It’s easy to assume that pointing out a mistake constitutes as feedback. To an extent it does, but that’s similar to telling your partner it’s raining outside and not handing them an umbrella.
Feedback is instructive language that positively influences behavior. It has an assumed intrinsic benefit: it provides knowledge on how to improve what we do and how we do it. It helps us grow and become better.
This value can be easily lost due to belligerent language masquerading as nurturing guidance. Tough love is a tone that is understood between parties, not a concept that’s automatically accepted just because you work together. Tough love is earned, not given.
The realm of giving and receiving feedback is built on many pillars: relationships, an understanding of personalities, timing, environment, tone and language, workplace culture, etc. When one of these pillars is unstable and disregarded in the conversation, an attempt at positive feedback is the last thing that’s remembered.
A friend of mine experienced this, and his example unfortunately describes many workplaces.
When he was hired, the boss said that the workplace culture was like a “family.” That word carries many expectations and assumptions, for good or ill, but of course when you’re being hired, you’ll stick with the good. My friend made a mistake, and the boss gave him feedback. When my friend retold the story, it didn’t sound like feedback—it sounded like criticism and contempt.
It was obvious why: the mistake was identified, but there was no guidance on how to fix it or avoid doing it again. There were no reviews in the weeks that followed on my friend’s progress. The boss complained to other workers. There was an exchange of words that lacked guidance, much less kindness.
He asked me, “How does your work do it?” While I’m not claiming that we are paragons of this art, the marketing team does our best to take this personal and emotional interaction and make it conducive for learning and growing together. It’s a process that is honed over time as relationships grow stronger and individual personalities are better understood. It’s the sole reason why I am improving.
The Heart of Feedback
Brené Brown—researcher, author, and TED speaker—said in her fantastic book, Daring Greatly:
The research has made this clear: Vulnerability is at the heart of the feedback process. This is true whether we give, receive, or solicit feedback. And vulnerability doesn't go away even if we're trained and experienced in offering and getting feedback. Experience does, however, give us the advantage of knowing that we can survive the exposure and uncertainty, and that it's worth the risk.
Again, there's no question that feedback may be one of the most difficult arenas to negotiate in our lives. We should remember, though, that victory is not getting good feedback, avoiding giving difficult feedback, or avoiding the need of feedback. Instead, it's taking off the armor, showing up, and engaging.
It’s that simple but also that difficult. Sometimes people just click and the process of providing feedback is effortless. There’s an understanding between the parties that whatever is being said isn’t meant to berate or judge harshly, but to improve and learn together.
When that understanding is amiss, organizations must strive to fill in that gap. Potential is slipping right through your fingers.
How do you take off the armor, show up, and engage?
When I first joined Help Scout, Greg and I got on the phone and addressed this issue immediately. As writers and marketers, we both understood that feedback was the lifeblood to developing my voice, getting familiar with the product, and understanding the audience.
By acknowledging the roadblocks that hinder this kind of communication, as well as acknowledging the art of candor, it instilled a series of expectations that prepared me for when feedback was imminent.
This is not only reassuring as a coworker, but as a human being. Now I know what to expect. Trust ensues. With this expectation comes confidence in knowing that I will be coached to victory. Sometimes a heart-to-heart conversation is what sparks this understanding; the actions that follow keep it vibrant.
Once vulnerability is understood and readily practiced, feedback can become a positive and life-changing aspect of personal growth. But just because mistakes were identified doesn’t mean we can start sailing.
To complete the loop, don’t just give feedback; script the next critical moves.
How to Script Critical Moves
Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, share a study done in 2000 where moviegoers were given a free bucket of popcorn and a drink. However, the popcorn was purposely stale—so stale that it squeaked. Some people got large buckets and others, medium buckets.
They wanted to see if people with larger buckets would inevitably eat more than those with medium-size buckets. Turns out, people with large buckets ate 53 percent more, even if the popcorn tasted awful.
Encouraging a person to stop snacking is our default reaction and is assumed as feedback—by definition it is, but on its own, it’s shallow. Coaching someone to use a smaller container is taking the realization (overeating) and mixing it with a critical step (using smaller buckets). In the case of the popcorn, this wasn’t an attitude or a lack of knowledge problem—it was a design problem. As the authors said:
Change begins at the level of individual decisions and behavior, but that’s a hard place to start because that’s where the friction is. Inertia and decision paralysis will conspire to keep people doing things the old way. To spark movement in a new direction, you need to provide crystal-clear guidance. That’s why scripting is important—you’ve got to think about the specific behavior that you’d want to see in a tough moment... You can’t script every move—that would be like trying to foresee the seventeenth move in a chess game. It’s the critical moves that count.
When I receive feedback from Greg, we identify the mistakes and patterns in my previous article, and then he scripts the critical moves: “Write the thesis before starting the article; outline the takeaways; avoid triple adjectives; stop using the word ‘essentially.’”
I write these on a Post-it. Whenever I start a new draft, I review the critical moves and start anew. Over time, these critical steps become my new default, thus improving my efforts and removing bad habits.
The last piece to this feedback puzzle is simply to review the progress.
Review and Adapt Accordingly
As the French essayist Montaigne once said, “It is not enough to recount experiences; they must be weighed and sorted; they must be digested and distilled, so that they may yield the reasonings and conclusions they contain.”
This last part completes the puzzle: review with your manager (or whomever) on how you've implemented this feedback, how the critical moves helped, and how this adjustment in behavior facilitated improvement and change.
The art of feedback is a continuous process that improves and adjusts with circumstances. If there is one kind of communication that fundamentally changes and improves an organization—as well as develops beneficial bonds among a team—it’s the exchange of words that nurture potential. To sustain this, you must be willing to take off the armor, show up, engage, and not only identify mistakes, but provide clear guidance on what to do next.
Think about it: is there anything more invigorating than knowing there are people who want to help you become your best self? It starts with how we interact with one another. Words can hit and bounce off people or they can be planted like a seed. Even the raise of an eyebrow or the wrong tone can extinguish a desire to learn, stirring anxiety and a fear of failure.
By reflecting on how the feedback process works within your organization, you can reinvent a lost but necessary art that’s the foundation to lasting change.