The Four Cornerstones of Feedback – Part 1/4

Feedback. Barely a moment goes by in which we are not either providing or receiving it. In our conversations with family members, meetings with colleagues and furtive glances in the mirror or at the weighing scales, we are either confirming our opinions of others or allowing the opinions of others (or our own) to confirm what we think about ourselves.

Feedback helps to shape who we are. Sincerely delivered, specific and supportive feedback can help us identify previously unseen areas for development, expose us to new ideas and empower us to strive towards our potential, creating strong relationships in the process. Conversely, feedback that is insincere, ill-constructed or overly critical can demotivate and disenfranchise individuals, even permanently damage – or altogether destroy – relationships.

Several recent experiences have taught me some vital lessons on this subject. Since there are four principles at play here, I refer to these as the four cornerstones of feedback. Conveniently, they also spell a word: FAST. Ironically, developing the ability to deliver or receive feedback well is not a quick process, but the acronym is neat.

Whether you are a leader providing feedback, an individual receiving it or have been affected by negative experiences in the past, these principles will help you re-evaluate your approach to providing or receiving feedback so you can get to where you want to be.

Today, I will share the first cornerstone of what good feedback is and should be: from the heart.

Cornerstone One: ‘From the Heart’

Nobody will give a second thought to any suggestion or recommendation unless they feel the one delivering it cares about them in some way. Empathy is at the root of all meaningful human communication; as soon as we show a genuine interest in the welfare of another person and are motivated by a desire to see them succeed, we open the door to another person’s life and place ourselves in a position of immense responsibility – that of guiding them towards their potential.

When I have been sitting across a table from someone delivering feedback to me and felt a genuine care and concern on their part, their feedback is powerful, even life-changing. The exchange almost always begins with questions regarding well-being and then feedback is tactfully adapted to what the recipient might be able to absorb based on current skill, experience and emotional levels.

Leaders, please remember that the individual sitting across from you is a human being, not a cog in the machine. They have goals, dreams, ambitions, concerns, anxieties, families, health conditions and financial obligations. They could be sitting opposite you having had the worst week of their life. Treat them as if that’s the case, because you just never know. Speaking as one who once received deeply ignorant and insensitive feedback during just such a time, I can tell you that the effects on mental and emotional health can be long-term. You hold an individual’s career and welfare in your hands. It is an immense stewardship, one for which the salary is often strong evidence of its magnitude. Look after your employees; they are the living, breathing force that keeps your organisation moving.

The large majority of people are conscientious. They want to improve. They are acutely aware of their strengths and, more importantly, their weaknesses – sometimes painfully so. They don’t need someone to come in and flatly point it out to them, tearing flesh off the bone. They need a mentor, someone to reassure them of their value and invite them to bravely take the next step in their development.

That said, sometimes the most sincerely delivered feedback can be severely damaging. We have all had that experience of someone telling us something we didn’t want to hear at the worst possible time:

‘That was a bad move’.

‘That won’t do you any good’.

‘You need to lose a bit of weight’.

‘You should stop smoking’.

‘That relationship is toxic. Get rid of them’.

‘Your career is flatlining’.

All of these and more constitute feedback we might have received during our life. How much of it did we listen to? When it was phrased like that, my guess is, not much. Why? Simple – it’s phrased as a command, issued from someone sitting on a moral throne somewhere high above us, thinking they know best.

Feedback delivered in this way is a waste of oxygen. It isn’t helpful, actionable or specific; it doesn’t offer a solution or anything to act on. At best, it’s a bit insensitive; at worst, it’s cold, cruel and patronising. While it might be delivered sincerely from someone that might care about or love us deeply, this type of feedback is lacking the other three cornerstones, which will be shared in the next three instalments.

I appreciate the pressures that many leaders, employees and individuals face. We get up every day and have to be parents, children, siblings, partners, relatives, friends, colleagues, and the list goes on. We are often tired. We are often frustrated. We are often discouraged. However, let us not damage ourselves – or our relationships – by allowing these emotions to compromise the way we interact with others.

If you serve as a leader, I appreciate the heavy burden you must carry. It must be relentless. However, those for whom you have stewardship are your greatest asset. They are diverse, unique and hold limitless potential. Yours is the privilege of working with them, guiding them, supporting them. Ask them how they are. Ask them about their families. Ask them about their ambitions. Then deliver feedback from the heart, remembering where you started from and considering where that person across the table could go. They might be a future leader; treat them like they already are and they will make you a great one now.

If you are accepting feedback, remember the leader delivering it is also a person. They are imperfect and their perspective is limited, even if their salary doesn’t seem to be. Be gracious. Be kind. Don’t be confrontational. Do you have to agree? No. Take something that you can act on and politely discard anything that is unhelpful. Do not let one ill-worded comment rob you of your mental and emotional wellbeing. It is just not worth it.

I would love to live in a world where every comment and piece of feedback has been carefully considered and is delivered with emotional intelligence to have maximum impact. Reality is, we don’t live in that world. Nobody is perfect and amongst the time-pressures, demands and frustrations, we will all get it wrong at some point. My only plea is that next time we are about to say something that could be offensive or be offended by something that has just been said, let us re-think and, if needed, re-phrase. Our families, workplaces and communities will be the better for it.

Here’s to the quest for empathic, meaningful, sincere, from-the-heart feedback. Let’s crack on.

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