Tag: Feedback

What Information Do You Need in Order to Change?

Feedback is an effective tool for promoting efficient behavior: it enhances individuals’ awareness of choice consequences in complex settings.” —“Feedback and Efficient Behavior,” Sandro Casal, Nives DellaValle, Luigi Mittone, and Ivan Soraperra

We all want to improve at something. Skills we’d like to develop, habits we like to change, relationships we’d like to improve—there are lots of areas where we’d love to see positive, meaningful change.

Sometimes though, we don’t know how to keep moving forward.

We do research. We think of strategies. We try to implement a few tactics. And then we get stuck because we aren’t sure if what we’re doing is moving us in the right direction. So we keep on spinning our wheels, running without getting anywhere.

When you’re stuck, you need feedback. Feedback is a valuable source of information that you can use to effect the changes you want. You need information that tells you what you’re doing well and where you’re going wrong. Then you can use that information to plan tactics for bridging the gap between where you are now and where you want to be.

The more feedback you can get, the better. But how do you get good feedback?

Sometimes feedback is obvious, like when someone laughs at one of our jokes. They found it funny, and their reaction emboldens us to later try the joke on someone else. Sometimes feedback is codified into our professional lives, such as during a formal performance review.

Often though, if we want feedback we have to actively seek it out.

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How feedback works in behavior change

A robust finding in economics, psychology, and behavioral sciences is the systematic failure to act according to rational well-informed preferences. This failure to rationally process and integrate information due to limited cognitive resources may lead to inefficient behavior in many domains of everyday life and may produce costs that, in some cases, can be avoided simply by highlighting the consequences of such behavior.” —“Feedback and Efficient Behavior,” Sandro Casal, Nives DellaValle, Luigi Mittone, and Ivan Soraperra

A really simple example of the effect of feedback on behavioral change is energy consumption. Most people don’t have a deep understanding of their energy usage. In your home, do you use more or less energy than your neighbors? What’s your consumption like compared to the national average? The global average? What activities and habits use the most energy? Studies show that feedback on usage can be used quickly by consumers to make lasting change.

If you decide you want to reduce your energy consumption, research on how to do it is a great place to start. But feedback on the impacts of your subsequent choices is equally important.

Energy companies have started providing consumers with detailed information on their consumption, such as amount used in comparable months, what in the home is using the most energy, and usage according to time of day. Some companies go further by relating energy consumption to local and global effects, like brownouts and light pollution. People can then further adjust their behavior by switching appliances or better insulating their home, and they can stay motivated to stick to the new behavior because of the consistent feedback.

Having direct feedback on the results of your specific actions can reinforce positive changes, help you develop habits, and inspire you to take further action. Feedback also helps you set goals for what you can reasonably accomplish.

Trying to make ongoing systemic changes in life without feedback on those changes is hard. Feedback gives you the information you need to improve. Without it, you may be completely missing the mark of what you want to achieve.

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Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback

Asking how you could be a better partner, team member, friend, or leader from the people best placed to give you accurate feedback is a requirement for improving. If your actions are eventually going to get you fired, divorced, or ghosted by your close friends, you probably want feedback communicating the steps you’re taking toward disaster. Getting useful information in an ongoing, iterative loop gives you the opportunity to discuss solutions and make changes.

Feedback is baked into some professions. Writers have editors. Athletes have coaches. Actors have directors. In a New York Times article about the television show The Good Place, the show’s creator, Michael Schur, says of actor Kristen Bell, “She just has a really low center of gravity for how she approaches her job; you can give her forty notes on a line, and she’ll go, ‘Yep, got it,’ and she’ll do all forty of those notes at once.” When you trust the source, it’s easier to accept and incorporate feedback.

If you aren’t getting enough feedback or you want to augment what feedback you routinely get, hire a coach—an expert who knows how to give useful feedback in the area you want to improve in. No one is so good at something that they have no room for improvement. We can all get better. And if you want to get better, you have to be open to the feedback you receive. You don’t have to agree with it, but you do need to hear it. Getting defensive, critical, or shutting down will lead you to miss information and prevent others from attempting to give you feedback in the future.

If you want honest feedback, you have to prepare yourself to listen to things you might not want to hear. When you ask for feedback, explain that you’re looking to identify your blind spots and that you’re genuinely seeking information that will help you improve. Be as specific as you can. Be gracious with the results, even if they’re unpleasant. Remember that listening to a perspective doesn’t mean you endorse it.

