Ten Commandments of Feedback

Feedback can be divine when we follow these rules.

We have such a hard time giving and receiving feedback, you’d think it was a divine decree.

Some prefer to dodge and disguise it. Others choose to defy and deny it. Depending on where you work, the feedback culture can range from cautiously polite to positively caustic — and that’s assuming people bother to share any sort of feedback at all.

After years of helping organizations apply a feedback fix, I’ve found these ten rules to be particularly instructive. The list isn’t sacred or chiseled in stone, but the practices can improve the feedback experience for both givers and receivers– and may just help you discover the joy of feedback once and for all.

1. Hold the mirror.

“Mirror holding” is a dramatic shift in the tone and trajectory of feedback conversations. Instead of telling their employees what to see, managers show them where to look. The best leaders I’ve worked with don’t force a change. They provoke an insight. They treat feedback as an opportunity to expand the view of others, not enlarge their own.

2. Look forward.

Feedforward is the process of pointing others towards a future they can still change instead of a past they can’t. The future is a place of possibility and potential. That’s exactly where leaders should be guiding these conversations about work. Work quality improves when people believe their future is clear, exciting, and something they can create. There’s a reason a car’s dashboard is bigger than its rearview mirror!

3. Listen and learn.

“Know it alls” like to think they have all the answers. “Learn it alls” like it to get answers from others. A simple way to turn feedback into a conversation is to adopt a learning mindset. Stay curious. Be humble. It’s amazing what we learn about ourselves when we’re just a little less certain about our own beliefs.

4. Ask for it.   

Too often, feedback arrives too late. Take matters into your own hands by asking for feedback. And ask often. Giving people multiple opportunities to deliver feedback eases their comfort level and increases the likelihood they’ll share something useful. Feedback is too important to leave to chance. Get it on your terms.

5. Widen your circle.

After getting negative feedback, the last thing you want is more criticism. But that’s exactly what we need, and it pays to seek input from critics and challenge networks. By reaching out to others for their insights and input, you’ll deepen your understanding of the feedback you received. We need objective voices to help us find the signal amid all the noise.

6. No time lapse.

We forget things almost as soon as we learn them. This “forgetting curve” wipes out nearly 90% of information that’s not actively retrieved. When feedback is time lapsed, the effects can be devastating: Neither the giver nor receiver can truly recall what happened. The result is blame, shame and pain. The recourse: Make friends with frequency.

7. No sandwiches.

There’s nothing wrong with a little praise — just a praise sandwich. Not only does it dilute the message (we don’t know what others are saying), but it diminishes trust (we can’t rely on what they’re saying). For better results, try serving a feedback WRAP: The combination of candor and collaboration offers a more satisfying experience for givers and receivers alike.

8. No pile-ons.

Too many choices and a myriad of decisions literally shut down our ability to process and perform. When feedback feels like fire hose, it shuts people down. Instead of piling on, set a few targets at a time. It’s easier to track and execute, raising the odds that real improvements will happen.

9. No uniformity.

With feedback, one size fits none. Experts and novices have different feedback preferences, as do men and women. Right-sizing our feedback means taking these and other realities into account. I’ve found it helpful to ask others how they wish to receive feedback — written, verbally or a combination of the two. People are unique. Their feedback should be, too.

10. No obsessing.

Don’t waste time obsessing over details — it distracts you from the larger lessons. Instead of parsing the message for hidden meaning, simply thank the person for giving you the feedback and make a plan of action. Too many people get stuck on what happened and fail to think about what needs to happen next. Don’t obsess. Progress.

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