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The way we teach people to give feedback is in need of reform

May 7, 2024
Any effort to bring about a feedback culture is going to depend on at least three things: people managers with high feedback aptitude; individual contributors with a growth mindset and strong feedback skills; and an organizational environment that encourages, supports, expects, and holds people accountable for providing frequent, useful feedback.

The feedback culture vision

These days, its seems like every organization aspires to realize the promise of a feedback culture, one in which workers are constantly sharing, learning, and helping each other grow; where personal gaps are quickly identified and rectified; where teams engage in virtuous feedback cycles that enable them to get better and better; and where entire companies become more responsive as they rapidly incorporate best practices and respond to changes in the external environment. Whether or not this vision is entirely attainable isn’t really the point. In some senses, the mere striving for it is evidence of its existence – or at least the version of it that is attainable.

The three elements of the vision

Any effort to bring about a feedback culture is going to depend on at least three things: people managers with high feedback aptitude; individual contributors with a growth mindset and strong feedback skills; and an organizational environment that encourages, supports, expects, and holds people accountable for providing frequent, useful feedback. Two-thirds of these things depend on the entire workforce to master a set of skills that, let’s face it, do not come naturally to many (some might say to most). In other words, training, coaching, and personal development are essential to the journey. Without the right training for the right people at the right time, a true feedback culture will always be out of reach.

How we’re approaching things now

Unfortunately, a lot of the feedback training out there may not be up to the task. To understand why, imagine you’re traveling to France. You’ve decided to learn a little French to help you get around. One option is to memorize phrases for common situations like “How much is the bill?” Memorizing this phrase would enable you to do only one very specific thing – find out how much you owe. You would not be able to ask whether you can pay in euros or dollars, whether they take cards, whether you pay at the table or the register, or how to split the bill. Each phrase would prepare you for one and only one moment.

In many important respects, this is how a lot of feedback training is taught. Almost all feedback training teaches a single feedback model. There are many of them out there – at least fourteen models by my count, probably more. Each model is different, but most of them consist of highly sequential protocols that have been simplified for ease of learning. They are intended to be applied in conversation using the same sequence each time – no skipping steps, no changing the order.

Feedback models have a lot going for them. They’re certainly easy to understand and remember, which means, among other things, they take less effort to learn. They give people a common vocabulary to use when discussing feedback. They all can be effective when applied properly. And perhaps as important, they can give a person confidence when walking into a tricky feedback situation, knowing all he has to do is stick to a simple protocol. With all this going for them, it’s no wonder feedback models dominate corporate training programs.

Why these approaches fall short

Unfortunately, using a feedback model comes with a pretty high cost for the feedback giver (and some might argue, the person receiving that feedback).

“Once you’ve learned a feedback model and returned to the wild, it doesn’t take long to find that it holds up in some feedback situations but breaks down in others.”

Most of these models seem to have been designed with a very specific, singular concept of what feedback is and in what situations it is customarily given. This makes them great for those specific use cases, but not for any others, just as specific phrases in French are suited to a very narrow range of moments. And if you depend on models to build your feedback culture, feedback in the workplace is limited to such moments.

The range of feedback situations we encounter at work can hardly be considered narrow. We give and receive feedback with peers, with bosses, with direct reports. Sometimes it is exchanged between people with a strong working relationship, other times with virtual strangers, other times with people we don’t particularly enjoy. Sometimes we’re giving corrective feedback, sometimes positive feedback, sometimes both at the same time. Sometimes we’re giving feedback about something that happened a few hours before, other times we’re covering broad themes going back weeks or months. If you think about it, with so many factors that affect the situation, the variations are virtually endless. No feedback model, at least one that is simple and highly sequential, can possibly be expected to be a catch-all tool for every feedback moment. Returning to our language analogy, this means that developing the ability to give feedback in any situation is akin to memorizing dozens and dozens of specific phrases – which is pretty ineffective, if it’s even plausible.

The path to a better outcome

Of course, we all know that’s not how we learn to speak a language. Imagine that instead of memorizing phrases, you learn a handful of words and then a few grammatical principles that allow you to mix and match them in a variety of ways. This would allow you to express many more thoughts and better adapt to situations as they arise. Each word you learn, when coupled with rules and principles, would have far greater communicative value than when it was stuck in a single, unmoving phrase. And adding each new word would exponentially expand the value of each previous one. This might require a little bit more thought and mental effort than memorizing a phrase or two, at least at first, but it dramatically improves your capabilities.

The same process can be applied when learning to give feedback. Instead of learning protocols, we learn principles. There are a handful of fundamental psychological truths that are a factor in virtually all feedback situations. For example, it has been well established that when someone is in a fearful or anxious state of mind, she will enter into fight or flight mode, be prone to defensiveness, and thus intuitively reject anything she perceives to be oppositional to her own views. If we come to understand and learn how to apply each of these principles, we then have a series of tools, untethered from each other, that we can mix and match as each situation dictates. It’s like having a feedback vocabulary and grammar at your disposal, only this time focused on human psychology. As with language learning, this may require a little more mental effort on the part of the learner at first, but if they are willing, it will better equip them for the complicated world of human-to-human interaction.

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