Thanks for the Feedback
By Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
(Viking, 348 pages, $32.95)
We’re told that feedback is like a gift. But most of us treat it like a colonoscopy – something to be endured.
That’s not unnatural, consultants Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen argue in their book Thanks for the Feedback, which presents the gift-colonoscopy example. We desire to learn and improve, which feedback can assist, but we also long to be loved, accepted and appreciated just as we are. And feedback calls for change, indicating we’re not good enough as we are.
Receiving feedback, they stress, does not mean you have to take it. But it does mean engaging in the feedback conversation skilfully and giving due consideration to the ideas expressed by the giver. “It’s about managing your emotional triggers so that you can take in what the other person is telling you, and being open to seeing yourself in new ways,” they write.
An important first step is to separate appreciation, coaching and evaluation. Appreciation is when someone acknowledges your worth. Coaching is direction aimed at helping someone to learn, grow or change. Evaluations are like a report card from school or a performance review, indicating whether you have been meeting expectations, and may come with consequences.
All three mingle in feedback conversations, and they can ignite emotions if, say, the person on the receiving end is seeking appreciation or coaching and seems to be receiving evaluation. Sometimes recipients want evaluation, which can be the touchiest element, and are frustrated to receive appreciation or coaching.
We need all three. But there must be an alignment between what the parties want to give and receive. That includes when somebody intends to give one type of feedback but it is interpreted as another.
They say that both parties should know the purpose and discuss it.
“Be explicit about what you think the conversation is about, and be explicit about what would be most helpful to you. Then discuss and, if you need something different, negotiate. Remember: Explicit disagreement is better than implicit misunderstanding. Explicit disagreement leads to clarity, and is the first step in each of you getting your differing needs met,” they write.
As well, separate evaluation conversations from coaching and appreciation. That is particularly important for performance reviews, where all three can be intertwined. If someone walks into a performance session determined to learn how to improve, the harder edge of evaluation can get in the way if they seem to fall short of the rating they were expecting. Everything else gets missed, as their internal voice shrieks in fury at the dismal evaluation. The authors recommend that the evaluation conversation and the coaching conversation should be separated by at least a few days, and preferably longer.
“The evaluation conversation needs to take place first. When a professor hands back a graded paper, the student will first turn to the last page to check their grade. Only then can they take in the instructor’s margin notes. We can’t focus on how to improve until we know where we stand,” they advise.
Another important improvement would be to avoid “switchtracking” – having both people in the conversation wanting to discuss different aspects of behaviour, each trying to trump the other. The example they give, perhaps familiar, is of a romantic weekend going awry when the husband gives his wife red roses and she responds, “Try not to take it the wrong way, okay? But if we’re going to be married for the next 30 years, I need you to know that red roses are not my thing.”
It’s not the first time she has mentioned this and he vaguely remembers previous feedback, but still wants thanks rather than an admonishment. He now wants to talk about why she can be given red roses and act so sharply, while she wants to talk about the fact that she tells him things and he doesn’t listen. Same focus, red roses, but two tracks.
It may be helpful that both elements are on the table, but the conversation will be unproductive unless the parties are clear that both of them have to discuss both topics. It’s vital, therefore, that you spot when your conversational train switches track, and give each their separate time. You need to say: “I see two related but separate topics for us to discuss. They are both important. Let’s discuss each topic fully but separately.”
Three triggers block feedback: Truth (differing views on how accurate the feedback is); relationships between the two parties (one can’t receive feedback easily from the other); and identity (the feedback is threatening).
The book is organized around those triggers, jammed with information on how to handle all aspects of feedback, until I wanted to scream, coach-like I hope, “Enough already!” But my evaluation is that it’s a highly useful compendium and, if you struggle with feedback, you will appreciate it.
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Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter