Feedback or noise?

I’ve been noticing just lately that this word ‘feedback’ keeps coming up.  Specifically, it’s being used in the context of letting someone know something about their behaviour or attitude.  This isn’t an uncommon word and in workplaces everywhere, people are being encouraged to give ‘feedback’ to each other…..Managers to staff….co-workers to co-workers….in fact, people all over the place to other people all over the place.

Years ago, a wise and much-loved teacher of mine remarked that he never used the word ‘feedback’ when sharing information with someone about their performance.  He likened it to the kind of feedback that you get from the speaker on your sound system—grating, dissonant noise.  Since that time, I have found myself bristling every time I hear someone say something like, “Can I give you some feedback about what you just did?” or “I think I need to give my staff some feedback about that last project.”

I have to say I tend to agree with his take on the word.  I have worked with a fair number of Managers who have to conduct performance reviews with their staff and they talk about giving feedback.  And I suspect that is more or less what it sounds like to their staff—grating, dissonant noise.  Consider the person about to enter the Manager’s office for a performance review.  Consider the thoughts and feelings that will be going through them.  Consider the slightly sweaty palms, the slightly shallower-than-normal breathing, the increased heart rate….all signs of nervousness or anxiety.  All limbic responses to potential threat or danger; the Manager is not about to leap out from behind a chair and maul them to death, however the limbic system does not operate on a level or reason or logic.  However, when the limbic system starts to kick into action, it does cause our more evolved ‘thinking brain’ to operate at less than optimal levels and we don’t take information in clearly.  The staff member sits down and the Manager begins a friendly conversation, however the hormones rushing through the staff member’s body have not entirely dissipated.  All they hear is grating, dissonant noise—feedback.

So, I hear you ask, am I suggesting that staff shouldn’t have performance conversations with their Managers?

After all, don’t people want to know how they’re doing?  And don’t organisations have a responsibility to ensure that people are working to an agreed standard?  Of course, emphatically yes to both questions.

I would suggest, however, that it is not the giving of this information that is sometimes flawed; it is HOW it is delivered.  I suspect that there are many people who experience any kind of conversation about their performance as a little challenging.  Indeed, a comment on how we’re doing will naturally elicit some kind of emotional response inside; we are not automatons.  So it behoves the giver of the information to place themselves in the shoes of the receiver and consider how to pass on this really useful information.  It is important to consider time and place.  Most importantly, it is important to consider the relationship.

I like to think of traffic lights when I share information with someone about themselves.  If the light is red, I hold back.  In other words, if I don’t feel I’ve done enough work on building a good, trusting relationship, I will be very careful what I say: not because I’m shy of telling people what I think, but because I want the words to actually be heard clearly and not come across as grating, dissonant noise.  If the light is amber, I’m getting there, but I can’t be as forthright as I would if the light was green.  With a green light, we can let someone know how they are doing in a manner that is honest and open, knowing that they are not feeling threatened or defensive, because we have spent a sufficient amount of time, energy and consideration in building a positive working relationship with them.


5 thoughts on “Feedback or noise?

  1. As a Feedback Enthusiast, I really enjoyed this post. I have the same reaction to the word “feedback”… people have not had wonderful happy experiences after that word is used. I encourage organizations to change the word and use something creative to describe the art and science of working together to cultivate trust and collaboration!

    I also agree with your statement: “I would suggest, however, that it is not the giving of this information that is sometimes flawed; it is HOW it is delivered.”

    It’s often times about the “How”. I recently completed research for a client on the “frequency of feedback”. How frequently feedback is delivered would definitely have impact… but imagine if feedback was delivered poorly yet frequently versus delivered respectfully and collaboratively AND frequently! BIG difference!

    I provide easy-to-use tools and strategies that help leaders and their teams focus on the HOW of feedback.

    Thank you for sharing this post… I will fondly include you in my list of Feedback Enthusiasts!

    Keep in touch!

    1. Thanks Sonia, I like what you say about delivering ‘feedback’ frequently, sensitively, respectfully and collaboratively. Workplaces change for the better when there is a culture in which performance conversations are happening all the time and not just at annual performance reviews and that these are done in a spirit of generosity and mutual respect. Glad you are doing the work you do with leaders and their teams!

  2. Good blog John. The other side of this is the tension in the person delivering the review, especially those who aren’t natural leaders. They’ll have the same churn going on inside them as they confront difficult conversations that they don’t really want to participate in.
    And I think this gets more difficult for all as the performance review is incorporated in performance management, and the feedback changes to ‘coaching’.
    What then happens is a blurring between the judging hat of the review, and the coaching hat of the goal setting.
    I once tried to separate the two activities for those in my teams providing ‘feedback’, but moved on before I was able to see the results.

    1. Yes, Alan, the tension in the Manager delivering performance reviews is just as important to be aware of. I reckon a lot of learning/development around ‘how to have performance reviews’ etc should focus on assisting Managers to manage their own strong feelings and also to manage the multitude of roles they need to take up at work. I would be interested to know what happened after you left those teams you mention.

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