Feedback is indispensible

Written by Peter Honey on 18 September 2013

The other day a person, who is writing a book about feedback/360 degree, remembered I was still alive and contacted me to ask if she could interview me. Of course, flattered by the invitation, I agreed immediately (I like people interviewing me!).

However, as the day for the interview approached I started to wonder whether I had anything useful to say about feedback and decided I hadn't. But the interview was upon me and, feeling like an imposter about to be found out, I turned up. Then the usual thing happened; as I started responding to the first few gentle questions I found myself behaving increasingly like the expert my interviewer assumed I was (I hate the label 'expert' - but you know what I mean).

Reflecting after the interview, I realised, not for the first time, that questions are wonderful things. Even bad ones stimulate a response of some kind and every answer, even inadequate ones, provide the trigger for the next question.....and so on in a seemingly unstoppable cascade. The conclusion has to be that questions are good for reciprocal learning; the questioner learns and the respondent learns.

So what did I say about feedback? It all boils down to six main points:

Firstly, feedback is vital both to maintain current performance and to improve it. This does not mean that feedback necessarily has to be 'given' because it is often built into whatever is being done. I gave the example of dart throwing where under normal conditions you see how close or far the dart is to the indented target, and make tiny adjustments.  Interestingly, if you deprive dart throwers, even really accomplished ones, of any feedback, visual or spoken, over the course of about a dozen throws their accuracy declines. 

Secondly, most people at work are starved of feedback. This is because too many work places operate on a 'no news is good news' basis. It is simply assumed that if no one tells you otherwise, you are doing OK. This isn't good enough because quite often people are grumbling behind your back and not saying anything for fear of causing an upset. Crazy though it sounds, many managers are even reluctant to offer positive feedback!

Thirdly, forget about the so-called 'sandwich method' where positive and negative feedback gets mixed - with something positive usually being offered first to sugar the pill followed by the inevitable BUT.  All you have to remember is that everything before but is bullshit! The trouble with mixing feedback is that it diminishes the impact of the positives - and we don't get enough of those so that's a shame. 

Fourthly, despite the previous point, we need the contrast between positive and negative, praise and criticism.  There is no perception without contrast. Positive feedback is even more positive, and therefore even more effective, if negative feedback is sometimes experienced, and vice versa.   We need both - but not mixed.

Fifthly, feedback needs to be offered close in time to the relevant performance. The longer the lapsed time between the event and the related feedback, the less the impact.  This is one reason why annual appraisals are so hopeless; from a feedback point of view, they are far too infrequent.

Finally, I'm half way along a continuum with non-directive feedback at one end and directive at the other. I am strongly in favour of what I call suggestive feedback where you offer people thought-starters, or options, about possible ways forward. These are offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.  Even if all the suggestions are rejected, the very fact they have been offered stimulates the recipient's own ideas. The suggestions need not be offered straight away; you could invite their ideas first and only offer yours if you think some promising possibilities have not been explored.     

Oh, and one last point. I am very pro 360 degree feedback so long as it isn' t over complicated.  Keep it simple is my motto.      

About the author
Peter Honey FRSA, FCIPD, FIMC is a chartered psychologist and founder of Peter Honey Publications. He can be contacted at peterhoney1@btinternet.com or via www.peterhoney.org
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