Understand Other People

Better communication through a better understanding of behavior

The Art of Giving Feedback

Telling Someone What You Really Think!

In many companies, managers delay the performance review process – or don’t do it at all – because they are so uncomfortable in the position of giving feedback to their staff. And in too many cases person A will tell person B what they like or don’t like about person C, but person A will never speak to person C directly.

What’s so hard about just talking to someone else and telling them what you think about what they have done, whether it’s good or needing improvement? There are actually many reasons why we avoid the feedback process: In many cases, we have never learned well how to do it. Our parents might have said, “You are such a good student” but not been specific with us about how they define “good student.” Do they mean our study habits? The fact that we can ace tests? Or is it important that we never talked back to a teacher or went for detention? Or do they just mean that we went to school each day without complaining? General comments about “good” or “bad” behavior, or about our character, typically do not serve as a useful basis for genuine feedback.

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What is the purpose of feedback? According to dictionary.com, it is to offer a reaction or response to a particular process or activity so that someone can know how they performed, or how they did. It is evaluative information. This is what I give my students before they get their grade on what they did well on a presentation or where they needed to improve. Lastly, it is used to influence or modify a person’s further performance. This is where managers come in, or peers, who desire different behavior but need to share exactly what it looks like and how to achieve that new state.

In many organizations, employees suffer because they have no idea how they are doing. They don’t get positive input, or opportunities to correct behaviors. There is a philosophy that as long as the person is doing the job, there is no need to discuss anything further! But we know that most of us like to have a compliment on our performance now and then, or an opportunity to improve.

Let’s look at five of the fundamental mistakes people make – in business and in personal situations – when giving input or feedback, and then let’s look at how to do them successfully:

(1)    Our differing behavioral styles get in the way. If I am a direct, assertive and outgoing person, and I give feedback to someone who is more unemotional and less direct, in my direct way, it will come across as overbearing. Conversely, if I am a more timid, mild-mannered person and I beat around the bush with someone who is direct and assertive, they won’t hear me. We have to modify our communication approach when giving feedback so the listener has the chance to really hear what we have to say.

(2)    We paint the person with a broad brush and categorize them. Instead of saying specifically what the person did in this instance and how it impacted me, or our joint situation, I paint a broad picture – “You are always so nervous when I talk with you!” or “People like you never seem to listen really well.” These are such broad generalities that they leave the listener wondering what we mean. Instead, focus on the behavior, what specifically the person did – “You may not realize but when you talk to me, your hands shake and it seems as if you are nervous. Can I point it out to you next time it happens? It makes it hard for me to focus on what you are saying to me.” Get specific about the behavior and offer an alternative to it.

(3)    The feedback is coming third- or fourth-hand from someone else. I used to have a boss who, when he gave us our performance reviews, would say, “A person in our company said you were very difficult to work with,” as an example. We never knew who the person was, or in what context we might have been found to be difficult. I used to call this “nailing Jell-O to the wall,” because it was impossible to address the criticism. Be sure when you give feedback that it is your opinion and you are the observer of the behavior. If someone else is tattling to you, let that person be the one to offer the feedback instead. Keep feedback close to the source.

(4)    In giving feedback, we are also trying to be mind readers. There are few things that grate on us more than having someone else tell us what we’re thinking or feeling, before we have shared it with them. Many times in feedback a person will make assumptions about the behavior: “I know you aren’t in a great mood today, but did you have to be so grumpy with that cashier at the supermarket?” What? I’m in a perfectly fine mood today – or at least I was until you told me otherwise! Refrain from mind reading. Instead, again, focus on the objectivity of the behavior: What did the person do? Why was it a problem? What would you have liked to see instead?

(5)    I want you to do it like me. On too many occasions, we don’t let the other person figure out how to behave in a comfortable manner that works for them. I might think that I have been successful by pushing people to the “close” in a meeting and I want you to do the same. But maybe your approach is to ask more questions, and close more gently. When we mentor, oftentimes the underlying message is “do it like me or it isn’t good.” Be sure you are giving the person a way to be successful, on their own terms. Examples of different approaches can be helpful here, or maybe offering another viewpoint.

Beverly D. Flaxington teaches at Suffolk University.

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