From Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.
The company you work for was recently acquired, your role changed, and your team reshuffled. It’s a chaotic and uncertain time, and you and a colleague from the old company meet up regularly after hours at the bar across the street to compare notes on the transition.
One evening you mention to your friend that you’re not getting any feedback from your new boss, Rick. Your friend is surprised: “Just yesterday Rick was telling everyone at the meeting how grateful he is to have you on the team. I’d call that feedback. What do you want, a trophy?”
Sure, Rick appreciates you, which is nice. But you have something else in mind: “Here’s the problem. I used to be the head of marketing for the greater Miami area. Now I’m head of product campaigns for the Pacific Rim. I don’t even know what the Pacific Rim is.” A trophy would be good, but what you really need is some coaching.
A few weeks later your friend asks how it’s going. Generally well, you explain: “I told Rick that I needed more direction. So we meet each week to go over what I’m doing and questions I have. He’s got a lot of insight into the region.” Your friend is envious: “So Rick appreciates you. Rick coaches you. Sounds like you’re pretty set on the feedback front.”
But you’re not. There’s one other thing. Since the merger, you’re unsure where you stand. Titles and roles now overlap, and there’s always talk of cutbacks. “I can’t tell whether I’m just filling a hole until Rick can find someone with better background for this,” you admit to your friend. “I’m learning as fast as I can, but I don’t know if I’m part of his long-term vision or just a stopgap.”
Separate Appreciation, Coaching, and Evaluation
Your friend suggests you raise the issue directly with Rick, and you do. Rick tells you that he’s done a careful evaluation of your work and thinks it’s extremely strong. And then he lets on that he’s grooming you to be his successor when he moves on to a new role at the parent company.
That evening you share the good news with your friend, and he congratulates you heartily. And then adds: “As long as we’re on the topic of feedback, how come you never ask for feedback from me?” You counter: “Because you don’t have feedback for me.” After an awkward silence, you say, “Okay, what?” And with surprising aggressiveness, your friend says this: “When’s the last time you picked up the check? When’s the last time you talked about anyone but yourself?” Holy cow.
Your friend calls this feedback, but you’re pretty sure it’s called picking a fight.
These conversations between you and Rick, and you and your friend, highlight that when we use the word “feedback,” we may be referring to any of three different kinds of information: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Each serves an important purpose, each satisfies different needs, and each comes with its own set of challenges.
When your boss says how grateful he is to have you on the team, that’s appreciation. Appreciation is fundamentally about relationship and human connection. At a literal level it says, “thanks.” But appreciation also conveys, “I see you,” “I know how hard you’ve been working,” and “You matter to me.”
Being seen, feeling understood by others, matters deeply. As children these needs are right on the surface as we call across the playground, “Hey, Mom! Mom! Mom! Watch this!” If, as adults, we learn not to pester quite so obviously, we never outgrow the need to hear someone say, “Wow, look at you!” And we never outgrow the need for those flashes of acknowledgment that say, “Yes, I see you. I ‘get’ you. You matter.”
Appreciation motivates us – it gives us a bounce in our step and the energy to redouble our efforts. When people complain that they don’t get enough feedback at work, they often mean that they wonder whether anyone notices or cares how hard they’re working. They don’t want advice. They want appreciation.
When you ask your boss for more direction, you’re asking for coaching.
Coaching is aimed at trying to help someone learn, grow, or change.
The focus is on helping the person improve, whether it involves a skill, an idea, knowledge, a particular practice, or that person’s appearance or personality.
Your ski instructor, the guy at the Apple Genius Bar, the veteran waiter assigned to show you the ropes on your first day, and that empathetic friend who advises you on your mixed‑up personal life are all coaches in this sense. So are bosses, clients, grandparents, peers, siblings, even our direct reports and children. And of course, we all have “accidental” coaches. That knucklehead in the Land Rover behind you has a point that you should get off your cell phone and stay in your lane.
Coaching can be sparked by two different kinds of needs. One is the need to improve your knowledge or skills in order to build capability and meet novel challenges. In your new role you’re working to learn about the markets, products, channels, culture– and location– of the Pacific Rim.
In the second kind of coaching feedback, the feedback giver is not responding to your need to develop certain skills. Instead, they are identifying a problem in your relationship: Something is missing, something is wrong. This type of coaching is often prompted by emotion: hurt, fear, anxiety, confusion, loneliness, betrayal, or anger. The giver wants this situation to change, and (often) that means they want you to change: “You don’t make our family a priority,” “Why am I always the one who has to apologize?” or “When’s the last time you picked up the check?” The “problem” the coaching is aimed at fixing is how the giver is feeling, or a perceived imbalance in the relationship.
When your boss says your performance is “extremely strong” and that he’s grooming you for his job, that’s evaluation (in this case, positive).
Evaluation tells you where you stand. It’s an assessment, ranking, or rating.
Your middle school report card, your time in the 5k, the blue ribbon awarded your cherry pie, the acceptance of your marriage proposal– these are all evaluations. Your performance review–“ outperforms” or “meets expectations” or “needs improvement”–is an evaluation. And so is that nickname your team has for you when you’re not around.
Evaluations are always in some respect comparisons, implicitly or explicitly, against others or against a particular set of standards. “You are not a good husband” is shorthand for “You are not a good husband compared with what I hoped for in a husband” or “compared with my saintly father” or “compared with my last three husbands.”
Evaluations align expectations, clarify consequences, and inform decision making. Your rating has implications for your bonus, your time in the backstroke means you did or didn’t qualify. Part of what can be hard about evaluation is concern about possible consequences– real or imagined. You didn’t qualify (real), and never will (predicted or imagined).
And sometimes, evaluations contain judgments that go beyond the assessment itself: Not only didn’t you qualify in the backstroke, but you were naïve to think you would, and so, once again, you’ve fallen short of your potential. The judgment that you are naïve or falling short is not based on the assessment– the outcome of the race. It’s an additional layer of opinion on top of it. And it is the bullwhip of negative judgment – from ourselves or others – that produces much of our anxiety around feedback.
Surprisingly, reassurance–“ You can do this” and “I believe in you”–also falls into the category of additional judgments, but on the positive side.
WE NEED ALL THREE
Each form of feedback – appreciation, coaching, and evaluation – satisfies a different set of human needs. We need evaluation to know where we stand, to set expectations, to feel reassured or secure. We need coaching to accelerate learning, to focus our time and energy where it really matters, and to keep our relationships healthy and functioning.
And we need appreciation if all the sweat and tears we put into our jobs and our relationships are going to feel worthwhile.