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Why Giving and Receiving Effective Feedback is So Hard, and How We Can Get it Right

effective feedbackI have a confession to make: I used to be an ardent supporter of feedback sandwiches.

You know what I mean – it’s the conversation you have with your boss / partner / children / client where the criticism is sandwiched in between the “bread” of an introductory and concluding set of positive comments.

However, when I began receiving feedback sandwiches instead of giving them, I became far less enthusiastic about this technique. I knew that the technique was being employed, and I knew why. Maybe the person meant the complimentary stuff and maybe they didn’t, but there was a very good chance they were softening me up with bread, before hitting me with the meat of the problem.  I kinda felt like George Costanza: “You’re giving me the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ routine? That’s MY routine!”

Studies show that most people are unskilled at giving and receiving effective feedback, so it’s no wonder the sandwich technique has become so popular. Employees, it turns out, reacted to a negative interaction with their boss six times more strongly than they reacted to a positive interaction. And this isn’t just a problem for the supervisor/supervisee dynamic – difficulty dispensing and receiving criticism can be a debilitating problem for entrepreneurs and in personal relationships as well.

Why Does Effective Feedback Matter?

Before we determine the how to do something, we should first determine why we’re doing it. What is the goal?

With the feedback sandwich, I rather doubt the objective has been to deliver well-deserved accolades, balanced with a healthy dose of approbation. No, in the vast majority of instances the reverse is surely true: we have a criticism we need to convey, but we try to make it more palatable with the complimentary breading.

Is this a problem? You bet it is, if the goal was to deliver effective feedback designed to improve the person’s performance and improve business.

So what to do? On one hand, we know that feedback and criticism affect individuals much more powerfully than does praise. Yet on the other hand, if our goals are appropriate- improved performance, growing an entrepreneurial relationship, increased business – then it is imperative that the effective feedback is conveyed in an constructive, undiluted manner. It has proven an incredibly elusive balance, and that’s a major problem in the personal and professional lives of countless folks.

The Key to Maintaining a Successful Relationship

There is a plethora of wonderful guidance out there on how to deal with difficult people, how to handle crucial conversations, and how to navigate those prickly moments of giving or receiving criticism.

But most of the guidance is missing one key ingredient: everything that has gone into the recipe of the relationship up to that point matters when it comes to effective feedback.

If a relationship is to be truly successful, if criticism is to be effectively delivered and received, and if behavior, performance and productivity are to improve, it requires an authentic and mutual commitment from both parties.  

Once we understand why giving and receiving criticism is so hard, and once we determine appropriate, clear goals, we may set about devising strategies  which will not only alleviate much of the difficulty, but will enable our personal and professional relationships and productivity to soar.

Why Are Effective Feedback and Criticism So Hard?

Simply put, effective criticism is hard because of of how we give it, and how we take it.

Too often we make it personal, and too often we take it personal(ly). No one likes to be criticized. (Well, actually, that’s not quite true. More on that in a bit.) We are human, we have feelings, and we want to be accepted, respected, appreciated, valued.

And when we’re criticized, we naturally become defensive. Not only that, but since we know and generally don’t like what it feels to be criticized, it also becomes very difficult to criticize. And we’ve already established how much more powerfully and pervasively negative feedback affects us.

I’ve heard entrepreneurs, freelancers, and independent contractors express relief they don’t really have to deal with this stuff, since their interactions do not reside in the traditional workplace environment.

With all due respect, they couldn’t be more wrong. The savviest entrepreneurs know better, and act strategically with this cognizance.

Why Effective Feedback and Criticism Matter To Your Business

Bryan Elliott created a video about the lessons he gleaned from Seth Godin’s recent book The Icarus Deception.

The best entrepreneurs, Godin notes, are those who recognize and embrace the importance of being vulnerable, without succumbing to shame. Criticism is inevitable, but Elliott argues, “If your new business plan disrupts an industry or pisses a lot of people off, there’s a good chance you’re on to something good. You should worry more when nobody’s talking.” Indeed!

But entrepreneurs are human too, and many get preoccupied with dodging or even firing back against the slings and arrows of recrimination. It can slow them, and even stop them. And that’s a shame, because we may never reap the benefits of their ingenuity and innovation.

Entrepreneurs must attend to the people stuff and to relationship-building. The alternative is to neglect these important elements, which will have a negative impact on the chances that their business will catch fire, or even see the light of day! In fact, superb customer service trumps the importance of the product itself.

The Goal of Effective Feedback

Now that we understand why criticism matters to our business, let’s talk about the goals behind giving – and receiving – effective feedback.

In a perfect world, the goal of giving or receiving effective feedback is to arrive at the best solution to a problem. Now sometimes, there may be more fundamental issues to address first, or at the very least some parties may need to go cool down first. You may be thinking, there are differences between personal and professional relationships, and this is true.

But I submit to you that even in your personal relationships, being able to calm down and truly assess goals is every bit as important, maybe more so. As Seinfeld’s Jerry once told George, “The best revenge is living well.” George demurred, lamenting that “there’s no chance of that.” But I have more hope for us.

