I saw her coming from the back of the room. She had looked disengaged throughout my presentation. Try as I might to stir up the audience, a disquieting air of Sunday sermon had slowly but surely crept over my talk on diversity. And now my boss was making a beeline in my direction.
“Can I give you some feedback?” she said when she reached me.
“Hell no!” I thought. “Of course you can” I replied brightly, bracing myself. Maybe she could enlighten me as to how and when I had lost my initially enthusiastic audience. It sure as hell wasn’t going to be a fun conversation.
I am not alone in welcoming feedback about as much as a visit to the dentist. Receiving “constructive” feedback is something most of us struggle with.
And yet, leadership experts and successful business people the world over seem to unite around the words of Daniel Goleman, best-selling author of “Emotional Intelligence”, who famously asserted that “feedback is the breakfast of champions”. But what do the real champions have to say about that?
Feedback, key ingredient to success for word-class athletes
Acclaimed tennis champion Rafael Nadal, who boasts no fewer than 19 Grand Slam victories, still seeks constant feedback. Says Nadal: “It’s important to have people around you with enough confidence to say if you are acting in a good way. Normally, when you are at the top, people say everything is fantastic. Probably in that moment it is what you want to hear, but it’s best to be reminded how to act properly.”
Similarly, world number 1 tennis champ Selena Williams surrounds herself with a team to help her in all aspects of her game: “I tell my coach and my image team, don’t tell me what I’m doing right. I want to hear what I’m doing wrong so I can improve and become better”.
The world famous All Blacks rugby team also embraces frank feedback as a key ingredient to success. Win or lose, following each match, every player watches the recording of their individual performance before a team review to discuss performance. Following their shock defeat to England in the 2019 World Cup, coach Steve Hansen said, “I don’t think you gain anything by not looking at it (failure) closely. You might think you’ll feel better, but you really don’t. The only way to move on is to be clear in your mind what the solutions are. That’s a mindset we’ve always had as an All Black group”.
“Aha!” I hear you say. “So feedback for breakfast = victory. And back in the world of business, I can tell it like it is to my colleagues. And of course, the more we need to learn, the more we welcome feedback, right?” Well no actually!
What type of feedback works best?
However, according to a study by the Journal of Consumer Research, “Tell Me What I did Wrong: Experts Seek and Respond to Negative Feedback”, we need to be careful about what breakfast we are dishing up to whom. The study reveals that how people react to feedback depends on their level of knowledge and experience. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people just starting out, or with less knowledge, are more likely to prefer positive comments. For this group, positive feedback is an important tool to build confidence and reinforce the desired behavior. Sometimes constructive feedback can trigger defensiveness and excuses rather than reflection and progress. Take a look at Nadal and Federer talking with Fabio Fognini in the 2019 Laver Cup.
On the other hand, people who are experts on a subject tend to be more open to hearing negative feedback and advice. Just compare Roger Federer taking on board the advice of friend and rival Nadal to snatch victory during the same tournament. For experienced veterans, negative feedback is important to advance and move their skills to the next level. As Nadal says: “Even if I have already peaked, I have to believe I can improve. I wake up every day and go to practise with the belief that I’m going to get better that day.”
So champions present and future should welcome feedback, but how should we dish it up?
The truth is that while positive feedback can motivate people to continue to do what they are doing well and gain confidence, negative feedback delivered in the right way and with the right people can generate powerful change. We’re talking different strokes for different folks—bacon and eggs and waffles for some, just a quick coffee for others.
Apart from balancing praise and criticism, we need to deliver our feedback with care—particularly when it’s negative. And while receiving feedback doesn’t always feel great (sometimes triggering the brain’s defense mechanisms), giving it doesn’t always feel much better.
Quick Feedback model
So to help you successfully serve your feedback, here’s a simple four-part formula recommended by LeeAnn Renninger, TED speaker, social psychologist and author
- Obtain the ‘micro-yes’: Begin by asking the other person for permission to give them some feedback. For example: “Do you have five minutes to talk about how that last meeting went?”
- Give your data point: Describe specifically what you saw or heard, avoiding any language that is not objective. For example: Instead of saying, “You need to be more reliable”, say, “You said you’d deliver the report by 12 and I still don’t have it yet”.
- Show impact: Explain exactly how your data point impacted you. For example: “Because I didn’t get the report on time, I couldn’t move forward with my work”.
- End on a question: Excellent givers of feedback end with a question to involve the other person. For example: “This is how I see it. What do you think?” Or “ I think one way around this could be X or Y. What do you think?” Renninger believes that finishing with a question like this helps build commitment rather than simple compliance.
Practise giving feedback
Finally, whether you’re a budding world champion or you make the best coffee in the office, it’s clear we can all benefit from effective feedback to be more successful. So, start putting these tips into practice and you’ll soon start to feel more comfortable and see the results. Bon appetit!
And as for the feedback from my boss? Well I learned from my boss that I need to use a little more intonation and smile a bit more to keep my audience engaged. Actually pretty useful tips for next time around!
If you’d like to learn more on giving and receiving feedback with the help of our expert coaches, then sign up for our new Skills Pill SMART objectives & Giving feedback.