The essence of feedback: a mirror that reveals things about both the recipient and the giver.
For most of us, the word “feedback” conjures up memories of performance reviews. In truth, this is just a small part of the feedback we give and receive daily. Feedback is what we say to each other, and a lot more: our facial expressions, how we position ourselves around a table, different kinds of laughter, the hours at which emails travel, or the stories repeated in an organization. Consciously and unconsciously, feedback is all around us.
In the different stages of my career- as a project lead at a large corporation, an academic in the field of organizational change, and a consultant with Brimstone- I’ve had the opportunity to look at feedback through several different lenses. And after reading much on the topic and reflecting on my own experiences, I have arrived at what I consider the essence of feedback: a mirror that reveals things about both the recipient and the giver.
The Art of Receiving Feedback
The most useful feedback illuminates aspects of our behavior that hide in our blind spots. But feedback also communicates what the giver needs from us to be more comfortable, which can be valuable information about what’s required to work together better. There are a few simple things we can keep in mind to make receiving feedback-even when the message isn’t quite on target-a valuable experience.
- Feedback is personal (to the giver). The way we look at the world is the result of conditioning that begins in our early years. We move on intellectually, but unless we’ve explored all the unconscious filters we’ve formed, they will still hold sway over us. So, when you hear/receive feedback, know that the giver is holding up an imperfect mirror that reflects information about your performance, along with their unconscious biases. Feedback is as personal to the giver as it is to the receiver.
- Remember to breathe. Have you ever had a strong negative reaction to something you hear? As you feel your shoulders tighten, take a breath. Researchers agree that physiologically, you have three to five seconds from the moment you feel something in your body to the moment you go into a reactive posture. If you can catch yourself in this moment, you can stop yourself from getting defensive. Taking a deep breath is the best way to hit the pause button in a charged moment. In a workshop I was running, a conversation about the difficulty of working with another group in the organization started to build steam. When the leader of the group joined in, saying he felt the same pain as everyone else in the room, the negative energy in the room started to spiral. Then I saw the leader take a breath. He held his hands out to ask for a pause-long enough for everyone else to take a breath-before he admitted that he had had no idea there was so much energy around this topic, and that he was going to bring the conversation to the leadership team. And with that, he got the room back in balance so we could continue with our work.
- Make feedback a two-way conversation. Early in my career, a woman I worked with was told by a male colleague that her clothes were distracting. (Unfortunately, this type of comment is something women get to experience exclusively, so for the men, I’ll just say that it’s more than a little demeaning.) I could see my friend start to shut down, I observed her pause, and then observed as she looked him in the eye, and started asking questions in a neutral tone: I’m confused–are you saying that I am not dressing professionally and appropriately? He replied that she was dressed appropriately. Is there something I might do to change the way I dress? He didn’t have any specifics. Whose style of dress should I emulate? He started to search for some names, but at this point, the conversation was done. While the example is egregious, the lesson here is to explore non-defensively feedback that feels subjective or vague. It will quickly reveal whether the message is personal to you or to the giver.
- You can take it or leave it. There’s an assumption, especially when you are receiving feedback from a superior, that you must wholeheartedly accept and act on the message. The truth is you have a choice. At one point in my career, I was strongly encouraged to sign off on a recommendation that was going to the company’s Board of Directors. The problem was if my team had ever seen this recommendation, I would have compromised my ability to lead them. I chose not to sign the document, as there was a clear business reason for not having my name on it, and provided an alternative that worked for everyone involved. By allowing myself to question what I was hearing, we were able to come to a solution that made more sense for everyone. Not following my superior’s lead was uncomfortable for us both, but our relationship eventually became stronger because I earned a measure of respect by standing my ground-for the right reasons. You are always walking a fine line when it comes to deciding what to accept or reject, but connecting it back to the goals of your business can help to clarify the decision.
- Document the experience. Sometimes words echo in our heads. It’s a disorienting feeling, but it’s also the preamble to catharsis if we engage in a process of exploring what’s going on. After a charged conversation, write down what you heard-in your notebook, in an email to a coach or guide, or even to the person who gave you the feedback (as long as you can do it in a non-defensive manner). By putting your thoughts into words, you create the distance that allows you to keep the conversation going and determine what issues need further exploration. As the days go by, you can compare the words that echoed in your head originally to the truths that stayed with you.
