Contributed Column

The Manager's Corner

Giving, getting, and digesting feedback

Poorly given feedback can be memorable and unhelpful. The ability to give, receive, and digest feedback well is a critical professional capability, and it’s a vital component of team management, the appraisal/promotion process, and survival in the workplace.

I am often asked about how to have “difficult conversations” in which one person tells another that what he/she is doing is problematic and needs to change. This is feedback. If you master the fine arts of giving, receiving, and digesting it, difficult conversations will become much easier.

In his wonderful book Helping, Edgar Schein defines feedback as “information that helps one reach goals by showing that the current progress is either on or off target.” How do you do this? When giving feedback, the context really matters:

• Should the conversation occur in the morning, over lunch, at the end of the day, at the beginning of the week, or before a weekend?

• Do you have sufficient detailed information to provide helpful feedback?

• Are both parties highly motivated to engage in the conversation?

• Is the feedback discussion occurring in the context of a high-trust relationship?

• Is the setting for the conversation private, comfortable, and unhurried?

When you give feedback, consider the following:

• At the outset, provide a brief outline of what you intend to discuss, stick with that, and bring graceful closure to the process.

• Take the time to get yourself completely comfortable with your message so your anxiety level is low. Be neutral, while being supportive of the other person.

• Although when you give feedback you may have outcomes in mind for the discussion, be as open to various outcomes as possible.

• During the feedback discussion, both the giver and the receiver should engage in neutral, reciprocal feedback. How is the discussion going?

• Articulate a framework for the discussion. Tell the recipient what general topics you will be discussing, incorporate both positive and negative feedback and start with the positive. Don’t “pull punches,” but do ensure that every piece of information will be meaningful and tailored to the recipient.

• Move quickly into concrete next steps and provide a “menu” of possible action items that the recipient can do easily to experience rapid success.

• Have a clear commitment to follow through and next steps. It’s not a one-time intervention; it’s a clearly articulated ongoing process.

If you receive feedback, here’s how to get the most out of it

• Be an active listener, pay attention to what  is being said and suspend your own thinking and reactions while you listen. This will reduce your own anxiety level and enhance the neutrality of the experience.

• Ask for clarification if you don’t fully understand something. Apply the “1 percent rule”: even if 99 percent of the feedback seems irrelevant or inappropriate, assume that at least 1 percent will be extremely valuable. Don’t be argumentative or confrontational.

• Following the discussion, always thank the person who gave you the feedback for having done so.

Digesting feedback means acting on the feedback you have been given to optimize the benefits for you and others. Be positive and constructive, don’t vilify the person who gave you feedback, initiate follow-up conversations if appropriate, don’t gossip, be honest with yourself, own what is yours, don’t blame others, and commit to being as personally accountable as you can be.

If giving, getting, and digesting feedback is like a dining experience and the context, delivery, content, and receipt are done professionally, then the dining experience will be optimal. Paying attention to detail; being empathetic, thoughtful, and mature; investing the time and energy it deserves; and valuing the experience will make all the difference. Bon appétit!

Emily Morrow (www.emilymorrow.com) of Shelburne, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives and HR personnel.

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