The 6 Most Dreaded Words—”Can I offer you some feedback?”

2017-1113 Feedback-I

Shauna and David, both consultants, just made a presentation to a client. David gave the strategic overview and Shauna provided the implementation plan. Afterwards, on the way back to the office, David says, “Shauna, can I offer you some feedback?”

 Shauna’s thought…if I say yes, this can’t be good otherwise you would have just said ‘great job.’ If I say no, it looks like I don’t care about improving, and I do.

Shauna says: “Um…OK.”

David: “You really got into too much detail and didn’t link your implementation into the strategic direction I was taking them. Based on the questions we had to address at the end, I think they were confused. Too bad they were so backed up with meetings and we couldn’t tie it together for them.  Now we’ll have to meet with them again.

Shauna’s thought, a bit taken aback….Ok, I asked for time so we could go over this two days ago. You said it would all come together ‘just take my lead.’

Shauna says: “That’s the first time I’ve heard that strategic direction. I’ve been working on site with them for weeks and thought I had the client’s intent captured pretty well.”

Shauna’s thought…you wing this on me, now? It would be nice if you made some time to get up to speed with the people on the ground before you go charging in.

David: “Well, obviously you didn’t capture it.”

Shauna’s thought…or maybe you didn’t capture it, and that’s why they were confused.

Shauna says: “I guess we’ll have to smooth this over at the next meeting.”

Shauna’s thought…Are you setting me up to take the fall when we lose this client?

We get feedback every day in many ways, not all of them begin so obviously with the 6 ‘dreaded’ words. Feedback can be positive reinforcement, highly constructive, or in the case above, not very useful to the recipient at all. It depends on the intention of the giver and the mindset of the receiver.

To get us on the same page, I’m going to use the wonderful classic What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback by Charles and Edie Seashore and Gerald Weinberg to establish a definition of ‘feedback’: Information about past behavior delivered in the present which may influence future behavior.

Feedback is necessary if we are to learn and grow and connect in productive relationships. In a work environment, feedback if essential to accomplish the mission of the organization. Through feedback we learn acceptable norms, behaviors, and standards.

So, if feedback has such a positive intent, why is it so often fraught with psychological danger and relationship disfunction?

Consider that:

  • Feedback is often about something the giver deems as negative. We are more apt to get called out on something the giver perceives we didn’t do well than about something we got right.
  • Feedback often comes after the fact, when the incident may be long forgotten by more current challenges. Think performance reviews: “Ten months ago you did this.” At least when David offered Shauna some feedback it was directly after the event so it could have sparked a productive learning conversation if it had been done differently.
  • Feedback has generally been a one-way communication. The giver provides feedback to the receiver. The receiver is expected to take the feedback and do something with it. Rarely any reflection by the giver on what made this particular piece of feedback stand out for them or how they could, together, come to a better outcome.

If feedback is so essential to our learning and growth, how can we do a better job of giving and receiving feedback?

In the next post we’ll examine the neuroscience behind feedback.

Have you had any significantly positive experiences with giving or receiving feedback?


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