As a member of many teams over the years, both leading and contributing, I have learned a lot about feedback. How it is dealt with is a core aspect, not only of work culture, but also in all our relationships. In this post, I will deal with the kind of feedback which is meant to have a purpose, that of improving performance, often thought of as coaching.
Coaching is at its most useful when it is an active exchange of mutual learning. On the one hand, I find I learn so much trying to explain concepts to others, whilst on the other hand I very much enjoy the experience of being coached myself. Effective coaching is rarely dominated by telling people what to do.
Encouraging self-reflection and evaluation within a context of mutual respect and desire for improvement are critical to achieve progress. You cannot presume that someone wants a coaching relationship with you, and they may perceive attempts to coach them as unwarranted criticism.
I think it is helpful to break feedback down into 3 types: praise, encouragement of self-reflection and evaluation, which can be either objective or subjective. It is also important to make a distinction based upon the type of relationships or power dynamics involved.
This leads to a grid, similar to the one used in “How to Write”.
Type 1 – Praise
Very often when people say they want feedback, they only want praise and it quickly becomes a vacuous form of feedback. We have all heard the disparaging stories of “millennials” who are conditioned to expect it. Indeed, I have come across this problem with juniors but I feel anyone adjusting to the world of work, especially straight from university, may find the real-world environment a challenge. I probably did myself.
People who have had a career in a more protected environment, or who have low self-esteem, may also need frequent reassurance that their work is valuable. We see that praise is the only form of feedback that Donald Trump can tolerate. Whereas seasoned and successful professionals tend not to seek praise as much. They know that when validation of their work comes, it is well deserved but their self-esteem is strong enough not to require it.
Like most people I enjoy being praised, but If I am highly praised for something I do not consider particularly worthy, then it has very little meaning to me. My greater desire is to learn and improve, so I actively seek other types of feedback. However, I do believe that praise is underrated as a feedback tool and it can be a very effective form of teaching, positively reinforcing good behaviours if used selectively. This is the way that I like to use it and to receive it.
As parents, praise is totally natural, we proudly clap our children at the slightest provocation. Children are naturally experimenting with behaviours and desperate to learn through new experiences, so selective reinforcement is very powerful. Genuine strong praise for a child who has tried hard at something is mutually rewarding and comes very naturally.
Overall, my approach is to try to use praise genuinely, but it is not as easy as it sounds. At work, I often start with praise but mix in other forms of feedback. This often carries the risk that the recipient may not hear the praise at all, and in fact perceive the whole conversation as pure negative criticism, especially given our power relationship. Furthermore, where the need for praise is too strong, then validation becomes an obstacle to learning in itself. If they receive a lot of praise, then why change behaviour?
A general principle is that people tend to give out the type of feedback they like to receive themselves. If I am managing a person who only wants praise, I struggle to manage them and these relationships have not worked for either of us
Type 2 Encourage self-evaluation
This is simply asking someone their thoughts on what they did or how they feel something went.
This is a type of feedback that may not register as feedback to many people, it does not involve any praise or criticism, no evaluation or active coaching.
The idea is to encourage reflection and to start a conversation from which you both can learn.
This style of feedback comes naturally to me and is most enjoyable if the other person wants to participate. Receiving this type of feedback from investors, it led to the most enjoyable and engaging conversations and I think I learned the most.
Remember the most common source of this form of feedback is yourself!
Type 3a Evaluation – Objective
This is a very important type of feedback if you can get it.
In modern sport, virtually every facet of the game is reduced to statistics which can be measured and help form the development of training drills to enable a player to improve. Purposeful practice requires a solid feedback mechanism.
Learning without a reliable feedback mechanism makes objective evaluation much harder. Learning to trade for example. A market making environment lends itself to objective evaluation as the number of transactions is likely to be high and the speed and accuracy of pricing can be easily observed. But it is one of the reasons that learning to trade by taking risk in markets is difficult, as in the short term the element of luck is large enough to create noise in the consequences of your decisions.
If evaluation is clearly objective and applied transparently to all staff, then it is likely to be accepted. But the attractions of this type of feedback are also its drawback. It is appealing to generate objectives which are measurable, but not necessarily relevant to the goals of the organisation. Think of the Blairite obsession with targets in health and education, which created distortions in incentives.
Type 3b Evaluation – Subjective
Subjective evaluation is the most overused form of feedback, and most people seem to think this is what feedback is. If you look at the forms that HR demand you fill out for conversations with your staff, you will see the word evaluation everywhere. This is often combined with a requirement to assign scores or rankings to various aspects of the employee, creating the illusion of objectivity but they are actually the opinions of the manager.
Subjective evaluation may have a place. If your intent is to make a complaint then this can take the form of a negative evaluation, for example if you want to complain to a hotel you can give a low rating on TripAdvisor. But there is wide variation in the quality of such comments. In large firms however, negative evaluations are used almost exclusively as part of the process of firing employees.
When I ran a large fund, I had hundreds of investors, old and new, continually evaluating me. If I agreed with the evaluation, it was likely it became an experience of being berated rather than a learning point. If I did not agree with the criticism, I still had to take it.
In close work environments, the giving and receiving of such feedback can be a minefield. It can be hard to receive emotionally, especially when the receiver doesn’t accept the view or worse the right or competence of the person to evaluate them. Unsolicited feedback is pure criticism – no one likes to be criticised. This is why, in practice, most work evaluations turn into exercises of giving praise, even when it is not genuinely deserved.
The relationship matters
What is striking about the workplace is how little useful feedback is given and/or taken.
If you are the in a position of authority, care must be taken not to blindly hand out feedback that could be construed as pure criticism. Remember anything you say has a magnified impact, given the nature of your relationship. Consider layering in the various forms of feedback I mention, remember the idea is to help your employee, not to add unnecessary strain or distance.
If an employee receives feedback that they don’t like, it can often be seen as confrontational or rude, and instead of trying to work out what was the purpose of such feedback the employee is more likely to grumble about them behind their back. A very poor outcome for both parties.
If you are a person who wants to improve, you need to actively seek out feedback from people you respect, this is key to improving performance. Avoiding criticism is an ingrained social habit, so bear in mind you need to be prepared for an honest evaluation. Keeping any defensive reaction in check is important as if you react defensively, you are likely not to hear honest feedback again. You should thank the person for the feedback and do your best to understand it. If you think it is completely wrong, then you still have an important learning point, that someone you respect perceives it to be true.
How to manage feedback is one of the most important aspects of work culture and defines whether your organisation is going to merely stagnate or rather learn and develop.
As a giver of feedback, it is important to recognise what kind of feedback the person wants and will be able to process.
As the receiver of feedback, you have the main power. You can be defensive and only accept praise, or you can actively solicit opinions which you can incorporate into your learning process.