Depending on the context, feedback can be a) an opportunity for learning or reflection, b) a helpful gauge of the impact that we have on others, or c) an unpleasant squealing noise that makes us instinctively cover our ears. Ideally, the last of these is a definition none of us would use about our experience of receiving feedback in our respective workplaces – unless we work in a microphone factory – but ‘ideally’ isn’t necessarily a word we would use about those workplaces.
The problem is more complex that the mechanics of electro-acoustics, of course. While feedback certainly can fit either of the two positive definitions in the opening paragraph, whether it actually will depends on the attitude and willingness to listen of the recipient, and the manner, style and approach of the person offering the feedback. Moreover, these two aspects are closely related: we’re all familiar with the story of the boy – although gender stereotyping is neither relevant or helpful here – who ‘cried wolf’. The boy in Aesop’s fable would, through repetition, suffer the fate of another mythical figure – Cassandra, who was destined not to be believed.
The problem for some feedback givers in contemporary workplaces is not so much disbelief as an unwillingness to listen. Where a manager’s feedback style weighs heavily on the critical or disappointing, any intention to drive up performance or increase motivation may be lost. The problem with the repeated message that ‘you are not good enough’ is not that it is not believed, but that it might be believed all too much. If this scenario is seen as a failure, however, any blame attached may not lay entirely at the feet of the feedback giver (nor, for that matter, at those of the recipient, unless on-going under-performance without improvement or commitment to achieve is genuinely a concern).
An organisation’s general approach to and attitude towards feedback is also, in many cases, an aspect of its culture. Organisations that view performance management as a periodic exercise concerned predominantly with the finding and highlighting of faults may have cultures in which feedback is a one-way street, even where this may lead to a workforce with a sense of ‘do and be damned’ about their own endeavours. Where neither feedback nor those receiving it are seen as needing to be treated with sensitivity, a habit of ‘selective deafness’ may quickly be added to any other shortcomings.
Feedback – whether given or received – requires skill. It also benefits both parties if clear ground-rules can be established. Let me provide an example from a different context. As a creative writer as well as a blog writer, I am used to the notion of ‘feedback’ from peers. While, just as in a workplace, we may strive to manage our emotions while taking on board the reactions of others, even the most clearly non-autobiographical work is still ‘mine’: it may not be ‘personal’ in the most literal sense, but my fingers chose the words and pressed the keys on the laptop to record them. In most of the workshops I’ve participated in, there are accordingly rules in place. When giving feedback, seek to identify ways in which you can suggest improvements – while allowing the recipient scope to shape or select how they might be implemented. Where intentions or outputs are unclear, seek and ask for clarity rather than insisting on a specific interpretation. And remember that comment is being offered on the work, not the person producing it. (“I’m not sure that this piece fully delivers as the writer has intended” rather than “I don’t like the way you always …”).
Likewise, there are ground rules for the recipient. The feedback received is another individual’s reaction, and their opinion is to be respected even where this is disagreement. Where you wish to respond, listen to the feedback first before doing so. Where the feedback is unclear or you consider it ambiguous, you are entitled to ask questions that will offer you clarity. And responsibility for future improvement is yours, not that of the people offering their responses.
Yet there is also a shared responsibility that underpins the efforts of both giver and receiver: the genuine intention to support the future creation of better work. We have, through our efforts, created a culture that not just values feedback but respects its power: we appreciate that giving it is a responsibility to be wielded with intelligence, and that receiving it opens up options and avenues that may previously have been closed to us. Despite the discomfort it can bring, we now go out of our way to create additional opportunities for feedback, and openly invite it. We also appreciate that this is a dialogue – and, indeed, that dialogue has played a large part in creating the culture that we now share and benefit from.