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How to Give Feedback So People Can Hear it

By on October 16, 2009 – 4:31 pm  23 Comments

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.



Recently, I edited some work for a colleague, embellishing her document with comments and marked up changes. In response, she said that getting feedback from me was like going to the dentist. She knew it was good for her, but ….

Telling People What to Keep

Obviously, I hadn’t given her very effective feedback. There were some very good things in that paper, but I read right past them, assuming they did not need my attention because I was supposed to focus on what needed fixing. I have even been trained to know better, having studied the Writer’s Workshop approach to feedback. First you pay attention to what’s right in a piece of work, as noted by Richard Gabriel:
grading

“So, imagine that each author goes home with some areas of his or her paper painted red and accompanied by suggestions for improvement. What is that author to make of the places not painted red? Were they OK? Are they available for alteration to help improve the red areas? Are some of them not OK but the workshop just didn’t get to them?”

Reading and responding with an eye toward what’s good is a practice that takes discipline. Our minds quickly find faults and errors. It takes effort to go back and describe what’s right. I think of it as telling people what should stay, even if everything else changes. Otherwise they might unintentionally throw out the good things as they fix the problems.

Feedback that Leads to Higher Goals

outliningPositive feedback not only builds natural strengths, it fosters positive emotion. According to a study by Seo and Ilies, people working toward goals who experience positive emotion associated with their work spend more time and achieve a higher level of performance. They experience greater self-efficacy, and tend to adjust their goals upward.

As managers, we think that pointing out mistakes or weaknesses will help people stretch to meet their goals. But Seo and Ilies point out that when the feedback comes with a high level of negative emotion, the person feeling criticized may instead just adjust goals downwards.

Specificity in Positive Feedback

Positive feedback is not just a buffer for negative feedback. Positive feedback has to be as specific and meaningful as the negative feedback. Yesterday, a friend expressed great frustration about his first annual appraisal at work. His manager had just said, “Great work. Keep it up.” But what could he learn from that? What if the manager had said instead, “You finish your projects on time, your documents are clearly written, you check your facts so I can trust what you say, ….”

Specificity in Negative Feedback

What about negative feedback? Our students at the University of Maryland are pretty emphatic that they don’t want their managers to give them only positive feedback. They feel that negative feedback gives them a chance to learn.  So what makes the best negative feedback?

It has to be specific. In a study of feedback on grading papers, Lipnevic found, “The most pervasive and strongest finding of the study was that descriptive feedback specific to individual work is critical to students’ improvement.” You can give descriptive feedback when you summarize the message of the essay and point out specific sections to change.

Give the Receiver a Voice

Lizzio and colleagues evaluated negative feedback styles in the workplace. They note that many managers are uncomfortable giving negative feedback, and avoid it — to the detriment of both the individual and the organization.  So they based their evaluation on both effectiveness and feasibility. They were looking for an approach that managers could learn easily and practice reliably.

They studied giving negative feedback alone and in various combinations with positive feedback/reassurance, self-appraisal, and giving the receiver a voice. Giving a voice means actively and genuinely inviting a response. The approach judged both most effective and most feasible was giving negative feedback accompanied by giving the receiver a voice. This way, the receiver could clear up confusions by asking questions and correct any mistaken judgments. Using all four approaches together was even more effective, but was also more complex and therefore not considered as feasible.

Giving the receiver a voice can also avoid unexpected consequences. Sometimes simple suggestions hook up with unrelated receiver memories, bringing up powerful negative responses. Recently, I was in the middle of a presentation, and someone suggested that I should smile more. To me, that statement brought up the intense discomfort of being asked to smile for the camera in excruciating childhood photo shoots, the disappointment of seeing my wooden face in the resulting photos, and the resulting lack of self-efficacy. But what if this feedback had been given in a more relaxed setting, and I’d been asked to reflect back what I heard? I am sure together we would have dispelled the discouraging negative wallop of emotion I took away from it.

Not “Be More Like Me” But “Reach for the Best of You”

manager and feedbackWith one-sided negative feedback, many people feel the manager is saying “Be more like me.” When given a voice, they can reflect back the feedback in more personal terms, perhaps helping the manager become more aware of their personal styles and needs.

Jocelyn Davis, my co-instructor at the University of Maryland says,

“Feedback is founded on the expectation and the belief that the person wants to make changes and is able to if only aware of need for them.”

Giving the receiver a voice makes feedback a bilateral interaction that can build the relationship. With the best feedback, I think I get an increased sense of trust and respect and gratitude because I see that the giver believes I WANT to change and even more, is telling me that I CAN change for the better.
 


