want feedback to land? data shows you need to (truly) care.

04/01/2015

by anne lueneburger

To enter Frankford High School, located in a Northeast Philly neighborhood, students have to pass a metal detector. That is if they show up. One out of four students is absent on any given day. Frankford High with its poor socio-economic fabric is rich in hard-luck stories reflected in a 40% dropout rate. Not so for Wilma Stephenson, Frankford High’s culinary art teacher and resident game changer: 100% of her students graduate and find their place in colleges and culinary institutions around the country.

Stephenson demands excellence. She barks out instructions and has her students come in at 5.30 in the morning to peel potatoes for hours until they resemble the perfect “torpedo” shape. The image of a drill sergeant comes to mind (not best practice in giving feedback!). How does she get away with it? One of the reasons students commit is certainly that Stephenson has a track record of teaching those kids to cook well enough to win big scholarship money at the citywide cooking competition every year: close to $1,000,000. But acquiring useful skills or promising outcomes does not fully explain why most students continue to show up for class.

What motivates Stephenson’s students to accept her high standards is that they know her feedback is rooted in one thing. She deeply cares about each and every one of them. She puts in long hours for her students, gets to know them as individuals and will not shy away from standing up for them even in personally challenging situations. Stephenson’s students sense that her “I love you” comes from a profoundly honest place. She bridges her student’s tension of wanting to learn and grow and being accepted for who they are. As Tabeka, one of her students, sums it up: “To me she is a hero.”

We all need feedback, it’s essential. That’s how we get better. But it’s not easy to hear that we screwed up or fell short of our potential. Likewise, it’s uncomfortable to tell someone that he needs to “course correct.”

feedbac

A recent study showed that over half of feedback received is perceived as unfair and inaccurate. To give good feedback, we must understand what makes it so hard to receive it in the first place. According to Harvard’s negotiation gurus Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, there are three triggers that cause us to reject feedback:

  1. Content triggers: We see the advice or assessment as unhelpful, if not untrue.
  2. Identity triggers: We see our values and who we are as a person come under attack (regardless if the feedback is “right” or “wrong”).
  3. Relationship triggers: We do not feel connected with the giver, for a myriad of reasons (i.e. perceived lack of competence, goodwill, respect).

There are proven methods such as the Situation-Behavior-Impact approach that can help a feedback giver avoid some of the content and identity triggers that might trip us up. It’s trickier when it comes to the relationship itself. Often, we make assumptions about the recipient of our feedback and bring this bias into the mix. The recipient may have made our life difficult and our frustrations and personal annoyances negatively impact the conversation.

Or we may want to avoid giving feedback and let ourselves off the hook when it comes to having these difficult conversations (often under the pretense that we do not want to hurt someone else’s feelings). Just the other day I caught myself again picking up the clothes after my teenager rather than ask her to do this herself (sigh!). Why? Because it was easier…for me!

Whenever there is a disconnect (between actions, values, or personalities), it will feel like feedback in a boxing ring – for both parties. However, giving feedback is a major developmental tool for leaders. And it is a leader’s responsibility to not rob those under her care of this opportunity.

The good news is that we can avoid relationship triggers and build a sense of connection with our recipients. Ideally, we have already built a rapport long before we have a feedback session. But even in these circumstances, we need to suspend our own agenda first. We have to put ourselves into the other persons’ shoes. What will most likely be their state of mind? How have they reacted to feedback in the past? What might be a particular trigger for them and why?

Then comes the real stretch assignment for the majority of us. And the most important one. Until we feel a sense of true caring and compassion for our recipient, we are not ready to give feedback. Period. Full stop.

So how then can you develop this caring, positive attitude towards someone who may have challenged you in every possible way? Here are 5+1 ideas you might want to try to get yourself into the right state of mind before you start a difficult conversation:

1. Think 3:1.

From research we know that relationships that flourish have a 3:1 feedback ratio. Write down three positives for every piece of criticism you are going to share.

2. Adopt a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset).

Assume that people can change. In this light, be sure to supplement evaluative comments that you prepare (i.e. “your rating is average on commercial orientation”) with coaching questions (“what do you think you can do to improve?”) and advice (“here is what I can suggest”).

3. Leverage strengths.

Take the top three signature strengths of your recipient and explore together with her how she might apply them to develop and evolve. (Don’t know her strengths? Invite her to take the VIA Pro Strengths assessment and leverage the results as part of your feedback session).

4. Keep it real.

Reflect on your own biases. Where might they come from? How can you make sure to stay in a place of thinking in the best interest of the recipient? How can you give yourself reminders not to get tripped up and suffer from amygdala hijacks?

5. Breathe deeply.

Put your hand on your upper chest. Take a breath, then exhale with the feeling and sound of a sigh of relief:”aahhhh.” Notice how your chest softens downward under your hand as air flows out. Do this a couple of more times and think about your lungs releasing toxins and stale air, creating more space for fresh air. Then inhale, and on the exhale whisper, “La, la, la, la…” for the length of the exhale (this helps carry air out of your body.). Let each inhale come naturally, whenever it arrives, allowing your abdomen to soften each time. Repeat until you feel your whole body softening.

+1. Hold a warm cup of tea (or coffee) in your hands.

Say what?!? Yes, that’s right. Warmth dramatically improves our ability to become more caring. Many studies support this finding. Recent research out of Yale showed that a mere 25% of study participants that were holding a cold pad chose a gift for a friend, compared to 54% of those handling a hot pad. And while physical warmth can cause us to be warmer, it also makes us see others as warmer people. So we suggest you also offer your recipient a warm cup of tea.

Caring about our recipients significantly raises our chances to give impactful feedback. It might motivate to know that seeing a world of possibilities also makes us smarter. In a 2009 study, Adam Anderson of the University of Toronto proved that positive emotions literally change how the brain works. Positivity broadens our awareness and we are better at seeing the big picture and connecting the dots. A positive state of mind also makes us more resilient and prepares us for bouncing back from difficult conversations, according to Barbara Fredrikson’s research. An asset for both feedback giver and recipient.

Wilma Stephenson intuitively gets the most essential part of giving feedback right. She breaks many rules on what we know about giving effective feedback, be it raising her voice or publicly scolding her disciples. But what makes her ultimately successful is that she is the number one cheerleader of her students. Her tight ship is founded on a deep sense of caring and love.

So yes, you can learn the skills to give effective feedback. In fact, we are happy to email you a complimentary copy of our North of Neutral feedback guide if you send us a note to hello@northofneutral.com. But it is only if you engage with the heart that your feedback will fall on fertile grounds and bear fruit.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: