New Zealand Law Society - Feedback Prowess

Feedback Prowess

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Talent and performance management experts consistently put the case for better feedback processes in the workplace. Yet, the experience for many – both providers and recipients – is underwhelming.

Good feedback intervention is valuable in performance and talent management, for performance development and appraisal.

It lifts performance, motivates, enhances learning and changes behaviour. It’s a no brainer. However, research shows a gap between the perceived efficacy of feedback and its actual beneficial impact. Perhaps more is known about why feedback is important (the impact) as distinct from how it’s best effected (the process). Attention seems to be shifting to the latter.

Feedback gone wrong

Feedback “gone wrong” is all too common. Here are two scenarios – less familiar, perhaps, yet illustrating just how impotent feedback can be when it doesn’t hit the mark:

Valuable, straightforward, direct feedback …. met with a blank look which morphs into an out of context grin and a response of “everything will be okay”.

The positive performance appraisal and then an offer of promotion. Whereupon the appraised resigns, convinced that the positive appraisal is a sham and the promotion a redeployment.

What is it about feedback that produces such poor outcomes?

  • The appraiser may simply lack the skill or the appraisee knowledge on how to receive feedback competently.
  • Too little allowance is made for how threatening feedback is to many people; it can put at risk a person’s sense of self and give rise to fight, flight or freeze responses.
  • Nor is allowance made for feedback triggering defensiveness, disassociation or it reducing openness to new learning and opportunity.
  • It may trigger feelings of failure or an associated sense of loss and hurt, even depression.
  • Most feedback is targeted – often usefully – at the problem rather than the person, and yet it is invariably a person’s “self” that needs to change if there is to be a shift in the problem.
  • More emphasis is placed on giving quantitative data (eg, a rating) rather than narrative feedback; yet it seems an appraisee puts more emphasis on and gets more value from good narrative feedback.
  • Narrative feedback is often self and identity focused and is rarely executed with sufficient care or skill.
  • An inelegant, poorly informed tussle occurs in engineering a shift between habitual – sometimes entrenched – behaviours and a demand for change.
  • Feedback is often given out of context and is not sufficiently proximate to performance.
  • Managers giving feedback simply expect it will be acted on; that the information conveyed – in itself – constitutes effective feedback.

While understanding what doesn’t work is informative, greater traction is to be had in revealing what constitutes good feedback and how to provide that well.

A step-by-step process

Using a specific feedback process improves feedback delivery. The Leadscape Learning Inc Feedback Model (accessible on is well recognised. Essentially it involves:

  • checking that the intention in giving feedback is “clean” ie, that you are an ally, not an adversary;
  • asking permission, largely as to timing;
  • sharing intention, positively and transparently expressed;
  • providing specific, objective and neutrally delivered observations drawing on data, observed behaviours etc and using senses based language, eg “I see” or “I hear”;
  • pausing for and actively hearing the response from the recipient; and
  • describing the impact by sharing one’s interpretation of the behaviour, event or situation, describing how it has impacted and how it feels or is perceived.

It’s then important to assess the response from the recipient. If they seem open to being coached on a way forward, then adopt a coach approach. If not, take a directive approach by stating expectations or requirements clearly and defining or creating agreement on the next steps.

An antecedent approach

Feedback is mostly given after or in respect of a past event, rather than in anticipation. While needlessly anticipating poor performance is not the goal, feedback which anticipates potential challenges often “lands” better than feedback for past shortcomings.

Such antecedent feedback strategies include selectivity as to situation (eg, planning an employee’s exposure to meetings so that they have the opportunity to best exhibit intrinsic strengths), modifying a situation (eg, working out with a colleague in advance useful boundary setting for conversations involving a conflict of interest), redeploying attention (eg, challenging an administrator – when undertaking tasks – to be more open to a management perspective) and changing cognitively (eg, inviting a junior colleague to overcome his fear of networking by treating the experience as social rather than purely business getting).

This strategy serves well to dismantle the struggle that occurs in stopping a habit and embarking on new change. The feedback is presented as an opportunity rather than a problem which requires correction. The next strategy also helps break down resistance to change.

If – then

In the 1990s PM Gollwitzer and V Brandstatter developed a model for “implementation intention” or how to build real intention to change. At the heart of this is the “if – then” approach.

Having identified a goal for change, execute the formula of if (ie, “the moment a circumstance arises”) … then (“I will do XYZ to achieve ABC goal”).

This leverages change and is built on greater in-the-moment awareness and the power of a specific, tangible action. A valuable add on to the “if – then” approach is for the person to choose an action which is a repeat of a past action they have employed well for a like goal.

