Giving and Receiving Feedback

Oh would some power the gift would give us,
to see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
and foolish notion.
Robert Burns, 1786


Organizations extol the virtues of "managing the synergy of our employees" as an extremely important vehicle for their effectiveness. Synergy - the total being greater than the sum of the parts -can be a very significant competitive advantage

True synergy requires that employees be different. After all, how much synergy does one achieve with a group of robots or people who are exactly alike? Not much!

Only a diverse group of people, can - working together effectively - realize the power of synergy. Diversity, however, results in conflict - it cannot and should not be eliminated.

How many different types of people really work together well? How "straight" are people with each other? Do they deal, directly, with each other when they have interpersonal and/or professional problems with one another; or, do they talk about "them" with other employees in the rest rooms, in the hallway, or around the water cooler?

If we are to unleash the power of synergy, organizations must demand and support clear and concise feedback between employees. It simply can't happen without it.

To make matters even more difficult, when people ask another person for feedback, what they really want to hear is how great you think they are! This will always be the case if the feedback is in any way linked with the employee appraisal system.

One wonders how many of the issues at ENRON, World Com, Adelphia, et al, would have occurred if honest, open feedback had been a way of life.

A suggested definition

Feedback focuses on behaviors and their effect on others.
Axiom #1: Focus on behaviors not attitudes, values or beliefs.
None of us can truly see the attitudes, values or beliefs of another person. What we know of another's attitude, values and/or beliefs is what she/he tells us they are and the conclusions we draw from our observation of that person's behavior.
Approaching another with comments about their attitude or beliefs is fraught with danger and virtually guarantees a negative response. "I don't like your attitude" will evoke a defensive reaction from the hearer every time!
The definition above suggests that the focus must be on my perception of your behavior and its effect on me - nothing more.

Axiom #2: People don't do anything that is a problem for them at the time they it.

If the behavior they have demonstrated, with which you might have an issue, was a problem for that person, he/she simply wouldn't do it! If someone is behaving in a way that has a negative effect on me, it's my problem, not his or her problem.

I suggest the concept of "problem ownership" - who owns the problem? All organizations and people have a set of behaviors that are acceptable to them along with those that are not acceptable to them.

ndividuals and organizations might begin by clearly stating those behaviors that are acceptable and those that are not! We then can appreciate those acceptable behaviors that are demonstrated and address those that are not! That's what feedback is all about. Confronting the effect of unacceptable behaviors!

Axiom #3: Use "I" messages, not "YOU" messages.

If I am having a problem with the effect of unacceptable behavior on your part, why would I begin a conversation, "You've got a bad attitude. I cannot imagine why you have such a terrible attitude. If you don't correct it right away, you are going to be in big trouble!" Doesn't make much sense to say it that way, but that's what most of us do.

"YOU" messages:
  • sound judgmental
  • do not take into account the needs of others
  • diminish the self-esteem of the other person
  • impose change
  • damage the relationship
  • create defensiveness.


On the other hand, if my conversation begins, "I've got a problem. I value highly doing my job well and I don't like the feeling I get when I'm not doing that job well. When XYZ occurs (what I'm upset about), it makes me feel incompetent. Can you help me with my problem?" Seven "I" or "me" messages and only one "you" message.

"I" messages:
  • focus on feelings
  • include active listening
  • share feelings and concerns
  • make no demands
  • is honest and open
  • show the effect of behavior
  • allow one to vent his/her feelings.


Characteristics of effective feedback
  • specific - cites a specific action or situation, not amorphous generalities
  • focused on behavior
  • considers needs of receiver
  • deals with behaviors the receiver can do something about - "you're too short" or "tall" is something the receiver can do nothing about
  • ideally, solicited - receiver is much more open when she/he has asked for the feedback
  • well-timed - not like we say to our kids, "just wait until your mother (or father) gets home" [2 days from now]"
  • only the amount of information the receiver can use - some people seem to have a need to keep talking, citing unrelated examples, so the receiver feels she/he is harping
  • doesn't question why? - not "I can't imagine why you would do such a thing".
  • sharing of information - not blaming, berating - simply stating the effect.


Receiving feedback

Too often, when people receive feedback they respond in one of two ways. When receiving feedback, keep these thoughts in mind:
  • try not to become defensive
  • ask for clarification
  • summarize/reflect on what you heard
  • ask for examples
  • check with others for validity [The receiver of feedback has every right to tell the giver that he/she wants to determine if the behavior described is a pattern or an isolated incident. Do others experience me the same way?]
  • share your feelings about the feedback.

As the receiver remember: it is your right to decide what to do with the feedback, which may be nothing. However, let the giver know what you plan to do!

Axiom #4: Giving and receiving feedback is about caring!

Do I care enough about this person, this group, this organization and their success to share the effect of their behavior on others and me?

It is really that simple! Certainly, it can be tough at times. Consider the alternative, however. Do you want to hear rumblings in the hallway or around the water cooler? Do you want to remain ignorant of something you are doing - probably without realizing it - that is unhelpful to others?