Ouch – That’s Some Ear-Splitting Feedback!

Funny thing, feedback.  In the sound amplification context, feedback is generally an unpleasant experience, especially for the listeners.  The high-pitched kind often causes ear pain and horrendous headaches, not to mention sending every canine within a ten mile radius howling.  The low-pitched kind makes the walls, floor, and rib cage vibrate (a lot like living in California, actually).  In any case, most of us don’t enjoy being subject to that kind of feedback.  And truthfully, I don’t think many performers like subjecting listeners to it, either, unless they are deaf, sadistic, or so absorbed in their own personal experiences that they have little awareness of the impact on the listener.

Now, let’s talk about feedback in the work sense.  Most of your workforce think of “feedback” as negative, so it’s unpleasant (positive feedback usually is considered praise, right?).  It can be downright painful, depending on how much the feedback contradicts one’s self-image.  And often, the feedback providers (bosses, co-workers, clients) don’t like giving it (again, differentiating between positive feedback = praise vs. negative feedback = criticism).  Most don’t like being the source of others’ pain and discomfort (unless they are insensitive, sadistic, unaware… see above).   Many are afraid of the recipient’s potential reaction (think dogs howling and growling or glass shattering).   Many try to get themselves through it by convincing themselves that intentions are good.  However, impact trumps intent – always.  If the recipient negatively experiences the feedback, they aren’t going to care a wit about the giver’s intentions.

This begs the question:  can feedback ever be a positive experience?  I’ve heard professional coaches and org development peeps say (okay, I may have said it myself when I was an internal OD consultant) that feedback is a “gift” and should be received as such.  I now tend to think of it more like going to the dentist: necessary for health, but not really enjoyable.  That being said, there are tricks to making feedback easier to give and to hear. Pass this on to the people managers in your organization -

  1. Stick to observations (I saw…, I heard…,  I read…) and be descriptive of the other’s behavior about which you are providing feedback.  Example:  I heard you say to your employee / co-worker that Jane isn’t pulling her weight.  Using observation helps put the feedback in the realm of reality and fact, and therefore is less likely to be taken personally.
  2. Be as specific as possible in describing what was seen, heard or read.  Example:  During the meeting with the leadership team, I saw you roll your eyes when George pushed back on your proposal for unlimited sick days.  Specificity gives a concrete behavioral example that can then be thought about and changed in the future.
  3. Avoid using heavily charged words that generally elicit negative emotions.  Examples are:  arrogant, rude, insecure, unprofessional etc.  Example:  You came across as arrogant during that presentation.  First, these are judgments, not observations.  Second, if that’s the extent of the feedback, there is absolutely nothing the recipient can do with it, other than feel badly about it and likely to not want to engage in a similar presentation anytime soon.  A behavior can be construed by others as unprofessional or arrogant, but to effect behavior change, it is critical to know what the behavior was, not just how it was perceived.
  4. Avoid euphemisms that take the place of simple description.  I was once told that I “sold beyond the close”.  Given that I’m not a sales person, I had no clue what this meant.  When I pushed for a description of specific behaviors, the giver couldn’t give them to me.  Therefore, the feedback, though well-intended, was not very useful.

There is a slew of behavioral psychology, organization psychology, and organization behavior research that discusses the ins, out, ups, downs, and roundabouts of feedback, and if the topic is of interest to you from those perspectives, I am happy to provide some references.  Most people though? They just want to give feedback in a way that inflicts as little distress and pain as possible, and employees really just want to hear feedback that is constructive and empowering.  Both are possible.  Just like it is possible to have a less-than-awful trip to the dentist.

Editor’s Note – Suzanne Rumsey is a principal consultant with Knowledge Infusion. Suzanne isn’t just any ‘ole consultant though – she’s a former HR pro turned consultant, who spent time with orgs like Boeing and Health Net where she shaped workforce planning and talent management initiatives… which means she really knows what she’s talking about and has the actual experiences under her belt to back it up and give you advice. Now that’s the kind of consultant we really like.

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