Many people are put off giving any feedback at all. They underestimate how much others desire constructive feedback, and worry they could anger or upset the person they’re giving it to.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of someone saying “can I give you some feedback” and immediately thinking that it’s going to be negative or make us look bad. That’s our fight or flight mechanism kicking in, and often defensiveness and anger can follow.
Another of our basic human needs can also be triggered – fairness – especially when the conversation is all about our perceived shortcomings, and seems to be biased.
Feedback is often described as telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better. We can believe that we are more aware of their weaknesses than they are, and so we need to show them what they can’t see for themselves.
But for those giving feedback, this assumes our way is the only way, and that others learn, act and will behave the same way. We believe we are good judges although we’re deeply influenced by our own understanding of what we’re looking for in others, and what excellence looks like.
Instinctively we know that people are all different, we learn differently, and we have a unique set of skills, abilities and challenges. Effective feedback comes from those who understand their own strengths and weaknesses and have the confidence to encourage others to find their unique contribution to the business.
Interestingly, research published in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reported “people consistently underestimate others’ desire for feedback, which can have harmful results for would-be-feedback recipients”. The more significant the feedback, the more likely it is that we underestimate how much it’s wanted.
But people commonly report wanting constructive feedback, to aid their learning and improve performance. Feedback is needed, it’s how you can provide it effectively that’s important.
Studies have shown that focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it. The fight or flight mechanisms kick in again, and this reduces the brain’s ability to trust, focus on solutions and think creatively and innovatively.
When we’re giving feedback, it’s also worth remembering that we are biased based on our own experience, knowledge, harshness/leniency and expectations of others. What works well is sharing our own feelings and reactions about somebody’s actions, rather than the actual action. Eg. “This is how that came across for me,” or “This is what that made me feel”.
Our brains are as unique as our fingerprints, so we all learn and experience things differently. We learn best by connecting more information to what we already know, including our habits and patterns – by recognising, reinforcing and adjusting. Ask people to identify what they’re struggling with and ways they have been able to help themselves in the past.
Look out for outcomes from learning – highlight when you see something working. You’ll be encouraging insight in the moment.
Encourage people to ask for feedback. Rather than accepting praise, encourage them to ask for more details to help them make their own patterns conscious and easier to repeat. Set an example by asking for feedback from them too.
We don’t want teams of robots, we want to encourage everyone to contribute their unique skills and abilities. People excel when they know others care about them, they’re encouraged to seek feedback, and the feedback they receive helps with positive development.
So don’t underestimate how much people want feedback, and if you’re concerned ask yourself whether it’s something you would want to know if you were in their shoes.