“No fancy title this time… Just FEEDBACK” by Michael Newman

by Didier Marlier on Friday April 27th, 2012

One of the main tools of our trade is feedback. We habitually offer it to our clients and to our colleagues and use it to continuously improve our own performance. In fact, this Enablers Network blog exists because of feedback. After the publication of our Engaging Leadership book in 2009, we were told; “We like it a lot, when is the follow-up due?” We also heard the constructive challenge; “This book summarises what you have been doing, but you claim to continuously evolve your work; how do we keep track of the new concepts and ideas that you are bringing to light?” Finally, without constant positive feedback and messages of support, it would be a lot harder to find the time to keep a weekly blog going for 2 ½ years.

 We also believe we should not keep the best tools for ourselves. We encourage and expect participants on our programmes to give each other feedback. Those of you who have worked with us will recognise that it is often uncomfortable at first, but with practice becomes easier. Almost everyone gets huge benefit from the experience.

 When introducing feedback as a tool, it is not unusual to find ourselves receiving a challenge; “yes we understand the concept of feedback, but in  …….   (insert country here) things are very different.” This normally provokes a lively conversation about how cultures affect the application of feedback, with most people having strong views based on personal experience. Now, as a diversion to establish your own cultural awareness, let’s see how you do on the following short test:

 You have recently travelled to 5 countries (Brazil, England, Finland, South Korea, and The Netherlands) and asked the question: “What is feedback like here?” Match the answer to the country.

A. We are direct. Very Direct. Whilst we don’t actually get in a boxing ring to give feedback, the atmosphere isn’t much different. In fact we enjoy being direct about other people or mundane things so much, we sometimes miss the real issue. Did I mention how direct we are?

 B. We do give feedback. However, we use our natural politeness and the richness of our language to choose complicated phrases or convoluted sentences to give our message. In that way, we can decode very different meanings from the exchange; I can think I’ve done the right thing by giving you some feedback, and you can take whatever you like from what I’ve said and feel like a gentleman for accepting my views. We can both pretend that it’s all gone jolly well.

 C. We get feedback once a year, from our Manager, following the correct procedures.

 D. Positive feedback is part of our sociable culture. We give praise all the time because it makes us feel good and it makes our people feel good. If people are happy, energised and feel loved, there is no need for criticism; we’ll find a way to work it out together. We tried giving tough feedback once a few years back, but it took us ages to get people back together afterwards, so we’ve all agreed to only be positive.

E. Pretty okay.

The answers are at the bottom.

These are of course lazy stereotypes and in no way accurately represent any national culture. However it is very interesting how frequently generalised statements about feedback are applied to business units, whole companies, regions or even nations. When we ask participants to pay attention to these perceptions and ask deeper questions, it frequently becomes clear that stereotypes are being used, often unconsciously, to avoid giving feedback. If the story round here is that “we don’t offer feedback because…….” then it becomes socially comfortable to stay passive or neutral.

An instinctive reaction is to train people to give feedback; to learn the skills and gain the confidence to deliver high quality and timely observations. There are any number of training courses that teach people how to give feedback. Most are interesting and fun, but few make a real difference to the feedback culture in the workplace. Why?

Whilst it takes time to train people to give high quality feedback, it takes only a few seconds to condition someone to hold back or suppress their views on your behaviour.  In fact it takes little or no effort to ensure your colleagues never tell you how you are doing. How you react to feedback the first time somebody offers it to you will set the conditions for future exchanges. If you deliberately or inadvertently make it hard for people to give you feedback, not only do you tell the person they are not significant, the story will travel very rapidly to others. Poor feedback cultures can often be traced to the defensive or dismissive responses of a few senior role models, which in turn are likely to have been learned from their own bosses when they were juniors. As with many collective habits, these patterns of behaviour can be self-perpetuating.

Obviously, readers of this blog are enlightened managers and empathic leaders who warmly embrace feedback, but you may have noticed some of your colleagues displaying one or more of the responses below. Any of these will cause people to think twice about trying to give you feedback again

  • Defending intentions: “Yes, but what I was trying to do was….”
  • Justifying actions:  “I needed to do it that way; it was a crisis.”
  • “Post-rationalising”: “Well if you look at everything that was going on at the time, that was the only option.”
  • “Dismissing: “Yeah, I always do that, people keep telling me.  That’s a habit I know I should change.”
  • Trivialising: “So you didn’t like one thing I said; it’s not exactly the end of the world, is it.”
  • Dramatising: “You always criticise everything I say.”
  • Blaming / Diverting: “It was his fault; hasn’t his behaviour become so unreasonable recently?”
  • Self pitying: “Everything is just so difficult at the moment. You just wouldn’t believe how hard things are for me, what with all the ……..”
  • Fighting Back: “You finished?…. Right!  Now I’ve got something to say to you…”

If you are reading this and thinking, “OK, I’m guilty occasionally of one or two of these, but can I really turn people off that easily?”, then have a look at this clip about inducing Learned Helplessness in a class of students.

In this simple experiment the teacher, Charisse Nixon, Ph.D Developmental Psychologist at Penn State Erie, creates a situation where half of her class fails in two (impossible) tasks and then significantly underperforms when compared to their peers in a third common task. The students report feeling “stupid”, “confused”, “frustrated”, and one says “my confidence was shot”. The last student sums Learned Helplessness up neatly; “…fail once, and then (we) apply that to everything in the future”.

It is easy to see how Learned Helplessness about feedback can be created. If I value our working relationship enough to want to give you feedback in the first place, then you must be a significant person to me. Rejection from you, as significant person, is far more powerful than failure in simple tasks, so the effects will be magnified. I would need to have huge confidence and purpose to make a second or third approach if my initial ones are rejected.

So what are the principles of receiving feedback; how do you condition people to keep on giving?

  • Actively listen. Listen to the words, notice the behaviour that goes with the words and read the emotion behind the message (our old friends Logos, Ethos and Pathos).
  • Summarize and clarify (if needed). If you don’t understand what the person means, make your own summary to test you have the same clarity.
  • Do not reject or defend. See the list of ‘don’ts’ above.
  • Act on it. Nothing says “give me more feedback” like acting on the first observations. However, do not blindly do everything asked of you; if something doesn’t seem appropriate then have a discussion about what works for you both.
  • Treat it as a Gift. Feedback is a real gift; it will help you improve your performance and your working relationships. Find a way to show appreciation, and you’ll keep getting gifts

Answers to the Cultural Awareness test

A The Netherlands

B England

C South Korea (has anybody got experience of the feedback culture in North Korea?)

D Brazil

E Finland

Michael Newman

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