Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Science and Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback

We cannot underestimate the value of feedback. Feedback is an important aspect of building a constructive relationship - personal and professional. It is an invitation to interact. It can help improve our performance and change our behaviour. It can help us become self-aware and also allow us to help others discover themselves.

Most of us know and understand the importance of feedback. But when it is time to give or receive it; we are not at our comfortable best. I can assure you, it is not easy and it does not come naturally. Giving and receiving feedback is a skill that needs to be developed consciously and our minds need to be trained for it.

Several articles and books explain the right method and process to give feedback. I will restrict myself to sharing tips about giving and receiving feedback that have worked well for me. Also, people generally don’t have much difficulty in giving and receiving positive feedback so some of the tips are better suited for constructive/developmental/negative feedback.

Giving Feedback
- Any time is a good time for giving feedback - Don’t wait for the end of the assignment/project/year to give an important piece of feedback that would have made the difference along the way. Remember, feedback is not an annual process! If you are ready and the individual is ready, the time is right!

- Plan the feedback session – It is not a good idea to give feedback on an ad-hoc basis, in between other meetings, in the hallway, when surrounded by other people etc. Make it planned. Make it personal. One thing that helps me is to note down my observations (good and bad) when working with my team. Keeping a note of what could possibly be used for a feedback session later always helps. I don’t trust my memory as much as I trust my notes!

- Be prepared – Don’t start or end in an abrupt manner. Before the meeting, make a note of all the things that you want to discuss and ensure that you use list to conduct the meeting. Keep your body language calm and open. Keep your intentions clear.

- Focus on performance not the person – This is by far the most important aspect of giving feedback. Remember ‘making it personal’ is different from ‘making it person-specific’! Remember to use references to specific actions or behaviours that were good or unacceptable in a certain situation. Do not judge a person when giving feedback.

- Describe, don’t prescribe - Ensure that you give descriptive examples of how/when/where you observed the good/unacceptable behaviour. Describe the situation objectively and use objective words rather than judgemental words. Do not generalize the behaviour. Keep it situation-specific and avoid using the terms always, never etc. Describe the impact of the behaviour on the individual, on the job, on the team, on you etc.

- Pause, observe, and reflect –Generally, when people set out to give feedback, it almost always seems rushed, one-way, and like a task that has to be completed. It is not. It is a process. Take it slow and give enough pauses in between the conversation that allow you to observe and reflect. Ensure that the feedback is clear to the individual. The pauses also give the individual a chance to absorb what is being discussed. Check with her how she is feeling about the dialogue and give her a chance to speak and discuss.

- Summarize and close – At the end of the session, it is important to summarize the key points of a discussion and then follow it up with a written document/email that reinforces the key aspects of the dialogue. If the individual requests for advice, offer ideas and suggestions. Keep away from giving instructions. Help individuals make the right choice, don’t make it for them. And finally, don’t expect dramatic changes in a short while.

Remember, giving feedback is a two-way process. Until the feedback has been received and acknowledged by the individual, there is no ‘giving’ that has happened.

Receiving Feedback

- Seek feedback – Feedback is an opportunity to develop and grow. If your supervisors have missed giving you feedback in a while, ask for it. Encourage people to give you feedback. If you are open about it, you will receive it frequently!

- Listen actively– It is not very easy to do this especially when it is time for some constructive/ developmental/negative feedback. But be patient and listen carefully without interrupting. One is tempted to defend herself or rationalise the behaviour that was observed. Resist that feeling.

- Clarify and share - After hearing the feedback, check to ensure that you understood it correctly. Take notes. Ask questions. Ask your supervisor to share specific examples of what they observed and when. Share your feelings about the feedback without justification or rationalization. Ask for suggestions and ideas to make things better.

- Reflect and consider – After the feedback session, reflect on what was discussed. Take time to think. Refer to your notes about the specific behaviours and actions that were discussed. Check with your peers and friends. Perhaps they had observed the same but were shy to share it. Decide what you want to do about the feedback. Try one of the suggestions or ideas mentioned during the meeting. Try to do things differently and do your best to resolve the issues.

Remember, when receiving feedback, you don’t have to agree with everything that you hear. But it is important for you to hear it and decide what you want to do about it.