That Did Not Fly: A Feedback Lesson

Earlier this year I facilitated a workshop for a client as part of a learning series. The workshop, which I have delivered twenty plus times over several years is titled, The Gift of Feedback

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The concept that I teach is that if you treat feedback as a gift you will be more open to both giving and receiving it. I use the analogy of giving and receiving gifts for a holiday or a birthday. I explain that as children we look forward to birthdays and holidays for the gifts we receive from friends and family. As we get older, what we find is that we derive an equal pleasure if not greater pleasure from giving gifts versus receiving them. In this same spirit if you can apply this concept to giving and receiving feedback in the workplace, you can improve relationships and improve performance.

Much like getting yet another tie as a gift, not all feedback is fully appreciated, but if you can appreciate the intent versus the item, you will be better off. Regardless of your affection for the gift, it is important to say “thank you” and to show your appreciation for all gifts and all feedback. In the workshop we worked through this concept.

The second important lesson in the workshop is that if you are not receiving the quantity and quality that you desire, rather than projecting blame on the people from whom you wish to get feedback, you should take charge and solicit feedback. Feedback is a two-way street and each of us who seek more feedback must own that desire and find the appropriate way to solicit feedback.

During the workshop we played with the concepts of the gift of feedback and the need to learn to be better at soliciting feedback. To bring these two points home, I engaged the audience in a provocative move.

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After the group watched a brief video, I returned to the front of the room to debrief the video. I stood in front of the group for at least five minutes debriefing the video and watching the audience squirm and awkwardly whisper to each other. Finally, one participant subtly pointed to me and whispered, “Your fly is down”. My reaction was, wow thank you so much. I am so embarrassed.

The truth as a shared with the group is that I had purposed unzipped my pants and taken my shirt tail and had it sticking out my fly in a very obvious way. I explained that this is something that can happen in any setting. My intent was to see if the audience was up for providing me with the candid feedback that I needed and probably desired. It took more than five minutes for anyone to say anything which made those five minutes debriefing the video more awkward for me and the audience. I explained that this is the perfect example of why it is important to provide feedback in real time. Of course, if it was an accident, I would have been mortified but thankful for having been told my fly was down. Why did it take so long? Was it that the twenty plus participants were too embarrassed to provide me with the feedback or that they were too embarrassed for me? We never resolved the reason with this group. Having done this activity several times, it is usually one of the most memorable and impactful components of the workshop. This group chuckled and agreed that even awkward feedback is best delivered in the moment.

To my surprise and disappointment, I received an email for a member of the organizing team at the client explaining that a few members of the class felt awkward and that what I had done was inappropriate. I was asked not to use the fly down example in future workshops. Wow was my reaction. I have done this probably twenty times in workshops over many years and this was the first time I had received this feedback. Had others felt the same was, but not had the courage to share it? Was this organization just too prude? I kept pondering on the issue. The one thing I do know is that I had proved my point and that those in attendance won’t soon forget the point I made and the way I made it.

I wrote back to the organizer sharing that in the spirit of appreciating feedback, thanks for sharing. I committed to removing this portion from future workshops for this particular client. I am extremely curious how others feel about my example. Would this be seen as offensive in your organization? Am I wrong to include the fly down example in my workshops? What other creative ways do you use to convey the importance of real time and delivery of difficult feedback?

I welcome your comments and feedback below.

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Brian Formato

Brian Formato is the founder and CEO of Groove Management an organizational development and human capital consulting firm.  Additionally, Brian is the Founder and President of LeaderSurf a leadership development provider of experiential learning programs.