Making a request

A key part of feedback is making a well constructed request, such as: “When (state the topic) happens, I feel (name the feeling), and so I ask (make the request)”.

If it is a repeat request or is significant, add: “And if this request is not met, then (name the consequence(s))”. The consequences ought to be natural consequences, not a bullying threat.

Work with the words, language and tone until it feels comfortable; not too structured or forced. The vital component is to express the feeling. That often is an all important point of connection between the giver and receiver of the request.

The SCARF model

Neuroscience tells us that many of the social based threats and rewards experienced in the workplace are as intense as those of a physical kind. We have also learned (and now more fully accept) that functionality, engagement and performance capacity are:

  • enhanced when a person in the workplace is rewarded or feels on that path; and
  • correspondingly decline – even more dramatically – when a person experiences or perceives a threat in the workplace.

David Rock, with input from others, has developed a very credible model known as SCARF which helps address many of the brain-related social issues impacting on better work performance and engagement.

He identifies five human social experience domains which give rise to the reward or threat response in people. They are:

  • status (how important we feel compared to others);
  • certainty (how well we feel we can determine or know the future);
  • autonomy (feeling in charge of matters);
  • relatedness (how connected, the degree of rapport we feel with others); and
  • fairness (our sense or perception of what is fair in a relationship or the circumstances).

Good feedback will stir a person’s reward response. Equally so, poor feedback will activate the threat response.

In his article SCARF: a Brain-based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others (published in NeuroLeadership Journal, issue one 2008 ) Rock gives recommendations for each of the five domains – on how to reduce threat (with its corresponding reduction in performance or engagement) and to increase reward (to lift performance and engagement).

Some of those recommendations, all of which are relevant to feedback, are:

  • Status. Allow people more rein to give themselves feedback, rather than consistently advise them. Be aware of the limits of job promotion and instead lift the focus on opportunities for learning, growth and acknowledgment, especially public acknowledgement of good performance. Move people into areas and groups in which they feel more important and valued.
  • Certainty. Plan and strategise for greater certainty. Break the complex down into smaller steps. Convey clearer expectations and outcomes. Set clearer timeframes.
  • Autonomy. Avoid micro managing and give more than one option. Adopt a more policy and parameters – rather than rule-based – approach.
  • Relatedness. Avoid silo type teams and lift opportunities for people to collaborate. Allow for more informality and personal sharing opportunities. Smaller groups foster relatedness and, as Gallup workplace engagement research reveals, having at least one good, trusted relationship (friend) at work makes an important difference.
  • Fairness. This grows with greater transparency, communication and inclusivity. Have clear ground rules and expectations. Invite teams to create their own rules, within organisation agreed parameters.

It’s about give … and take

Feedback is very much about the giving of feedback. How it’s received makes a critical difference too. Part of an appraiser’s feedback might be to “coach” the appraisee on how to receive feedback, asking the appraisee firstly for ideas on that front.

Receiving feedback well is a product of listening well, open mindedness, seeking clarification including specific examples, clarifying what’s agreed and what’s not, and fearlessly asking oneself: “Now, what is my part in this?”

A number of the strategies described above are addressed more fully in Turn the 360 Around (by Phil Dixon, David Rock and Kevin Ochsner, published in NeuroLeadership Journal, issue three 2010).

In the end …

Effective feedback is vital for lifting individual and business performance, for developing talent. More broadly, in commenting on the SCARF model (and equally true in relation to feedback), David Rock observes that:

  • it has wider implications for improving self management and motivation, in educating or training others, in coaching, in leadership development and in giving rise to more effective organisational systems and structures; and
  • there is a need for a breakthrough in how we relate to one another.

To lift feedback from the merely mediocre to the truly excellent, it is vital that we step beyond marveling simply at the potential of good feedback and instead master the challenge of how to feedback effectively. An all important strategy (the how) piece must accompany the purpose or justification (the why).

More than anything it requires a commitment to a breakthrough of the kind described by Rock in referring to British philosopher, Theodore Zeldin, who asked the question: “When will we make the same breakthroughs in the way we treat each other as we have made in technology”.

Martin Wilson is the Principal of Selfmade Coaching ( His experience includes 24 years in legal practice, partnership in a large commercial law firm, 11 years running his own commercial law practice, and a period as group manager communications and human resources for a large government agency. He has been a professional coach since 2001. He is a member of the International Coach Federation and a past director of its Australasian arm. Martin works with leaders, managers and professionals in both the public and private sectors.

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