Gregory Bateson famously said that information is a "difference that makes a difference." We can say a similar thing about feedback: "If nothing happens because of it, it ain't feedback."
So what keeps something from happening when we are giving or receiving feedback? For feedback to be feedback - that is, for it to have some effect - the people involved in the feedback must understand that what they should be talking about is action.
For this to happen, there needs to be an agreement among the people involved in the feedback that what they want is for something to either continue, stop, or change as a result of the feedback.
Plan for a specific change
When we give feedback to each other at work, it is easy to skip the step of saying what we want to have happen as a result of the feedback session, especially when we are giving or getting peer feedback. Being specific is important.
"I want you to give me feedback so that I become a better trainer," is a better setup than, "Would you please give me feedback on the workshop?" Even better than both of those is, "I find that when a workshop participant disagrees with me, I don't always respond in a way that encourages learning. Did you notice that in this workshop? What do you think I should do about it?"
The last of these requests for feedback is clear about exactly what is being looked for - advice on how to effectively respond when a participant disagrees. If I ask for general feedback, I may be talked to about things that don't matter to me. Remember, if it doesn't matter to me enough for me to do something about it, then it isn't feedback. I will not change my behavior, and the person who took the time to talk to me may end up thinking that I am not receptive to feedback.
Even tougher can be when we decide that we need to give feedback to someone who hasn't asked for it. The only reasons to give feedback are to have something continue, to have something stop, or to have something change. For our feedback to be effective - that is, for it to be feedback - we need to be sure that what we want to happen actually happens.
A key to giving feedback to someone who has not asked for it is to form a partnership with your intended receiver well in advance of the need.
Instead of having your good intentions pave your way to feedback hell, clearly establish the roles of feedback giver and receiver, and make apparent what each of you wants to have happen as a result of your time together.
This is relatively easy to do if you are the boss: "Every Friday at 3:00 p.m., you and I will sit down together for 30 minutes to talk about our performance - yours as the person in your role, and mine in the role of leader. In the last five minutes of our time together, you and I will agree on what will be different - if anything - as a result of talking with each other."
What makes this easier for someone in a position of authority is that being the boss makes it harder for the other person to say no. Whatever is agreed to will need to happen, because next week at 3:00 p.m., you'll be meeting again.
It can feel very awkward for peers to give one another feedback, even when the feedback is invited. This awkwardness comes primarily from two sources. First, giving feedback can feel "bossy," which can make the giver and the receiver fall automatically into hierarchical roles, and experience the discomfort or resentment that can come from them.
Second, because feedback sessions can feel like a waste of time if the "right" things don't happen, we spend a lot of energy suffering through finding the magic turn of phrase that will have the desired effect without causing offense, instead of spending time working together toward some mutual understanding that leads to action.
This awkwardness eventually disappears between people who have planned ahead about how they will handle feedback together.
Create a feedback partnership
The key here is to "contract" in advance. Create a feedback partnership. Rather than ambushing someone immediately after some event, specifically tell the person in advance about the feedback you are looking for, how it would be helpful to get that feedback, and when and where the feedback session will take place. If the feedback you are looking for is important enough that it will change your future behavior, it's worth preparing for instead of expecting someone to give you quality input when approached out of the blue with, "So how did I do?"
Here are some questions that you and your feedback partner can ask yourselves to help you plan the feedback session:
- Does the sender want to give feedback?
- Does the receiver want to get feedback?
- What does the sender hope to gain from the feedback session?
- What does the receiver hope to gain from the feedback session?
- How might the team, department, or organization benefit from this feedback session?
- What does the receiver want to get feedback about? (Be as specific as possible.)
- Why does the receiver think that the sender will have insight into his performance? (What makes the sender "qualified"?)
- Was the sender chosen because you generally agree with one another and you want to see if you are meeting some standard, or are you looking for a contrary opinion?
- If the feedback makes sense, is the receiver willing to come away from the session with an action plan?
- If the action plan makes sense, is the sender willing to meet again to talk about the receiver's progress?
- How will we measure our success? (How will we know that the time we have spent together has mattered?)
Answer these questions together, and you will have forged a partnership for giving and receiving feedback. Based on your relationship with the other person, you may want to add other questions of your own that will manage any discomfort or potential hurt feelings. For example
- What (if anything) worries me about giving or getting feedback about this specific behavior or with this specific person?
- How will I prepare myself to listen well and to not react defensively?
- What is the best setting for our feedback session?
- Does the feedback or our action plan need to be kept confidential?
- Would it be okay with the sender if the feedback is rejected (no action plan)?
- Whose responsibility will it be to "own" any actions agreed to as a result of the feedback session?
- Is feedback beyond or other than the specific request welcome?
- Will the sender want or expect feedback on the feedback?
This simple approach can help to eliminate the social discomfort that can come when a peer is doing something that we often associate with being in a superior-subordinate relationship. It turns giving and getting feedback into a planning meeting and avoids the frustration of giving or getting advice that doesn't make any difference.
Try creating feedback partnerships, and you will look forward to planning, learning, and growing with your colleagues instead of dreading another one of "those" feedback sessions.