Gift of Feedback

The holiday season marks a time for giving thanks and sharing gifts with friends and loved ones.  As a child, I always looked forward to opening gifts on Christmas morning.  I would make my Christmas list and pepper my parents with ideas of things I really wanted.  As I have gotten older, my excitement about Christmas has changed.  I now look forward to giving gifts to others more than receiving them.  I value the act of giving more than receiving.  Feedback can work in much the same way.

There are so many ways that people can show their appreciation for friends and family.  Giving thanks and sharing can and should extend to our work colleagues as well. Stephen Lundin and Marshall Goldsmith’s book “Feedback is a Gift”1 takes a unique look at giving and receiving feedback.  The premise of the book is that the receiver often views feedback in a negative light.

Lundin and Goldsmith’s book refers to feedback as a gift, which changes the perspective of both the giver and the receiver.  The book states, "As managers we learn how to give feedback to achieve our full potential. As leaders we need to learn how to ask for feedback" As an executive coach, I help leaders to gather feedback from their colleagues and to use the feedback to improve their performance.  Being able to reframe feedback and treat it as a gift has had a powerful impact on my coaching work.

So what is feedback? Two graduate school professors of mine Charlie and Edie Seashore wrote a great book “What Did You Say?:  The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback”2.   Seashore’s definition for feedback is  “information about past behavior, delivered in the present, which may influence future behavior”  As you can see from the definition there is no mention of positive or negative.  Feedback can take on many forms and often we dwell on the negatives.

When working with senior leaders one of the biggest hurdles is to get them to see constructive feedback in a positive light. Too often leaders think feedback is an attack on them.   Referring to feedback as a gift opens their eyes to the positives.Remember, your colleague took the time to fill out a 360 feedback instrument or to write down their thoughts.  Thinking through the feedback you receive from your peers enables you to understand that their perceptions of you.Those perceptions are the reality within which you must live.  “Your pants zipper is open” is a feedback dilemma that we have all probably faced at one point or another.  As the person who notices a colleague’s zipper unzipped you are reluctant to share the message for fear of embarrassing the person.  As the receiver of the feedback you are appreciative of the feedback but the embarrassment might cause you to lash out at the person giving the feedback. Ever been told, thanks but what are you doing looking down there anyway?  Feedback can be awkward at times, but with practice we can improve at both delivering it and receiving it.

An exercise that can be very powerful for a work team and can also work in personal relationships, even with your kids involves sharing feedback.  It is called the appreciation game.  Each person shares two things about another in the group.  Here is how it goes:

The first thing you must ask the other person is “May I provide you with some feedback?”

1.    I appreciate you for your…

2.    What would make you even more effective would be…

This form of feedback serves a number of purposes.  By asking permission to provide feedback up front, you immediately put the receiver of the feedback at ease.  Second because it starts with the positive the person is more receptive to what you have to say.  They might learn something about a personal strength that they were unaware of.  The second share, “What would make you even more effective would be…” is a piece of developmental feedback that is bundled into a positive comment.  It is not an attack on the person, but rather a well-packaged piece of advise.  Providing feedback is a skill that takes practice.  Likewise receiving feedback is also a skill that takes practice.  

During the holidays take the time to share feedback as one of your gifts to those you care about.

1 Lundin, Stephen C and Goldsmith, Marshall.  Feedback is a Gift.  Burnsville,
MN : ChartHouse International Learning Corp., ©1999.

2 Seashore, Charles N., Seashore, Edith Whitfield and Weinberg, Gerald, M.  What Did You Say?: The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback. Columbia, MD: Bingham House Books. ©1999.