If we may agree that revenge is not the most productive of goals, then we might now consider some healthier alternatives. While there is no exhaustive list, the following is a pretty good one:

10 Goals of Effective Feedback and Criticism

  • Share information
  • Provide feedback
  • Honest assessment
  • Improve behavior
  • Improve performance
  • Improve relationship
  • Clarify expectations
  • Motivate and inspire
  • Help the person
  • WANT to be helped (improve)

I bold these last two for a reason. People all too often deliver criticism when they are upset, or to hurt the other person, or to justify trying to get them fired. Now, there are obviously poorly-performing employees, or clients, or virtual assistants, or even colleagues! There are times we have no choice but to part ways with someone. Sometimes it is simply not the right match – not everything in business or life is.

But I’ve found that, more often than no, the situation is salvageable if everyone does his part. The employee / client / virtual assistant / colleague must want to do better, and the person giving the criticism must genuinely want them to do better. Sadly, this is not always the case.

Strategies to Give and Receive Effective Criticism and Feedback

The existence of a strategy to meet our goals is another piece of the puzzle that is all too often conspicuously absent. Just like shiny, eloquent mission statements which are affixed to walls but gather dust while having little bearing on actual company behavior, having the right goals is meaningless unless accompanied by the right strategies to achieve them.

So, what are the strategies to master the art of giving and receiving effective criticism and feedback?

The first two deal with attitude and are so essential that I am plucking them from the list and calling them out here. The first, I mentioned in a previous section: an authentic and mutual commitment from both parties. It’s simple, but paramount, and often lacking. It links back to goals – both the giver and receiver of criticism must genuinely desire improved performance and be solution-focused.

The second strategy is presumption of positive intent. The criticizer must believe the criticize-ee wishes to improve (personally or professionally), and the criticize-ee must believe that the goal of the criticizer is to help them improve.

If one or both of these beliefs is absent, then that must be addressed before the effective feedback process can go any further. Getting to a place of mutual positive intent and commitment is essential before embarking upon the next steps.

Benefits of Receiving Effective Feedback and Criticism

I said earlier I’d return to the notion that no one enjoys criticism. As it turns out, that’s not quite true. Studies show that employees find corrective feedback significantly more beneficial to performance improvement than praise.

This would seem to reinforce our earlier suggestion that negative feedback is far more impactful than positive, but there is a crucial distinction here: the employees who responded this way about corrective feedback did not equate it with negative feedback.And not only do many staff distinguish this from corrective feedback, employees who feel confident or even expert in their roles are far more receptive to critical feedback than novices.  This is something I used to tell my staff all the time: acknowledging one’s own growth areas and seeking feedback and help is a sign of strength.

Additional Strategies for Giving and Receiving Effective Feedback and Criticism

Here, in no particular order, are 10 additional strategies for giving and receiving effective criticism:

  • Be direct.
  • Tie criticism to performance goals and your company mission. If you’re giving criticism in a personal relationship, be all the more certain not to make it about the person’s shortcomings. Rather, express how much you care for them by making your feedback about behaviors and your authentic desire for the relationship to improve.
  • Be solution-focused.
  • Both parties should self-critique on an ongoing basis. At any time, an employee should be able to express her own views of areas of improvement (as well as strengths), and her supervisor should also be unafraid to acknowledge imperfection or mistakes.
  • Get out of your emotional brain. If at all possible, don’t deliver the criticism when one or both parties are in a heightened emotional state.
  • Choose the right words and focus on behavior.
  • Keep an open mind!  Like many of these tips, this applies to both people. The person on the receiving end needs to be open to the criticism. Meanwhile, the person delivering the effective feedback should always remain open to the possibility that there is information or a side to the story they may not have considered.
  • Be time-sensitive. Delaying the criticism for any reason – other than the possible need to let passions cool – runs the risk of losing its resonance. Don’t save it for later, when you’ve finally summoned the nerve to dump a laundry-list of feedback on the other person in an out-of-date context.
  • It’s OK to share some positives, but if you’re sharing a sandwich, go light on the bread! Don’t dilute the criticism which must be conveyed by sneaking it in quickly between thick layers of praise. Don’t get me wrong: ongoing praise and positive feedback should be a fundamental strategy for everyone. I am just cautioning you not to lose the criticism by burying it too deep in the feedback sandwich.
  • The 10th and final strategy is also a biggie, and hearkens back to the missing ingredient I cited earlier: everything that has defined the relationship to that point matters. If the criticism comes as a shock to the recipient, then there is fundamental dysfunction in the relationship. It is possible the employee, or significant other, or whatever the particular relationship is, is in acute denial. But, it’s just as likely that the person delivering the criticism has not provided candid, ongoing communication and feedback. It is crucial to do so.

It is important to remember there is no panacea, no one size-fits-all approach for dealing with challenging issues such as giving and receiving effective feedback and criticism. But the tips I’ve shared have worked well for me.

If you adapt them to your particular circumstances and practice them consistently, regardless of whether you are the giver or receiver of criticism, I believe they will work well for you too. If not, send me a note of criticism!

What aspects of criticism have proven toughest for you, and what other strategies have you found useful? Which of the above techniques appeals most to you? Please share in comments!

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