Of course, not all feedback is good. Sometimes it’s just noise. Knowing when to ignore feedback that isn’t useful or is badly intentioned can be just as useful as knowing when to seek out the kind of feedback that is instructive. For example, feedback and opinions are not the same thing. Feedback is based on observation and reactions to your specific actions. It does not aim to tell you what you should be doing; it simply seeks to enlarge your perspective on what you are doing. Opinions are just someone sharing how they feel about a particular aspect of the world – they have nothing to do with you in particular.

The person giving you feedback is also indirectly sharing a wealth of information about themselves. Often what we give feedback on is related to what we find important, and what directly connects with our values.

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The power of feedback

When you’re aware of how powerful strong feedback can be, you may find you’d like to start giving more of it. When giving others feedback, ask yourself what information they might need to make meaningful change. Giving great feedback isn’t about convincing others to do things your way. It’s about giving them insight into how to improve on their own methods.

Giving good feedback requires an awareness of both what you’re saying, and how you say it. To the first point, make it personal, provide specific examples, and notice how things have changed over time. Reassure the person that you are trying to help them be a better version of themselves, that you are in their corner. Consequently, be aware of your tone. You’re a team member, not an accuser. And choose your timing wisely. At the end of a busy work day is probably not the time to give constructive feedback. People need the space to hear and process what you have to say.

We all want to get better at something. Don’t underestimate the importance of feedback in helping you reach your goals.

How to Provide Great Feedback When You’re Not In Charge

How often do we give deep thought to how we provide feedback to others? While it seems like something we’d all like to do well, most of the time we stink at it.

When was the last time you really felt your feedback improved someone else’s life, whether it was your spouse’s cooking or your employee’s performance?

The problem is that we forget we’re giving feedback to a fellow human being, not an advice-taking robot. Even when we’re well-intentioned, the message gets lost in the transmission. It’s like the old saying “What counts is not what’s said, but what’s heard.” We respond emotionally to criticism, even if it’s just implied criticism. (Are you sure you still fit into that dress?) This makes it difficult to help others improve. In other words, we fail to understand and appreciate human nature. Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp address the human nature of feedback in their book Getting it Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge.

Three Types of Feedback

The major idea is that while we think feedback is feedback, there are really three distinct types of feedback, and each needs to be used appropriately to effectively help others.

There are at least three different kinds of feedback that may be appropriate in a given situation:

  1. APPRECIATION is expression of gratitude or approval of another’s effort. It is an expression of emotion, designed to meet an emotional need.
  2. ADVICE (or COACHING) consists of suggestions about particular behavior that should be repeated or changed. It focuses on the performance, rather than judging the person.
  3. EVALUATION is ranking the subject’s performance in relation to that of others or against an explicit or implicit set of standards.

The habit you want to develop is to know your purposes when you offer feedback, and to make your comments in a form appropriate to accomplishing that purpose.

This is a very valuable framework because it brings our motivations to the surface.

Are we trying to show appreciation, offer advice, or offer an evaluation? (As in a grade or a performance review.) We think we can do it all at the same time, but that tends to be counter-productive. Take for example a professor handing out grades:

A college professor spends a large part of her weekend writing exhaustive comments on a student’s paper. When it is handed back, the student flips to the last page to see the grade. If he gets an A, he is overjoyed. If he gets a C he mopes the rest of the day, muttering that the grade was unfair. In either case, he spends little time trying to learn from all the suggestions the professor had made. The emotional impact of being graded tends to drown out the advice on improving performance.

The emotions involved in receiving your evaluation — good or bad — trumps the value of the coaching. The two objectives are at cross-purposes. And thus we must learn to use them more strategically.

It is best to offer different kinds of feedback at different times. At the very least, you should explicitly signal when you move from one purpose to another. Above all, it helps to separate both advice and appreciation from the anxiety that typically accompanies a performance review — evaluation. Most times, evaluation is the one that is least likely to be helpful, and most likely to distract from your other two purposes.

Here are a few specific ways we can go about separating the various methods of feedback and using them more judiciously.

1. Express Appreciation to Motivate

When should you offer appreciation? Always. It’s always a good time to spend a moment boosting someone else’s mood, and thus boosting their productivity. The cost is low: it takes only a minute to drop by someone’s office and say, “I’m grateful for your hard work.”

