity and programmed to search for bad news, so when it does come our way it feels really, really big. And it makes us anxious. So, to bring the anxiety down to a more manageable level, when you do have feedback for someone, first ask them for permission to share and then jointly agree on a time to discuss. This goes for both the good and bad stuff. It seems like a small detail, but it gives the other person a measure of control and helps create psychological safety for them. Which makes it easier – and safer – for you too.

Stick with Behavior

We often go abstract or vague when giving people feedback, leaving them wondering what they might do differently in the future to create a better result. So it’s incumbent on us to dig for behavior, describing what it is they’ve said or done that’s distressed and/or pleased us. What you don’t want to say is that “it’s just a feeling I have.” It’s very likely not a feeling, but an impression you’ve formed of the other that you’re unable to back up with data. Go for the data!

Describe Impact

When you give me feedback I want to know two things that will make a huge difference in how well I receive what you’re saying. First, I need to know why this matters to you. What is it that concerns and or delights you? What difference does it make to you that I behave this way? Second, I want to know how my behavior impacts you. How are you affected by what I’ve said or done? How do my actions make you feel? Do you feel closer or further away from me? Do you feel more or less connected? Do you trust me more or less? Tell me this and I’ll really pay attention. Tell me what I’m doing wrong and, well…you’ve lost me.

The other thing that happens when you describe impact is that you tell me something about yourself – you’re self-disclosing, which builds trust. For example, if fiddling with my handheld device during a meeting is just something you notice and think isn’t very cool or appropriate, but doesn’t really bother you, why should I bother changing that behavior? Thanks very much, but so what? But if you tell me that it distracts you, or makes it difficult for you to pay attention to what others are saying, or that you think I’m no longer invested in the project we’re working on, then I’ve learned something important about you and I’ve got a much better reason to take seriously your feedback.

Own Your Feelings

Earlier I said all reasoning is suffused with emotion. Really? Really. Emotion is ubiquitous and is what fuels all action and gives meaning and purpose to our lives, but we’ve been taught – by parents, teachers, friends – to be cautious about what emotions we display and how we display them. In fact, we’ve been taught so well that a lot of us are unaware of what we’re feeling until the emotion becomes unavoidable, and by then all subtlety is lost. Fact is, we often feel any number of things in a particular situation. For example, when David, my boss, cancels our standing meeting for the third time in a row, I’m not only ticked off (angry), but I might feel belittled (hurt), troubled (confused), abandoned (lonely), threatened (fearful) and perhaps even disgraced (guilt-shame). Anger, especially for men, is often just the tip of an emotional iceberg.

Knowing what else is going on “within” empowers us by putting us into our very own driver’s seat (and not a passenger of a feeling that’s out of our control and awareness). It also is very useful and powerful “data” for others when we give them feedback. This is so important I’ve attached a “vocabulary of feelings” to this article. Consult this list as you prepare feedback for your colleagues. My hope is that you’ll be surprised by the range of feelings your experience in your interactions with others.

Check Your Intent

Feedback works best when your intent in giving it is to build a stronger relationship, not to cause the other harm. This is way easier said than done. We’re often not aware of the depth and range of our emotions, so it behooves us to search within so we’re clear about where we’re coming from when we’re “pinched” or delighted by someone else’s actions. Let’s go back to my hypothetical boss David. There’s no question I’m ticked off, among other things, by his cancellations. My instinct is to hammer him, which will likely not be a good career move. But the feelings I’m having are inescapable and are coloring my relationship not only with him but with the company. This is big.

Done right, here’s how I might approach it, after I cool off and regain my composure – “David, you’ve cancelled our meeting three times in a row (behavior). We’ve had a solid relationship and I want to make sure it stays that way, but I think it’s important for you to know how this has affected me (intent). After the third cancellation, I noticed I was angry, confused, and actually a little hurt (impact). And the projects I need approval from you on are now on hold (impact).”

There’s more to say, of course, which we’ll get to, but let’s pause here. Right off I let him know what my intent is. Granted, it took me a while to move from wanting to clobber him to wanting to connect and repair the relationship, but I got there. Good for me. Further, notice how I “own” my feelings as I share them with David. I’m not telling him he should be more professional, or disciplined, or a better boss, or that he’s a miserable failure as a boss. I’m simply telling him the impact his actions have had on me, and this becomes a good enough starting point for a frank conversation between us.

