The problem with offering feedback

Bigstock / Aechan

Offering constructive feedback takes time, preparation, courage and clarity. But it’s worth it -- clear feedback leads to growth and change.

“Turn to the person next to you and tell them of a time in your life or work when you have received less-than-helpful feedback.”

The room buzzes as pairs swap stories. When we gather again as a whole group, I ask, “What commonalities did you hear between the story you told and the story you heard? What made for less-than-helpful feedback?”

Hands shoot up, and people start recounting the frustrations of belittling bosses and picky partners, demeaning dress-downs and random rants.

In seven years of asking groups these questions, not once have I had a person say that they’ve never received less-than-helpful feedback. In fact, those stories are easy to remember and tell.

If they have difficulty recounting a story, it is the opposite one -- the story of a time when they received feedback that made a difference in their life, that affirmed the way that they did something or motivated them to change. In seven years of asking the question, numerous people have reported that they have never gotten that kind of quality feedback.

It’s tempting to dismiss them. Surely, they have received some kind of feedback that made a difference; they just don’t remember. Or maybe they just didn’t think about it as feedback. Or maybe they don’t want to recount the story because of the content of a constructive critique.

But what if they are right? What if this random sample across seven years actually represents a large number of professional people who have never received good feedback? This wouldn’t be just sad or disappointing. This would be bad stewardship of one of the most important resources that any institution has -- its people. What if they are right?

My hunch is this: almost every institutional leader understands at a theoretical level the developmental importance of offering quality feedback to our colleagues, but frankly, many of us have a difficult time doing it. This is easy to understand.

Offering the kind of substantive feedback that fosters growth and change requires our time and energy; it requires planning and preparation. It necessitates consistent follow-up, and that means regular meetings inserted into already full-to-overflowing calendars. And it obligates us to say difficult things as directly as we can.

This is not meant to impose guilt; every leader I know already has a long list of what we feel like we should be doing that we can’t get around to doing.

Instead, I want to suggest that we simply make space for a conversation with our colleagues -- our direct reports, our peers and our supervisors -- about how we offer feedback to one another within our institutions. Is it our collective sense that we do this well, that we are good about offering specific, constructive, timely feedback to one another? Or is it our collective sense that things go unsaid or, if something is said, it isn’t helpful?

The conversation alone holds promise to make us better stewards of each other’s gifts.