Why is that the words "I've got some feedback for you" more often than not make us cringe? Feedback should be something we look forward to, because it's how we learn. In fact, we should crave it, because it comes naturally–we're born feedback sponges.
The child in her highchair learns about gravity through the cause-and-effect process of repeatedly tossing her bowl of food on the floor. And it takes but one touch of a hot stove for her to learn not to do try that again.
Chris Barez-Brown, who works with companies like Nike, Citibank and Coca Cola to help their people to shine more brightly at work, thinks he has the answer, and a solution. According to Barez-Brown, one reason we dread "the f word" is that feedback has become a euphemism for criticizing something done wrong.
"One of the reasons feedback has such a bad reputation is that it is often badly delivered," he says. "Another reason is that feedback seems to be offered mainly when things have gone wrong. If you really want to help somebody learn and grow, they have to know what they are doing brilliantly as well as the things that need some work."
Barez-Brown suggests the Malcolm Gladwell-inspired rule of thumb: for every one piece of feedback on what's wrong, offer five pieces of feedback on what's right. And the feedback needs to be both substantive and detailed.
Say you've given a presentation. "Feedback like 'That was fantastic!' or 'Loved your energy!' or 'You were a bit off message on that' is useless," according to Barez-Brown. "All these comments are non-specific. They give no clue on about what you should do more or less of next time. What exactly was fantastic? What was it about my energy you loved, and how did it show up? What precisely was off message?"
Another issue is that the context in which feedback is given can often be confused. "Feedback should be offered as an aid to learning how to develop you," says Barez-Brown. "You should then be able to choose how you react to that feedback; you should not be forced to change what you do based upon it. A key to giving great feedback is the spirit in which it is offered. The intention must be to help the person receiving it grow."
Barez-Brown recommends a five-phase feedback process that has proven successful in the companies he works with.
Stage 1: Check-in. "Before sharing any feedback you have to make sure that you are in the right place to give it and the other person is in the right place to receive it. Never give feedback when you are frustrated with someone, because you are then attached to what they do with it. Also, people aren't always in the right state to take on new learning. They may be distracted, tired or angry, so your pearls of wisdom will be wasted. If that's the case, arrange a time that is good for both of you."
Stage 2: Data. "All feedback needs to be based on precise events or activity that has happened which both parties can agree on. For example: 'In a meeting yesterday we overran by one hour. It was my anniversary and I was worried I would be late for dinner with my wife. We had a taxi waiting and you said I could take the taxi straight home, while you would take the bus.'
"Those are the facts. At this point whoever you're giving feedback to needs to agree that that's what happened. If you cannot agree on the events, giving feedback becomes a tricky thing, so make sure you can identify exactly what happened. Give feedback as soon after the event as possible to aid clarity."
Stage 3: Interpretation. "You then share how you interpreted that data or event. 'That made me think that you're really good at understanding what is most important in people's lives, and prioritizing the person over the business or yourself.' This interpretation is yours; therefore it cannot be wrong."
Stage 4: Reaction. "You then share how you feel as a result of that event and your interpretation of it. 'So on the way home in the car I felt fantastic because I was going to make sure that the important person in my life had a wonderful evening. Because you put me above yourself in that situation I want to do the same for you in the future…and I like working for a business where people's lives are as important as profit.'"
Stage 5: Land it. "Your colleague now gets a chance to land it any way they want. They might say: 'Actually, I preferred to take the bus home as I wanted to do some shopping and I couldn't do that if we shared a cab.' Or it may be something more like this: 'Hey, that's really useful. It was a bit of a hassle taking the bus, but I could see you were getting nervous.'"
Barez-Brown admits the process may feel clunky at first.
"The key to success is two-fold," he says. "First, make sure you have a good intention. Do not use this technique to vent grievances, manipulate colleagues, or just plain have a go. If you do, it's ruined. Second, make sure that you separate the data from the interpretation. As long as you do those two things, it will work."
Barez-Brown's top tip: If you want to give somebody feedback, do not start by saying, "Hey, I've got some feedback for you." More than likely, this will send them into a tailspin. Instead, try, "Hey, I spotted something that I think might be useful for you, would you like to hear about it?"
"Use feedback well," advises Barez-Brown, "and it will reward you beyond riches."