Feedback is broken, and we’re paying a significant price for our well-intentioned misuse and missteps. Broken as it is, feedback is much too valuable to throw out. Instead, we need a feedback fix. If we get it right, we can not only stop the damage and pain caused when feedback goes wrong, but we can also create a world full of positive connections, growth, exploration and potential. We can improve the organizations we work in, the impact we have as leaders and the experiences of the people we work with each day.
Any lasting fix needs a holistic approach, a strong foundation, and simple and easy tools and ideas to keep the good working and the not-so-good at bay. With that understanding, let’s turn our attention to laying a solid foundation for fixing feedback with the three fabulous Fs: fairness, focus and frequency.
For feedback to work, there must be trust, and trust is built through the connections and experiences we share with others. If a relationship or exchange is tainted with a perceived lack of fairness, it breaks trust, and feedback won’t work. While most of us have the best intentions to be fair, our human bias can get in our way. To operate with fairness when receiving or giving feedback, we need to accept our own imperfections and recognize that our views are tainted by our experiences and our unproven assumptions.
To avoid these human imperfections and carry the flag of fairness, our charge is to engage without judgment. That’s a tall task, so how do we do it? By leaning heavily on what we’ve witnessed and noticed. If we bring what we’re noticing into an open conversation without judgment or evaluation, amazing things can happen, and trust will grow.
Focus is a big idea delivered in small bites. In our daily lives, we already have too much information to process. For feedback to help, we need to keep it focused. If someone lays a list of five things on you, even if they’re positive, processing all of it can be overwhelming. Alternatively, focused feedback is like snacking on positivity and possibility, rather than gorging on performance reviews and banked-up lists of strengths and weaknesses.
If you’re looking for some feedback, make it a focused ask for perspectives on just one thing. If you feel compelled to tell someone they rocked it, tell them the one thing you noticed that set the bar. If there was one change that would have led to greater impact, share that one thing you noticed.
The more often we connect, the greater the trust we build. For this reason, frequency is a critical foundation for strong, helpful feedback. Frequency accelerates feedback, while fairness and focus fuel the engine. Frequency improves the quality of our relationships and accelerates our learning; it tells others, “I’m paying attention, and what you do is important and notable.”
To help us understand how these three fab Fs come together, let’s explore an example feedback experience before and after a feedback fix:
You’re leading a new team of training designers and have taken on a critical new project for your organization. There are three of you on the team, each with unique skills and at different career stages. As a relatively new leader, you’re looking to demonstrate your leadership prowess. Your experienced designer is wanting to demonstrate her know-how and mastery, and you have a new employee who’s hoping to grow and … well … not fail.
Before the Feedback Fix
You adopt the practices you’ve long followed: You meet with each person at the beginning of the project, set expectations, define roles and send them on their way. You have semi-monthly status meetings to review progress and share your thoughts on the design.
Once the project is complete, you meet with each team member and review how you assessed their performance against the expectations you set. You share your view of their strengths and a few suggestions for what they need to work on. You thank them for their efforts and note that you look forward to your next project together.
Sure, you achieved your goals, but across the team, learning was minimal, your relationships didn’t evolve and your two team members left your conversations with the few things you told them could be better ringing in their ears.
After the Feedback Fix
You’re excited to launch your new team and test these ideas for better feedback. Bringing the team together, you ask each person to share one thing they want out of your work together. You go first, sharing that this is the third team you’ve led and that you’re continuing to work on your leadership skills. You tell them, “Share what you notice about how my leadership style helps us advance or gets in the way.”
Your lead designer says that she’s excited to apply new design techniques she’s developed and is looking for feedback that helps her improve her process, as she’s planning to share it with other designers in her community of practice. The new guy asks for grace, as he’s just learning, and notes how thrilled he is to work with and learn from the experienced designer.
You launch the work and start a routine of frequent, basic check-ins. These check-ins allow all of you to exchange light feedback and build trust. You’re excited about the progress and the strength of the design, and you share specifics as you see your team members that reinforce the direction. During your semi-monthly team meetings, you ask if the team has any gratitude to share. Together, you review the design and openly debate how to make it better. You’ve encouraged your senior designer to work closely with the new team member and help him learn at her side. At the end of the project, you celebrate your success as a team, and you each share what you learned and how this experience will influence how you will tackle your next project or role. The key takeaway? Each of you recognizes the learning and growth you experienced, you’ve built trusting relationships, and you can’t wait to tackle a tougher challenge together.
When feedback is fair, focused and frequent, trust thrives, learning happens, and everyone involved is free to take more risks and seek greater growth.