Feedback. Barely a moment goes by in which we are not either providing or receiving it. In conversations with family members, meetings with colleagues and furtive glances in the mirror or at the weighing scales, we either confirm our opinions of others or allow opinions of others (or our own) to reaffirm what we think about ourselves.
Feedback helps to shape who we are. Sincerely delivered, specific and supportive feedback can help 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.
Since there are four principles at play here, I refer to these as the four cornerstones of feedback. If one cornerstone is missing, everything falls down. 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 feedback.
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. 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 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, then feedback is tactfully adapted to what the recipient might be able to absorb based on current skill, experience and emotional levels.
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 incredible potential. Yours is the privilege of working with them, guiding them and supporting them. Ask them how they feel. Ask about their families. Ask 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 the maximum positive impact. Reality is, we don’t live in that world. Nobody is perfect and amongst 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.
Cornerstone Two: Actionable Feedback
If feedback is not actionable, it is worthless. If it does not present the recipient with a specific course of action that will yield growth, development and new ideas, we must seriously question why it is being given.
We are all limited people. We all arrive at a point where we our own skills, knowledge and experience have been exhausted. At this moment, we silently cry out for someone wiser, more experienced and more skilful to step in and say: ‘I can see you’re struggling with this. You’ve done brilliantly to get this far. When I was in this position, here is what I learned and this is what worked for me to move things forward. I suggest you try the following…’.
In my work as a teacher, my feedback to students is broken into three distinct parts. First, I always offer praise on something they are doing well. This brings a feeling of pride to the individual and opens them up to receive any subsequent advice. Secondly, I suggest an area of focus, something they need to do to move the work forward. For example: ‘Congratulations on using some excellent descriptive language in this piece of writing. To move forward, we need to make sure your use of punctuation becomes more controlled and secure.’ Good feedback, right? No! It is not actionable. It is missing the third – and most vital – element.
The third part of the feedback is the challenge. This is the invitation to act, to implement, to practise. After offering the above feedback to a student, my challenge might be as follows: ‘add a further paragraph to your story. Highlight all of the commas and full stops you are using to show that you are remembering to include them in your sentences.’ That’s much more like it! That will drive forward the progress of the student’s writing and hold them accountable for implementing the feedback given.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all feedback given was broken into those three elements: praise, recommendation and challenge? That sort of feedback meets the first and second corner stones. It comes from the heart, shows genuine care and can be acted upon. Too much of the feedback passed between colleagues, families and partners lacks one of these two cornerstones: either it lacks empathy or it can’t be implemented.
In all our interactions and all our feedback, let us remember to be kind and empathetic. Let us also remember that all suggestions given should be actionable, for it is through acting upon feedback that transformation happens and we get closer to where we want to be.
Cornerstone Three: Specific Feedback
Feedback that lacks specificity also lacks power. If the individual giving the feedback is not specific, they undermine their own credibility and professed expertise. They also rob the recipient of an opportunity to grow through the implementation of specific feedback.
Feedback that is non-specific shows a lack of due care, preparation and is not actionable, so this kind of feedback would fail to meet all three cornerstones.
Many people talk about the ‘praise sandwich’ in terms of structuring feedback. You offer praise, give the suggested improvement and end with more praise. As mentioned, when I offer feedback to students, I do so in three parts: praise, recommendation and challenge. Whilst the ‘praise sandwich’ structure might boost the confidence of someone in the earliest stages of development, it eventually becomes a disservice as it gives a false impression of progress and can erode trust over time. People need to be shown how to improve and be given specific action points. As long as it is delivered empathically and with a clear path to progress, there is no particular rule for the ratio of praise to recommendations. The sincerity of the one delivering the feedback is always more critical than how the points in the feedback are structured, but any recommendations must be accompanied by specific strategies or actions that can be implemented.
For example, imagine someone telling someone else: ‘As you have said you would like to improve your fitness, I recommend you go to the gym.’ This is actionable, but not specific. If that same person said, ‘Go to the gym on Friday at 6pm for 60 minutes and do these four exercises to improve your leg strength and overall fitness,’ then that changes everything. Specificity is the key to progress because it empowers the other person to act.
I am confident much of the feedback delivered in our workplaces and homes is well-intentioned, but can lack sensitivity, specificity and ideas as to how it can be applied. As we carefully consider the feedback we both deliver and receive, it is my hope that we will be both more attentive to the opportunities we give others to grow and how diligent we are in implementing the feedback we receive.
Cornerstone Four: Timely Feedback
The more time that elapses between the event occurring and feedback being received, the less impact it will have. Timeliness is key. Even if a more prolonged and detailed evaluation is not feasible immediately after the event has taken place, even a small verbal affirmation will help provide necessary assurance and boost confidence. There is no influence so marring to performance in the workplace as uncertainty.
There’s an old adage: ‘Actions speak louder than words.’ If a time is agreed for feedback to be received and the one delivering it runs over in a previous meeting, arrives late or does not show up at all, what is really being said? It essentially says to the individual, ‘you are not my most important priority.’ When someone is delivering feedback, the one receiving it should be made to feel like they are the only person on earth. They hold that individual’s career, confidence and (in some cases) mental and emotional well-being in the palm of their hand. Timely feedback is more likely to show empathy and retain sufficient coverage to be both specific and actionable, thus meeting the other cornerstones. If it is late or rushed, it is likely to lack sufficient detail or sensitivity to have any real impact.
What happens if the individual receiving the feedback is late or doesn’t turn up? It is a sign of disrespect to the person that has prepared to deliver the feedback. It says, ‘I don’t care what you have to say – I don’t need your help and don’t feel like I can learn anything from you’. This creates a negative impression, erodes trust and shuts the individual off from vital opportunities to learn from those more experienced.
Let us give feedback from the heart and ensure it is actionable, specific and timely. The way in which we communicate in our workplaces and homes – amongst rapidly evolving situations – will be a key factor in overall quality of relationships, productivity and success.