Separate Impact from Intent

Where I can easily get in trouble now with David is to make some assumptions about what’s going on in his head, and to present those to him as fact. Here are some lovely ways I might do that; “David, you don’t respect me, “or “You think more of others than you do me,” or “You don’t value me.” It’s amazing actually, how automatically most of us go from the impact that someone’s behavior has had on us to an assumption we make that that was actually their intent. You know you’re in this territory when your sentences begin with “you,” for example “you don’t love me,” “you don’t trust me,” “you don’t care,” etc. At the Stanford Graduate School of Business where I facilitate advanced courses in interpersonal dynamics, we use a tennis analogy and talk about “staying on your side of the net.” You cross the net and move into dangerous territory when you tell people what they’re thinking and feeling, unless you present it as a “story you’re making up” which you want to check out with them.

Get Curious About Them

A while back I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and was struck by Atticus’ advice to his daughter:

“If you can learn a simple trick Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.“

“Sir?’

“Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Still with my hypothetical boss David, how do I get to see the world through his eyes? Simply enough, by engaging my curiosity and asking him. The real trick though is getting curious, and moving away from my strongly held belief that he doesn’t respect or value me because he’s cancelled our one on one three times. It could go something like this, “So David, help me understand what was going on for you when you cancelled on me for the third time? Here’s the story I’ve made up about that and I want to check it out.” It’s that simple, but will only work if you’re genuinely curious, and you communicate that curiosity through your tone of voice, choice of words and gestures.

Get Curious About Your Contribution

Here we assume we’ve got something to do with their behavior toward us and we ask point blank what that might be. We’re accomplishing several things with this. First, we’re letting them know that we’re not blaming them for our reactions, which makes for a much more relaxed conversation. Second, we’re recognizing our interrelatedness and the possibility that I could be doing things that are affecting the relationship but that I’m unaware of. Once this information surfaces we’ve got a lot more to work with to improve and strengthen the relationship. Back to David, we might ask him “So I’m wondering if there’s anything I’ve said or done that may have influenced your decision to cancel our meetings.” Once this information surfaces you can talk about what you both might need to do differently going forward.

Pause

By the time we’ve worked up the courage to tell someone how their behavior has affected us, we’re pretty worked up. We’re excited, we’re nervous, we’re anxious…and we tend to talk too much and leave too little room for the other to react. In matters like these, less can be plenty. So, say what you need to say, take a breath (or two or three), allow space for the other person to react, listen to what they have to say, and rinse and repeat.

Part 3: Best Practices for Receiving Feedback

To this point our emphasis has been on giving feedback effectively. Feedback, poorly delivered, is not likely to be well received. But even feedback well delivered could be poorly received. So what do we know about best practices for receiving feedback?

Mental Models

Several times in this paper I’ve said that getting feedback sucks. That’s because we tend to experience it as a personal indictment, evidence, however nicely packaged, that we’re not good enough. Or that errors are crimes to be punished. Truth is, feedback, especially when given with the intent to strengthen the relationship, is actually a gift to be cherished. What would it be like for us if every time we got feedback, we thought of it that way and not evidence that we’ve failed and even worse, that we’re failures? Yup…we’d probably give people a lot more feedback if we thought of it that way. And we’d more readily seek it out.

Defensiveness

No matter how evolved and self-assured you are, you’re still likely to feel somewhat self-protective when given feedback. It’s actually healthy and a sign of life, albeit unpleasant. Here are some of the signs of defensiveness:

  • Physical stress responses e.g. increased heart rate, sweaty palms, fidgeting, headache, difficulty catching your breath, etc.
  • Cognitive functioning, e.g. difficulty hearing what people are saying or remembering what’s been said, forgetting words and events, etc.
  • Emotional responses e.g. fear, worry, anxiety, anger, resentment, etc.

When you notice these signs, the best thing to do is to take a breath, then another, then another, to self-sooth and recover. If emotionally overwhelmed, it’s a good idea to ask for a break, maybe just a minute or two, to collect yourself so you can return to the conversation more fully present. Remember, no matter how challenging the feedback, it’s a gift intended to help you become a more perfect version of yourself. Repeat this – like a mantra – until you actually believe it!

Curiosity

THE antidote to defensiveness and a sure-fire way to maximize personal insight and learning. Locate your curiosity. Get inquisitive. Ask questions. And in so doing you’ll learn so much more about yourself and your relationships to and with others. And you’ll be modeling for others what it means to be living and working in an organization where performance and learning are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, a cool place to work.

Leave a Reply