JANUARY 2001
OurMaine.com

Feedback is a gift

By Dr. Carol McCoy

Recently I was amazed to learn of behaviors exhibited by some people who are new to the workplace. Do you have any people who sit around doing nothing and who show no initiative? Does anyone act inappropriately or tell off-color jokes before clients? Do people play video games in clients’ offices? Ever have anyone singing racially or sexually violent lyrics? People who act inappropriately need to know what they can and cannot do. They need feedback.

What is feedback? The word feedback initially came from rocket science and referred to information that signals a rocket if it is on or off-target and enables it to make necessary corrections. In human terms feedback is information given to someone about how they are performing relative to a target, goal, or standard. This information allows a person to regulate his or her behavior. Feedback can be positive—when the person is on track to achieve or exceed the goal, or corrective—when the person is off target and needs to do something differently.

Why is feedback important? Positive feedback let’s us know we’re on the right track; it makes us feel acknowledged and appreciated and encourages us to do the positive behavior. Corrective feedback is also beneficial. Without it, we can blissfully maintain the illusion that what we’re doing is all right when it’s not. If someone doesn’t know they’re doing anything wrong, they need information in order to correct their mistakes. Even when someone already knows that they’re doing something wrong corrective feedback can help.

People are not likely to change when they don’t realize the impact of what they’re doing or when no one pays any attention to them. Feedback shows that you care enough to pay attention and to share what you know in a helpful way. It helps people to gain insight and to develop more effective ways of performing. When done well, feedback enables people to improve their skills and increase their chances of getting raises and of getting promoted.

Yet people often shy away from giving corrective feedback. Have you ever avoided speaking to someone about what they should do differently? Why? Are you worried that the person will be highly emotional, angry or resentful? Are you afraid that they’ll cry or become defensive? Do you wonder if they won’t like you any more? Do you worry that they may act even worse or say that you’re to blame? Maybe you’re not sure how to give feedback.

Knowing how to give corrective feedback can go a long way in preventing negative, defensive or highly emotional reactions. Feedback must be given clearly and respectfully so that the person is able to pay attention to the message.

Corrective feedback should always be done privately to avoid embarrassing the person and to allow for a constructive two-way discussion. It should also be timely, so that the person remembers what you’re talking about and so that person can make needed changes. Nothing is more overwhelming than lots of surprising corrective feedback given at an annual performance review, which occurs long after the unacceptable behaviors.

How can you deliver your corrective feedback so that the person is likely to hear your message rather than respond defensively? One model that I’ve found to be helpful goes like this:
  1. Describe the behavior that you observe specifically.
  2. Identify the impact of that behavior (on you, the team, the bottom line, customer service, or whatever).
  3. Specify what behavior you’d like to see.
  4. Clarify the consequences of the new behavior.
Let’s take the example of the person who was killing time by playing video games in the client’s office. Tell them the behavior: "I noticed the other day that you were playing Avenger on your lap top when we were at X client’s office."

Next you need to identify the impact. You might say: "Playing games on the client’s time can create a very negative image of our company, especially since the client already believes we are high priced at $200 an hour. Worst case scenario: The client might decide to seek another provider."

Now we get to the interesting part of feedback – telling people what you want them to do instead of the unacceptable behavior. It’s easy to tell the person what we don’t want– playing video games at the client’s office. But what do we want? On first impulse we might simply tell them to "look busy." At least that would make a more positive impression on the client. On the other hand, teaching people to look busy rather than do actual work might not be the best solution in the long run. How about saying: "Instead of playing video games. it would be better if you planned details of the project or if you showed some initiative by asking what else you could be doing to help move the project forward."

Finally, you would clarify the consequences of changing for the better. You could do this by saying something like: "By showing initiative and planning ahead, you increase our value to the client and you also learn how you can contribute more on this and other projects."

This type of feedback focuses your message on the behavior that needs to change, not on personal characteristics. The person understands why the behavior isn’t effective, what they could do differently, and how the new behavior would work better. If feedback is presented rationally and thoughtfully with a goal in mind, people are less likely to be defensive.

No matter how well-meaning you are, not everyone welcomes information suggesting that they need to change. Often people are shocked to learn that their behavior is unacceptable or below standard. They may be angry and even make excuses, rejecting your observations before they can look at the advantage of changing. After you give feedback, be patient and allow people to work through their feelings about your feedback. Be open to the possibility that you may have contributed to the problem yourself. Offer your support in helping them to change.

As a final thought, consider what the world would be like with no feedback in the workplace – we would never know where we stand or how we’re doing. It would be like target shooting with a blindfold on. We’d never know if we’d hit the target. Feedback can be a way of gently removing people’s blindfolds and letting them know whether they’re on track to reach an important goal.

Carol P. McCoy, Ph.D. is president of McCoy Training and Development Resources, a consulting firm that provides solutions to help individuals and organizations improve their effectiveness in a constantly changing world. She is the author of two books and a frequent conference speaker.