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Giving Redirection Feedback

It's easy to avoid giving difficult feedback. Nobody enjoys being the bearer of bad news. Believing that feedback is bad news prevents it from being useful, but letting someone know about behavior that is interfering with productivity is imperative for improvement. Not telling someone that they are behaving poorly when it is impacting business is a disservice to everyone involved. Think of giving feedback as something you do to help. Redirecting feedback is a better mental model than difficult feedback. Not giving feedback makes your day easier at the expense of someone else.

We know this is easier said than done. Many people avoid giving feedback because they do not want to hurt someone else's feelings. In reality, they don't want the person to get mad and hurt their own feelings. It takes courage to help someone else grow, and that's what respectful feedback requires.

Effective feedback should be limited to facts. Avoid talking about your feelings or those of others. Feedback should be given as soon after the occurrence of the "fact" as possible. Keep the focus of the language on how you perceive the situation, using "I" instead of "you" whenever possible, which keeps the conversation from coming across as judgmental. Seek first to understand. Your interpretation of the situation may not be complete, so allow the person receiving feedback the opportunity to share their side of the story before you share your own.

Here's an example of a poor opening feedback statement:

You are really bugging the people in customer service. You better stop making them so mad. This is the same problem we have had over and over with you. [Unclear behavior—what does bugging mean? Followed by a threat, then bringing up old news without any specifics. And who are "we?"]

Here's another example of a poor statement, illustrating how some people try to put themselves or others down to cushion the feedback:

I am not sure I should be telling you this, and I hope you won't get mad, but I don't think those customer service people like you very much—although I know they are really idiots and it's probably their fault.

Compare those two examples to this version, which contains factual current data, the "I" language, and seeks to understand:

I would like to talk with you about your relationship with the customer service area. Two of the staff in that department called yesterday, and said that you were rude to them on the phone. What do you think happened?

IT people often find it difficult to give others positive feedback. This may seem surprising, but complimenting a co-worker can seem like you are buttering her up for something you need.

The guidelines described above also keep positive feedback from becoming "brown-nosing." The use of "I" language, facts, and specifics are critical. Make a habit of "catching people being good" because as much learning occurs by reinforcing good behaviors as it does from constructive feedback. Here are two examples, starting with a poor approach:

Umm, I just wanted to let you know that you are doing, um, a good job...I mean, it is really a good job.

Contrast that with this:

That report you presented yesterday was extremely well done. I especially liked the summary at the beginning and end, and the way you kept your remarks concise and to the point. Thank you.

Notice the power in "thank you." That simple phrase is underused in IT organizations.

While coaching is not the best setting for a leader to receive feedback from the person you're coaching, it may happen. Demonstrating that you can receive feedback effectively will help your staff's ability to receive feedback. When appropriate, redirect any feedback you receive in a coaching session, and set up a time for talking about this outside the coaching agenda.

Receiving feedback well is important for your own growth as a leader. In Servant Leadership (Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 1977), Robert Greenleaf says "...receiving requires a humbleness of spirit." Those who have the capacity to receive, value, and leverage feedback are very strong leaders. Here are some additional tips for receiving feedback:

  • Most people aren't skilled at giving feedback. They will express feelings, not objective assessment. Listen through the emotion for facts that may have merit, remaining as neutral as possible.

  • Feedback is perception, not truth. Use feedback for learning about how others perceive you as the starting point for more research.

  • Appreciate and acknowledge the time and courage it took to provide feedback.

  • How you respond determines what kind of feedback you'll receive in the future. Say "thank you."

  • Reflect on why receiving the feedback was positive or negative, so you can use the knowledge in the future.

  • Balance span of responsibility and span of control. Some feedback will be about things you can't change, and you must say that when it is true.

  • Entering into this level of dialogue is a significant achievement. Congratulate yourself!

Here are some practical ways to focus your thoughts so that you keep your cool while receiving feedback:

  • Take notes to keep busy and stay open.

  • Let her finish. Do not interrupt, no matter how long the feedback goes on.

  • Ask for specific examples.

  • Do not defend yourself. Focus on questions rather than debate and defense.

  • Thank her for her honesty.

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