What Your Feedback To Others Says About You

Do you value giving feedback to your reports and other co-workers? Have you been told that feedback is an effective managerial tool that you should be using more? Do certain of your co-workers’ behaviors concern you, and you want to give them feedback? Here are typical stories from two managers, Joe and Diane:


  • Joe was frustrated about the performance of his direct report, Karen. Karen was expected to use a particular project planning tool with clients, but her habit in client meetings was to mechanistically walk through the tool instead of using it as a starting point for dialogue as Joe intended. Joe said, “I’ve really got to give Karen some feedback,” and described his plan to tell her how she was doing this ‘wrong’ and how to do it ‘right’.
  • Diane was not enjoying working with a new peer, Ravi. She said, “I don’t like working with people like Ravi – he is selfish and not genuine.” I asked why she believed that to be true, and she told me that she had heard him saying seemingly inconsistent things to two different people about how one of them had performed on a task. She wanted to talk to Ravi about her concerns, but was waiting until they had built more ‘trust’.


Typical Feedback Mistakes

Diane’s and Joe’s stories exemplify some common – and counter-productive – things managers do in the name of feedback:

  1. They describe global judgments – The person is taking a wrong action, not doing it right, it needs to be done better.

  2. They make inferences about the motives behind the person’s behavior –  Then they assume their inferences are valid, and they give feedback about the inferred motive rather than the behavior.

  3. They fail to recognize their own biases and motives – Which shape what they see and why it frustrates them.

  4. They worry about damaging a relationship by their feedback – They assume that feedback entails judgment, so they avoid the conversation or use indirect strategies such as the “sandwich” (surrounding a piece of ‘negative’ feedback by two pieces of  ‘positive’ feedback).


The Inner Processes That Account For These Mistakes

Interpersonal Gap Theory tells us that when A’s behavior has an impact on B, there are two potential sources of distortion. First, A is choosing (“encoding”) behavior that she thinks will effectively express her intentions (though it may not actually send that message universally). Second, B is interpreting (“decoding”) A’s behavior based on his own patterns of meaning-making (though those meanings may not match A’s intent).  Our coding and decoding are both based on assumptions, and it’s when we are not aware of those assumptions that we make mistakes.

Diane thinks she knows what Ravi was intending with his actions, but Ravi might be shocked to hear that interpretation. Joe is bothered by Karen’s behavior and draws conclusions about Karen, based on the meaning he attaches to her behavior.


How To Have A Constructive Feedback Conversation

So, what can you do to avoid these mistakes when giving feedback?

  1. Unpack your judgment words. Focus on descriptions of behavior and impact.

  2. Don’t assume that people know what you expect or what you consider to be ‘good’ performance. In addition to your feedback on past behavior, set expectations (or, “feed-forward”) about behavior you’d like to see in the future.

  3. Recognize that your inferences about others’ motives are your own constructions. Inquire and find out what the other person actually intended by their behavior.

  4. Don’t use the sandwich! If you are tempted by the sandwich, it’s a sign that the difficult bit of information you wish to share may be either a judgment or an untested inference.

  5. Take responsibility for your own subjective responses. Acknowledge, to yourself and to the other person, how your perceptions and biases have shaped your reaction to their behavior and the meaning it has for you.

  6. Know what pushes your buttons. Seek to understand what it is about you – your values, what’s important to you, perhaps even aspects of your own style that you disown – that creates this effect.

Above all, don’t assume that feedback is an objective act.  Feedback can lead to rich insight for yourself and for the other person, if you keep yourself in the picture and make it a mutual learning experience.


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