Imagine your boss is saying, “I have some feedback for you” – notice what reaction you get. Very often it feels like a threat, as “We have a problem”!
According to this article by David Rock of NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI), “Feedback conversations, as they exist today, activate this social threat response. In West and Thorson’s study, participants’ heart rates jumped as much as 50 percent during feedback conversations. (Equivalent spikes have been found during some of the most anxiety-producing tasks, such as public speaking.) In their self-assessments, participants reported feelings that mirror what just about everyone has experienced personally: nerves, uncertainty, and anxiety. All this physiological stress has the unfortunate effect of draining a person’s mental resources.”
The purpose of feedback is to help someone grow, to be better at something. For the feedback receiver, it helps them to find out how their work is being seen from the outside. Ideally, it is like having a mirror or a camera. A quick web search brought this definition of feedback: “Comments in the form of opinions and reactions to something, intended to provide useful information for future decisions and development.” Clearly the purpose of feedback doesn’t have “fear” or “threat” in it.
Recently I used the approach of co-creating feedback in a project where I gave feedback to senior corporate leaders. I was very happy to see how it created a safe environment of learning and encouraged the participants to take risks and learn. Each of the feedback sessions was genuine, deep and fun at the same time. One of the leaders said -“You created a place of trust and safety for me to try, explore and ultimately to learn and develop”. In my opinion, co-creation was the heart of this experience. (Context: The purpose of this project was to help the participants, the senior leaders develop some specific leadership skills. As their coach, I watched them using those skills in their workplace with their teams. Each of the participant leaders and I met afterward for a feedback session.)
Here are the four main steps I followed during those feedback sessions.
1. Clarifying their Intention
In our day to day life, we often *assume* the intention instead of asking. As a result, the feedback ends up as irrelevant and ineffective and both the parties get frustrated. I asked the leaders (the feedback receiver in this case) these questions to help clarify their intention.
- What was your intention (what were you trying to accomplish)? What skills did you focus on?
- What is your own assessment? What went well? What were some stretches?
- What next level of mastery you want to develop?
- What works for you when receiving feedback?
2. Sharing the Feedback
It is a two-part process.
- Content – Before our feedback session, I took the time to note down my observations/opinions about their possible strengths and growth opportunities. I treated it as a draft (not the final feedback) so that I can be fully present during the session without having to remember the content.
- Delivery Style and Relevance- Aligning them with the learning intention (#1) made it relevant and meaningful for them.
- Strengths – Noticing and acknowledging their strengths is a big part of this step. Sometimes it could be simply validating their own assessments. Making the unconscious conscious is a very powerful way to help develop a skill- to make it repeatable, sustainable. It helps the person become more confident in their own strengths.
- Growth Opportunities – For the areas that didn’t seem that strong, I got curious. Keeping in mind their learning intention (in #1), I explored it together with the leader. It helped them to come up with insights and alternative ideas. I also offered some as I saw fit.
Creating relevance like this made it easier for the receiver to make the connection. Delivery is the make it or break it skill and the key to the feedback process. No matter how brilliant the feedback was, it was my opinion. It is effective only when it is received by the other person. Using words like, “you may consider”, “perhaps”, “what do you think” made it gentler. As one can see, this is a 2-way conversation as the receiver processes to internalize it.
3. Finalizing the Feedback
In this step I let the receiver decide what part of the feedback they were going to take and act on. I asked these questions.
- What was most useful to you?
- What are the 1-2 things you are taking away?
This part may seem obvious and is often overlooked. The receiver needs to choose and internalize it.
4. Designing the Next Steps
Feedback without a commitment may not be helpful in the long run. In the end, I asked some accountability questions to helps them put it in practice. Some example included:
- How will you apply it?
- When will you do that?
- How will you keep yourself on track?
During this process, it is very important to let go of any attachment to the answers. The receiver has to feel confident about the next steps.
I see this four-step feedback co-creation process as an application of the coach approach in our everyday life. It gives the sense that both of us are peers, we are working together collaboratively – a very important element for psychological safety. In this process, I learned as much as those leaders if not more. Compassion is a vital part of it. As I prepared for the sessions, I remembered those moments when I got such feedback. It helped smoothen my own critical edges. These leaders were often very critical of themselves. It prompted us to examine our beliefs about a growth mindset. In the end, this co-creation of feedback became a tool of our reciprocal growth.