“I have some feedback for you.” What’s your first reaction when someone approaches you with this phrase? If you are like most people, it’s met with trepidation. Maybe your heart starts beating a little faster, your palms start sweating… your body is basically preparing to defend itself. Fight or flight.
The truth is, we often think of feedback as something scary, and this is partly due to the fact that we are not always good at giving it. Not surprisingly, in the work I do, I notice a lot of ways feedback is delivered and framed in an unhelpful way. I think one reason for this is that when people are considering what type of feedback to provide (Motivational or Developmental, Positive or Negative, Criticism or Praise, whatever language you use!) the number one factor that will determine what type of feedback they give, is what they notice the most. What many don’t think about is, what type of feedback is helpful given where the receiver is at in their development?
This means someone who is struggling – perhaps they are trying something new or coping with change – is much more likely to get Developmental feedback or constructive criticism. The feedback giver is likely to most notice the areas where the other person is struggling, and choose to make that known to the other person. On the other hand, someone who is excelling at their role – really blowing targets and goals out of the water, and a high performer – is more likely to get Motivational feedback or praise. While this may be intuitive, it is not the best way to motivate or improve others’ performance.
Consider for a moment the last time you tried something new. I’ll take a simple example for myself: cooking. I am the first to admit that cooking is not something that I have a natural or developed affinity for. I don’t like the details (1 tbsp? That looks close enough!) and I get overwhelmed when multitasking all the different components at once – especially when I’m trying a new recipe. I’ve only started a fire in my kitchen once but I don’t want to repeat it. Needless to say, it’s something I struggle with. When I am in the kitchen, the absolute worst thing that someone can do, is try to correct what I’m doing. Honestly, when someone comes up behind me and says “are you sure the sauce is supposed to look like that?” or “aren’t you going to add more seasoning to this?” my first reaction is to hand them whatever utensil is in my hand and walk off.
What does this person really need in service of improving their performance?
At that moment in time, it’s not about me cooking the perfect meal or applying to culinary school. It’s about me trying it out, getting comfortable with the experimentation, and simply doing it. What I really need in those moments, is a confidence boost: “I like that you are trying a new recipe” or “I know you’ve found it tough in the past to manage lots of different things cooking at once, I can see you are really pushing yourself tonight, great job.” What’s getting in the way of me cooking a great meal isn’t a little more salt, it’s my own self confidence in the kitchen.
Now consider the opposite; think of an area that you excel at. For me, it’s group facilitation. While I don’t like to toot my own horn, I do believe I am an excellent group facilitator. When I get Motivational feedback from clients or colleagues, it’s nice, but what would really make a difference would be for me to be challenged: “what if you tried approaching this differently” or “I could really use more time to reflect individually” or “I think you could make your point more concisely.”
In this instance, as opposed to my cooking, I am quite confident. What I need, as a feedback receiver, is not more confidence boosting (although, yes of course it’s nice to hear), but really I want to keep pushing myself to mastery. I want to keep getting better and developing.
I’m not suggesting that people who are developing a skill are always going to find encouragement helpful, or that they should only hear what they are doing right. I’m also not suggesting that the more proficient are always more receptive and better served by hearing how they could do better. Instead, I’m asking you to consider: what does this person really need in service of improving their performance? Make your choices about what type and how to share your feedback from this place of intention, and I’m sure you will have a positive impact on the performance of those around you.
A caveat: in this post, I was referring to feedback that has the intention of enhancing or improving someone’s performance. To me, this requires a different approach than feedback that is intended to clarify how someone is doing against a performance standard or expectation.