The Art of Giving Feedback
In the same way that there is an art to receiving feedback, there is also an art to giving feedback. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that the common physiological response is to run from the negative. Even when a person’s feet aren’t moving, their mind can be sprinting away. Here are a few things we can do to give our messages a better chance of landing, and to make sure feedback is something that builds relationships rather than undermines them.
- Ask for permission. When delivering feedback that can be taken as negative, a simple thing you can do is to ask for permission first. This gives the recipient a chance to take a breath and bring him or herself into the present. If they are like most people, the word “feedback” is one loaded with tension. If they’re having a bad day already, they might say that now isn’t a good time-which is okay. Before you deliver your message, your job as a communicator is to make sure the recipient has the ability to receive it.
- Make it a two-way conversation. When you do present your feedback, use your curiosity in them as a way to start a dialogue. A good question (e.g., “what was the strategy behind that decision…”) can shift the conversation away from a specific event and toward a dialogue on how a person operates and makes decisions. This bigger topic is also more interesting to the person receiving feedback-because it informs future actions as opposed to critiquing past ones.
- Identify the fear. There are times when you’ll get pushback from a person to whom you’re giving feedback. Keep in mind that this happens when people experience fear. Exposing a vulnerability will take people out of their comfort zones and cause a number of reactions-from shutting down to combativeness. In these instances, you might take a step back and approach the conversation from a different direction to try to uncover the person’s source of fear.
- Be open to having your mind changed. Feedback is about you as much as it is about the recipient. When you are delivering it, do so with a sense of humility. And if it doesn’t land, ask yourself how much your own bias or experience is shaping the message. An exchange that doesn’t go as planned can be an extremely useful mirror for you as a leader, and help illuminate some of the assumptions that inform your feedback. Are these assumptions true? By allowing the question, you turn feedback into a process that helps you grow as well.
- Give feedback daily. What makes feedback such a charged interchange is that it typically happens during review cycles or following failure. It’s a big deal. By giving and asking for feedback daily, you create an environment where there’s less uncertainty. You course-correct on a regular basis. And the way you communicate continually improves. One of the things that we do at Brimstone is give leaders real-time feedback during workshops. Break by break, we check in with them about how they are showing up, what energy they are getting from the group, and what they can do to shift it. By making feedback part of the process, it comes across as simple adjustments rather than grand interventions. Like most things, the more you practice giving and receiving feedback, the more comfortable you become operating in this area.
Organizations Are a Source of Feedback
If you took a group of people and asked them to write down a word or a phrase to describe their organization’s culture, odds are you would get a very wide range of responses. But if you arranged those words or phrases into themes, you would probably get close to universal alignment on the different ways a culture makes people feel. The verbal side of the equation is more nuanced than the emotional side, and people in an organization know what is expected of them in terms of how to behave and how to engage with the organization.
A company’s culture communicates what behaviors are acceptable and what norms shape the ways we work. A company’s systems and processes manifest the rules of getting things done, and they establish guardrails for what’s acceptable. The hours that people arrive in the morning or leave in the evening give us feedback, along with what they do (or don’t do) during lunch. The stories an organization tells about itself as it creates its living history gives employees a view into what is recognized and rewarded. Collectively, these things tell us whether or not we fit in at the organization, and give us clues as to how we can fit in better.
The key with organizational feedback is to understand personally how we want to fit in, and what parts of the feedback system we think could change. And as an organization goes through a process of change, it needs to be acutely aware of the feedback it is sending to the workforce-explicitly, through communications, or implicitly, in the behaviors that are rewarded or discouraged along the way.
Feedback Never Stops
One of the most powerful things about feedback is that you can practice giving and receiving it anywhere, with anyone. How you practice the art of feedback professionally is a mirror of how you practice it personally. You can gain insight from any interaction, as long as you bring curiosity to the conversation and the willingness to breathe, stay present, and stay connected.