November is classically celebrated as the month of gratitude. Gratitude is a powerful way of seeing the world and accepting the reality of what is. It roots out entitlement, makes giving more pleasant, and shines a light on our greedy consumerism. I’m all for gratitude practice, thanking people for their good behavior, and teaching them to be grateful for their opportunities. Unfortunately, solely focusing on the strengths we possess and thanking ourselves and one another for bringing them to the table doesn’t allow for the risky exposure of our deficiencies that allow us to grow.

Being thankful for our competencies won’t make space for our weaknesses to manifest, showing us how we can grow next. Those weaknesses, which we usually cover for, counterintuitively yield the most potential for growth. When it comes time to grow and change, gratitude for our existing abilities won’t help us become the next version of ourselves we want. Giving thanks for what you can already do well won’t jumpstart your developmental growth, seeking feedback about what you can’t do yet is more worthy of your Thanksgiving.

Coaching: Feedback is the most direct way to jumpstart or restart your development as a leader.
Case Study: Can I give you some feedback?

Many of us cringe at the term, “feedback.”

“Feedback is code for criticism.”

“Passive aggressive ways to control or direct someone’s behavior.”

“Sandwich it in between two compliments and the person won’t push back.”

The practice of giving and receiving feedback has become a minefield of assumptions and reactions, many of us resign ourselves to clenching our teeth to get through it. Feedback has gotten a bad rap as something we feel we must give or receive. It often feels unhelpful, indirect, or exposing. But what is feedback actually supposed to be?

  • feedback is the information sent to an entity (individual or a group) about its prior behavior so that the entity may adjust its current and future behavior to achieve the desired result (Business Dictionary)
  • feedback is information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement (Oxford Dictionary)
Not so bad, right? With any limiting pattern of thinking, if we realize we’re in it and inquire more deeply, we’re bound to find a new angle. You might recall the limited beliefs about why people complain that I addressed in October’s edition of Free Coaching! This could also be true for our beliefs about giving and receiving feedback.

Feedback so regularly takes the form of negative feedback, that we can also pretty reliably expect feelings of defensiveness from ourselves or others.

It takes strong self-discipline and hesitation to stay curious about and open to the feedback you’re receiving or giving. Re-read that statement. Yes, I’m arguing that it’s worth staying open and curious about the feedback you’re receiving or giving. Whether someone is asking for our feedback, we’re tasked with offering it, or we’re on the receiving end of it, there’s great merit in holding our conclusions about it lightly.

What is constructive feedback actually constructing?

Feedback is usually billed as a way to deliver critique, or call for a change in some sort of constructive way. But so often, neither the giver or receiver know what exactly is being constructed with the feedback, nor what construction the information is being fed back to. Understandably, being told you didn’t achieve what was expected of you, and that you need to change your behavior, feels like it’s de-constructing your current context and momentum. Having to say something that may be difficult for a teammate to hear about their efforts and impact, doesn’t feel like it’s building up the present situation

Part of the difficulty is that we don’t often take the time to define the current construction of our situation, or agree as to how we want to continue to construct it together. We commonly don’t know whether we’re in agreement about what feedback is building, what we want it to look like, or how we plan to use it to build forward together. Beyond that, we inquire even less often as to how together, we may have contributed to our current context, which allowed for one or all of us to miss the mark and incur the feedback in the first place.

Deeper Inquiry

  1. What are we feeding-back to? Are we clear what the expectations and agreements were to begin with? Are we drawing a direct line from our feedback and observations to those original expectations and agreements?
  2. What part of this feedback belongs to the leadership, system, and shared context. How are we intending to use this feedback? What are we hoping this feedback will help us to accomplish? What change would be most useful to see as a result of this feedback?

Practice: What can I try?
Exercise: The Surprise Ask

What do you do when somebody asks for feedback on the spot? We might assume that they want reassurance After all, it’s out of the norm to ask for compliments directly, so you may hear this instead,

“How’d I do? How do you think that went? Any feedback for me?”

Overtime we learn not to trust it outright. And rightly so, if this comes the moments following a presentation or high stakes performance.

This is tricky request to navigate. Why?

  • we likely haven’t had a chance to reflect on our experience and process thoughtful feedback about their performance, and
  • they most likely won’t be in a position to reflect on someone else’s experience or to openly receive thoughtful feedback about their work.

Clues: Stay curious about whether the feedback seeker has expectations or assumptions about your reaction that they aren’t necessarily aware of. You can help them get the feedback they are ready for and can use, by asking guiding questions like:

  • How are you hoping to use or incorporate my feedback?
  • What would constitute the most meaningful feedback for you right now?
  • Can I have some time to reflect and offer the most thoughtful feedback I can?
  • Who has been your best source of useful, meaningful feedback? What did they do well? How did you implement it?

*There are exceptions for the on-the-spot request for feedback. If you are well established in your feedback relationship, and your feedback partner is highly skilled in implementing the feedback in real time without losing focus, then on-the-spot feedback can be a very powerful tool. There are many examples of these instances in athletics, music, dance, etc. The common dynamics in these contexts are the existence of these well-defined, agreed upon, growth oriented, short feedback loops.

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