 

References:

Gabriel, R. (2002). Writers’ Workshops & the Work of Making Things: Patterns, Poetry… Also available online for download.

Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5 step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Lipnevich, A. (2009). Response to assessment feedback: The effects of grades, praise, and source of information. Dissertation at Rutgers. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences Vol 69(7-A), 2009, pp. 2604. (I read the abstract only.)

Lizzio, A., Wilson, K., & MacKay, L. (2008). Managers’ and Subordinates’ Evaluations of Feedback Strategies: The Critical Contribution of Voice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, , 38 (4), 919–946.

Seo, M. & Remus, I. (2009). The role of self-efficacy, goal, and affect in dynamic motivational self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109, 120–133.

“Hypothesis 2: Positive and negative affect will partially mediate the relationship between performance feedback and subsequent goals within individuals.

We found evidence for both downward goal revision following negative feedback, and upward goal revision (discrepancy creation) following positive feedback.”

I also have 6 blog postings on feedback, carrying these ideas a little further: Positive Psychology Reflections, Category Giving Feedback

Images:

smiley grading courtesy of MinvanNinja
light as air
courtesy of aussiegall
coloring in the lines courtesy of woodleywonderworks
outlining courtesy of adactio
manager giving feedback courtesy of star5112

23 Comments »

  • Richard says:

    Excellent article. I especially value the point about good feedback as a means of building relationship. I had only thought about it as a teaching tool in a narrow context.

    best wishes,

    Richard

  • Barry Elias says:

    Dear Ms. Briiton:

    Wonderful piece.

    Providing the receiver of critique with the “voice” demonstrates personal respect and empowers the individual to present their assessment of the information, including clarifications and additional perspectives.

    Best wishes,
    Barry Elias

  • Richard,
    I agree. It takes work to give good feedback, and I guess that energy implies a certain respect.

    Thanks for your comment.
    Kathryn

  • Barry,
    Thank you for the flower. Yes, that is indeed what the researchers found in practice. Seems like common sense, but I’m reminded of Bob Nelson’s comment that comment sense is not always common practice.

    Kathryn

  • Jeremy McCarthy says:

    Kathryn,

    This article is so well written and so important! Regardless of one’s role (parent, child, partner, manager, employee, etc.) we all need to learn how to give and receive feedback. This is a PPND article that I will refer back to often and share with many others. Thanks, J

  • Great article, Kathryn!

    I love that your sub-headings are specific and descriptive, really guiding our reading effectively. It is written with authority and empathy, thus making your readers confident and comfortable. But more importantly, your advice is completely appropriate and applicable. Thanks for this valuable contribution.

    MarieJ

  • Jeremy, I wish I had been more cognizant of what’s known about good feedback when my children were small. I expect there are many bits of praise and criticism that I would have done differently. But it’s not too late.

    I also liked your point about learning how to receive feedback. There are two people in the interaction, and the receiver doesn’t have to be passive, even if not invited to respond.

    Kathryn

  • Thank you for the specific nature of your positive feedback, MarieJ!

  • Betsy Ludlow says:

    Hi Kathryn– what a great article! Here are a few more insights:

    1. It helps when you have enormous respect for the giver of the feedback– you feel more appreciative of their time and know that they are mainly focusing on what needs to be improved
    2. This is a general statement… but it may be better to give/receive feedback in the morning when you are fresh and energized (most of the time) rather than at night when you are drained and out of patience. This was the mistake I made a few weeks back with one of your rounds!
    3. Find a way to weave humor into the feedback session- it will lighten the load.

  • Ah, Betsy! How generous of you – about “one of my rounds”

    Thanks for adding your reflections on the experience. I think the dentist metaphor has become a source of humor for both of us.

    Kathryn

  • Scott Richardson says:

    Kathryn,

    This was a very good article. I really liked that you spoke about both positive and negative feedback. One additional thing I would mention is the “peak-end theory”. Taking consideration to end on a positive note can have a profound impact on how the individual remembers the feedback they received.

    Thank you for publishing this article. I had not realized the impact “giving the receiver a voice” could have. This is definitely something I will remember for upcoming evaluation sessions. Keep up the good work. I am interested to see what you will write next.

    Scott

  • Scott,
    Thanks for bringing up the Peak-End rule.

    It made me think about something that comes up in discussions of feedback — whether the “sandwich” approach (positive-negative-positive) is a good idea or phony. Perhaps it makes sense when thought of in these terms:

    1. State the positive. Creates some positive emotion, and reminds people what not to change.

    2. State the negative. Gives specific ideas for change.

    3. State the positive. Based on the peak-end rule, ends the conversation on a note of hope and possibility. Affects what people remember about the discussion.

