What we call feedback rarely is

In order for people to grow, adapt, and perform at their best, they need information about their own performance. One source of information—feedback—has earned a bad reputation. The word first came into the language to describe the self-correcting information built into mechanical systems and electronic circuits. Information was fed back into a system as a means of regulating system performance.

Thermostats, for instance, feed back information in order to maintain a set temperature for a room. Notice that the flow of information is circular. Notice also that the nature of thermostats, like other mechanical systems, is to maintain the status quo, not to encourage growth, change, and adaptation. When we use feedback in organizations, we should be aiming for growth, adaptation, and innovation, not for control.

We get feedback hundreds of times a day. Every time I type ‘fedeback’ or ‘feedbak’ into the computer, my word processing program immediately underscores it with a red, wavy line. I then click the right button on the mouse and get an alternate spelling plus options to ignore it, auto correct, or search for other options in the program’s dictionary. I’m operating within a circular loop that includes me as the typist, the words that I type, and the software program that translates my keystrokes into visible characters. My desire to create readable prose prompts me to correct spelling errors as I go, and my interactions with the keyboard and software make it happen.

Unfortunately, what we call “feedback” at work rarely is. In typical top-down style, those higher on the food chain are expected to “give feedback” to those lower. So the information flow is linear and unidirectional. And the feedback that gets delivered is usually negative. You know the drill: a hundred things are going right in your area, and your boss hones in on the one or two things going wrong.

Of course, we rarely call workplace feedback “negative.” We usually dress it up by telling ourselves that it’s constructive criticism. This is the “I’m-doing-this-for-your-own-good” approach to whacking people. I find nothing constructive about criticism. It hurts. It shuts people down, whether they show it or not. It demoralizes them.

Nearly every woman I’ve met dislikes, worries about, and avoids giving negative feedback. Small wonder. It threatens relationships, dissolves connections, puts us in that distasteful one-up position, and leaves everyone feeling badly.

Feedback is critical for learning; judgment is not. How we frame feedback determines how we use it, so here are some ways to think about it.

The common assumption that workplace feedback is something one person gives another is a linear, not a circular view. Whether we’re correcting mistakes or praising progress, telling people something about their performance does little to nurture their ability to self-correct.

But if we assume that people already have a natural capacity to self-correct, then we can help them get meaningful feedback in the moment. Now feedback becomes information flowing between person and environment, fueling adaptation and creative change, rather than someone else’s opinions, belatedly delivered, about how the other’s performance missed the mark.

Most women actually give feedback all the time, not in the form of advice or judgment but in the form of listening, empathizing, questioning, and encouraging.

Remember the last time you were wrestling with a thorny personnel issue or trying to decide whether to apply for another position, and you sought out an understanding friend or colleague? Chances are, just voicing your situation led you to a new perspective or course of action. When we listen deeply to others, we naturally respond with a continual flow of non-verbal and minimal acknowledgements and prompts. And the sheer act of mindful listening and support lets others discover their own answers and direction.

If you don’t practice deep listening already, try it. The next time one of your kids or direct reports is struggling with a situation, simply give them your undivided attention, then listen and follow their lead. Offer nothing more than an occasional summary of what you’re hearing. Put your agenda aside and just appreciate and understand their experience. When you can do that, their focus and energy will move away from the struggle and toward a resolution that works for them.

What often stands between people and good performance is not a lack of skill; it is the interference that comes from what other people are telling them or what they’re telling themselves. If they’re bored, stressed, overwhelmed, or doubtful, their self-talk interferes with their ability to focus on what is interesting, engaging, promising, or challenging about the task at hand. When we step into our feminine power to create safe havens by listening, empathizing, questioning, and encouraging, we help quiet the interference. By helping people feel seen and heard, we help them reconnect with their true self and what it knows.

[The above is from Chapter 8 of In Our Right Mind.] 


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