Feedback in Three Steps

© 2003, Coert Visser

As a manager you have just led a meeting. John brought forward a proposal to implement a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. He did this convincingly and enthusiastically but seemed to leave very little room for his colleagues Michael and Peter to respond. You want to talk to John about this...but how?

Feedback is essential
Giving and getting feedback is essential. The fact is, no matter how hard we try, we don’t always automatically perform excellent. We need information from others to know what is expected from us, how others perceive us, what we do well and what we should do better. Sometimes others have more expertise or skills, they look at your behavior from a different angle, and they may have access to different information. When feedback functions well in an organization, people are interested in signals about the effects of their behavior and they constructively correct each other. Fantastic! But now the less rosy daily practice.…..

Feedback can turn out miserable
Often giving and receiving feedback comes with problems. This is because feedback is quite often experienced as negative and personal criticism. When that is the case it can evoke strong emotions and arouse our physical activation system: our heart starts beating heavier, we breathe faster and faster, and sweat breaks out. Due to this our mental flexibility diminishes: we get more rigid and we insist more and more on being right. In these circumstances escalation is very easily created. To avoid all of this, we’d rather not give any feedback at all. But…feedback remains essential. What is wise?

Three feedback styles
Feedback can be valuable or miserable, depending on how you do it. There are roughly three styles:

1. 'Telling it like it is': negative feedback
When we evaluate the performance of others, we mainly tend to see what is not right about it. And if we want to be honest, what is more logical than ´telling it like it is´? Direct, negative feedback is often well intended but it often leads to defensive reactions. People feel misunderstood, really see things differently, and maybe don’t even trust your intentions. Receivers of feedback often feel personally attacked. Briefly put: negative feedback puts content central and largely disregards the relationship. Every now and then this is useful but often it leads to big problems.
"John, I noticed you were extremely dominant and pushy to Michael and Peter. I have seen you do that before. Will you STOP doing that! And regarding your proposal: always when there is a new hype you are always so over-enthusiastic. I wish you were a BIT less naive…”
2. Flattering feedback: avoiding any negative remarks
People who have often receive defensive responses to negative feedback, may develop a flattering or conciliatory feedback style. What is said is nearly always vague and positive. Criticism is carefully avoided. The relationship is put at the center and the content of the matter is largely disregarded. A disadvantage: the receiver of feedback misses out on useful information to improve his own performance. Ironically, flattering feedback often does not build strong and lasting relationships, because this style is often perceived as less useful and authentic. The style is sometimes useful, but often problematic.
"John, I love how driven you are in meetings! You are SO innovative that others simply can’t keep up. Wonderful! And with respect to that software package: we certainly have to get back to that when we have more time. Very interesting indeed!”
3. Stepwise communicative feedback
Communicative feedback is the feedback style that is least applied but it in most work situations it is the most effective one. It is a way of giving feedback in which attention is paid both to content and relationship. Psychology professor David Perkins and his colleague Amy Sullivan, working at Project Zero describe the method of stepwise communicative feedback. They call this method the feedback ladder (Perkins, 2003). Roughly, this is how it goes:



Make clear in a positive way what you want to discuss.
"John, thank you for your proposal of buying CRM software. I would like to talk with you about this."
Step 1: Clarify
Ask questions for clarification to check if you have understood the idea / the behavior well. Avoid questions that imply criticism.
"Do I understand correctly that we could achieve an improvement of client loyalty of 10% with such a system?"
(John provides further information)

Step 2: Value
State explicitly what you appreciate in the behavior or idea. Avoid going straight through to negative points.
"Okay John, what I like about this is the possibility of having knowledge about individual clients directly available at any time. Further I like that it might help us improve the efficiency of our operations. You have explained this excellently."
(John responds)

Step 3: Concerns and suggestions

Make clear what you don’t like or what your goals or worries are. Avoid speaking en absolute and accusatory terms. Make clear that what you say is subjective.

Suggestions/ Expectations
Offer concrete suggestions or make expectations clear. Be clear and constructive.
"I would like to discuss three concerns I have. First, Michael told me that he had read that 55% of all CRM-implementations fail. Second, I heard Peter ask whether it wouldn’t be wiser to try to improve our client orientation through a training program. Finally, I had the impression that Michael and Peter had wanted to express their ideas more extensively but felt you did not give them enough chance to do this."
(John responds)
"Perhaps it would be a good idea for you to look into whether it s true that so many CRM projects  to fail, and if it is true, why that is and how we might be able to prevent this. Further, I think your proposal would be better received if you would listen to and take into account more the ideas and responses of Michael and Peter. That way they would feel they’d been taken more seriously. And they could help you improve your proposal."
Closing Close the conversation. Discuss how to go forward.
"I appreciate that could talk about this. Shall we discuss your proposal again next meeting? Are my suggestions useful to you?"
Often effective but not easy
Stepwise communicative feedback works well in many work situations. Both content and relationship are taken seriously. The method is respectful, interactive and clear. Although it costs a bit more time to give feedback, the method is eventually efficient. The extra time spend is earned back by preventing irritations and by better information exchange.

But the method requires much practice. People who have learned to apply the feedback ladder can easily fall back in their old feedback habits, particularly when they’re under pressure. This is unfortunate because especially under these circumstances communicative feedback often is very useful. Besides practicing this feedback style it is therefore important to inhibit these old habits actively.

Of course the last word about feedback has not been spoken. Even this method will not turn feedback into the easiest thing in the world. But because feedback is essential, it pays off to get better at it. Stepwise communicative feedback can be quite helpful for this.