    Thanks for giving me a new way to think about it.

    Kathryn

  • Sara McCormick says:

    Kathryn,

    What a great article! I really like the idea of positive feedback as well as negative. Perhaps the two can balance each other out a bit. I really like how you pointed out that positive feedback should be just as specific as negative feedback. Our society is so geared towards finding and pointing out the flaws that we forget to do the same with the good things in life! I would imagine that this kind of feedback (the balance between positive and negative) would be great for schools and young kids who are developing their self-esteem, strengths and identities.

    Sara

  • Thank you for the flower, Sara. We do seem to skip over good work — particularly solid, not-spectacular good work that still can take immense amounts of effort. I think it is important that the positive feedback be for something real and earned. It’s an important skill to be able to see strengths and positive behaviors and mirror them back to people.

    Kathryn

  • Roy says:

    Great article!
    This is an issue with which I struggle. I am regularly giving feedback to people, particularly with regard to written documents, and I try to do it in a way that is positive and that lets the person know that I’m on his or her side. Often, however, I feel like I do not have as much time as I would like to be skillful in my feedback. I fear that commenting on the good things in a paper, or giving an opportunity to be heard, may take a great deal more time than simply editing and commenting on weak points. Is there a time-effective method for being more positive in feedback?

  • Roy,
    The question is, if you don’t take the time to look for the positive, does the negative have the impact you want it to have? To me, it’s like painting a wall without washing it first — the washing takes time, but it makes such a difference in the outcome.

    Actually I think this may be vary from person to person. Some people will expect you to get directly to the ways to improve. Others will assume, if you don’t say something positive, that you don’t see anything positive to say. Very different ways to interpret the same behavior, right?

    These are just opinions, of course.
    Kathryn

  • Jeff says:

    Another aspect I’ve noticed is that positive feedback is also a contextual thing. If I say “good job” and explain why something is good, again behavior can be interpreted many ways.

    Some people might feel patronized. Good has to be operational. Good to one is horrible to another. Also what is punishment can also differ. Think of masochists and kids who want to get out of class and go to the principal’s office.

    Good feedback might not feel good or even seem positive to someone who isn’t ready for it. It might, on the other hand, be the highlight of that person’s day. People are so variable.

  • WJ says:

    Roy – there is a time effective way. Hook into peoples values. ie Contextualise the feedback to what the person values. For example if they are high in zest, then a comment like “I really appreciate the energy you put into this piece:

  • Excellent article. I love your posts. Thoughtful mix of theory and practice.

  • Laura,
    Thank you for the flower. I aim for a good mix of theory/research and practice, so I’m glad to hear I hit the mark for you.
    Kathryn

  • Annie says:

    Hello! Very interesting and useful. It made me feel a bit less insane. I have just been thorugh a rough experience in which the professor giving feedback did a very bad job – I realize now. First I took it all on me. That I had a bad attitude and was not open for critisim. But looking back, I realize that was almost impossible after his third sentence: “this was boring, it put me to sleep”. Then he went on tearing the paper appart and not giving me many ideas of how to improve it. After all it was a writing workshop and I did expect to get some suggestions for improvement. On top of that a collegue said: “you should receive your critisims with a smile”. If the critism was carried out in a good way it would have come natural, but the way it was done, it would be a completely fake one, and furthermore, I did not want the people giving me feedback think that I actually thought they were doing a good job. What is worse though is that I have lost all of the respect for this profesor and that is actually quite sad. The only positive thing is that I have learned how NOT to give feedback to others and that is a good lesson, moreover, I have actively started looking for litterature on how to give feedback so I will not make the same mistake with my students. Cheers

  • Annie,
    I’m glad the article helped you look at the feedback you received in a new way.

    One thought that occurred to me while reading your comment: Do you need to lose ALL respect for this professor? Could you perhaps look at him in a more nuanced way, thinking, “Perhaps you never learned to give feedback well, or maybe you never learned how important it can be. How sad for you. But other things you do well include…”

    If you can’t think of anything that he does well, that’s one thing. But if he lectures well or picks good writing prompts or responds well to questions in class or ???, perhaps you could retain your respect for those aspects of him.

    You might also have caught him on a bad day, when something completely different was bothering him. Who knows?

    Good luck with your quest to become a strong teacher.
    Kathryn

  • Anant Agrawal says:

    Hi,

    This is an interesting article on feedback.

    I am curious to know whether it is norm to ask for feedback from interviewer, especially when the interviewer asks the interviewee if he/she has any questions to ask.

    Thanks,
    Anant

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