This, of course, mirrors the old Dale Carnegie saying “Be hearty in your approbations and lavish in your praise.” Who doesn’t want to feel appreciated, regardless of their level of work? This a deep emotional need, and one that’s very easy to meet. Charlie Munger once said that withholding deserved praise was basically immoral. Once we realize that expressing appreciation can be separated from offering useful feedback or constructive criticism, we’re free to offer it without risking a chance to push for specific improvement.

It’s also key that we offer honest praise. Most of us can see through false praise, and it tends to backfire. Telling someone who obviously failed that they “Did a great job!” is not a good idea, even if it sounds nice. Instead, try telling them that they obviously tried hard and that you appreciated their work, and then asking if they’d like your advice to help improve it. That way you’ve offered honest appreciation and help without the empty flattery.

2. Offer Advice to Improve Performance

In the appreciation phase, we were trying to direct our comments at the person directly: I value you and I value your effort. It has not gone unnoticed.

The advice phase is different — we want to talk about the task. A mentor of mine frequently called this “Separating the issues from the people” or being “Hard on the issues, easy on the people.” Either way, we’re trying to build the person up emotionally while also improving their performance. The key is to be specific.

The more general the coaching advice, the more it is taken as a personal indictment, rather than a professional analysis of the behavior…Telling someone “good job” doesn’t help him know which particular things to repeat. Specificity allows others to understand what exactly you saw them do, and why you liked it. That makes it more likely that they will make it part of their own thinking…Remember, the goal is to find better methods, not to be right. Sharing the specific data makes us partners in the job of finding better methods.

Notice the subtle shift of emphasis: “Let’s find better methods together” works better than “You suck and here’s why.”

The two specific categories of feedback we want to offer are reinforcements of what worked well and suggestions on what could be done differently. We tend to focus heavily on the latter, while too frequently ignoring our responsibility to reinforce what worked. If we spend time in both categories, being specific and backing our conclusions up with sound reasoning, we can help the person feel better about themselves while hopefully encouraging them to change specific aspects of their performance.

Skip the generic back-patting (“You did great!”) and tell them specifically what they did well: “You handled that conversation so calmly that the customer clearly knew you were on their side. I think that went a long way towards increasing their comfort with us and closing the deal.” Only then do we want to proceed to explain which changes can be made.

Each step in the process — offering appreciation, reinforcing what went well, encouraging togetherness — softens the final blow of “here’s what you might change.” This is how we increase the chance of our message being transmitted successfully. We must always put ourselves in the shoes of the feedback-receiver.

3. Evaluate Only When Needed

This is a simple one: Evaluation is frequently not the best way to improve performance. If we separate coaching from evaluation, as discussed above, this becomes more clear. We don’t need to assign performance grades all the time if we’re constantly reinforcing good habits and discouraging bad ones in an effective way. Immediate and clear feedback is so much more effective than a delayed performance review.

Reviews will, of course, be necessary at times when we must make tangible decisions about personnel — hiring, firing, promoting, etc. In those cases, make the evaluation swift and fair. Otherwise, steer clear of using evaluation as your main tool for improvement and motivation unless you’re specifically trying to deliver a message.

Evaluation is sometimes needed to give somebody a “kick in the pants” — to make them try harder. In selecting which of a dozen law students in an advanced negotiation seminar should be invited to become teaching assistants, Roger once asked all twelve to rank anonymously everyone in their class for their ability to be a good teaching assistant. No opportunity was given for collusion or bargaining. Eleven of the students ranked one student as number twelve, and one ranked that student as number one. The results suggested that that student needed some candid evaluation of how he was doing.

4. Take the First Fall

In the end, what we really want to do as leaders, whether we’re technically in a leadership position or not, is to create an environment where feedback is shared in a helpful and useful way. The best way to do that besides giving great feedback is volunteering to take some as well. As they say in Aikido, be willing to “Take the first fall.”

The best way to create an atmosphere in which coaching is shared is not to put someone else in the hot seat, but to volunteer to take it yourself. You can encourage others, whether bosses, colleagues, or subordinates, by asking for their observations about your performance. A request for coaching will have the most impact on people at your level or below. If you want your subordinates to ask for feedback from their subordinates, the best thing you can do is to show them that you are willing to do so as well.

Still curious? Check out Getting it Done by Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp, Getting to Yes the best-selling and most useful book on negotiation ever produced, or this amazing interview with former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss.