Coaching Leadership

Continuous Feedback

Why we give feedback, we want to make another person aware of how we saw their performance. Sometimes it’s to say how great something was and how they should do it more often, sometimes it’s to course-correct and help them to be more effective in a given situation.

All too often, it’s too far removed from the situation to be truly useful. This time of year is the end of the annual performance cycle for many of us, and it might just be the only time you give or get feedback from a number of your peers.

Sticking to the annual cycle is super inefficient. Anything that happened more than a week ago will be really degraded in people’s minds. The situation will be hazy, the behaviour non-specific and the impact debateable. So you’ve lost at least 51 weeks worth of opportunities to give valuable feedback. Being 2% good at something is not where we want to be.

Instead, practice giving feedback as close to the activity as possible. Start off with things that went well. Be specific as to what you’d like to see more of. Ask for feedback yourself about specific recent situations, and practice taking it onboard well.

Giving positive feedback will usually be taken well! Showing you can take on suggestions from other will also make them more likely to listen to your own, it builds trust.

Then you can move on to the course corrections. If it’s close in time to the situation, then the correction is likely to be small, and easier to make. Rather than only having a week from a year to draw from, you can make those small positive changes early and often, and really build up momentum.

Finally, to make the performance review easy, capture some of these in the moment pieces of feedback in a more permanent form. Whether it’s Slack messages, emails or you just keeping a note of them, it’s a lot better to build up a picture of the last year with evidence, rather than what you can remember off the top of your head.

Feedback is super important, give it often, hit the positive as well as the course corrective and do it close to the situation and you’ll be massively more effective in the long run.

Coaching Leadership

Swing and a Miss

We all give feedback to lots of people, in a wide range of situations. Sometimes it’s really well balanced, hits the mark exactly and really helps that person drive forwards to a positive change. Sometimes it doesn’t land perfectly, but with some reflection they find value. Sometimes it’s a total miss, that elicits a negative or even hostile response.

What do you do?

First up, consider the response. Reflect on the content. Is it an emotional outburst? Is the person giving additional context or information? Where’s the difference between what you were aiming to share and what they’ve taken from your communication?

If you struggle to unpick this, then take a bit of a break. It’s very normal for your own emotions to spike out if you hit this type of reaction, and reacting in turn will not help matters! It may be helpful to reach out to a less involved third party to get their view, especially if they witness the situation that arose to the provision of the feedback.

Now you’ve got a better picture, you need to decide what to do. When feedback misses badly, it can put a real dent into a relationship. You’ll need to do some work, and it’ll take some time to get back to where you were.

First off, were you just wrong? If the recipient has given some more information and you recognise that something you said was factually incorrect, then don’t be afraid to offer a strong and full apology. “I’m sorry, what I said was incorrect and I recognise this has upset you. Thank-you for sharing the additional information, I will ensure that I’m fully up-to-speed in future before commenting”. Then follow through on that commitment, and demonstrate to the recipient the learning you have stated you will undertake.

If you were factually correct, but the recipient has reacted emotionally, then you still may apologise (It’s not nice to make people feel bad). If you are doing this, make sure to make it a real apology, no soft “We apologise for any emotion you have felt”, nor ones that make things worse “I’m sorry you took that so badly”.

As a leader, you may still need to land the message to drive a change in behaviour, so your next step would be to reframe the feedback (repeating it will certainly not work). Focus on what you observed and the impacts of the behaviour you saw. In this higher stakes scenario, practice this reframing before delivering it. Write down your observations, run them back and check that they are better than before. Review them against Situation/Behaviour/Impact or your own favoured feedback framework.

It’s also great at this point to recognise it’s a tough conversation! It might feel meta, but highlighting this gives you the chance to remind the recipient the value that can come from these tough moments.

Finally, you will look towards rebuilding that relationship. Again, depending on what your miss looked like, this will take different forms. Listen again to what the recipient is telling you. The fix might be as simple to change the style or format of the feedback. This is a very likely outcome in the remote world, as text chat can come across many times harsher than the same message given face-to-face in real time.

Alternatively, the recipient may have given you that extra information that changes the situation somewhat. Here you can provide additional support by removing a blocker or doing something else to smooth their path forwards.

As you are repairing the relationship, you must ensure that whatever you commit to in this stage is something that you stick to and continue to do, even beyond the initial repair period. This is how to build back trust that you have damaged.

So, sometimes feedback misses the target, and sometimes it misses in a destructive way! If you spot this early, then you can correct it. It’ll take some effort, but doing it with care and attention can rebuild a damaged relationship and even strengthen it for the future!


Try it on for size

Once you’ve got the hang of gracefully accepting the gift of feedback, then consider a next step of trying it on for size. In the corporate world, we get a lot of “constructive” feedback, which is code for something the feedback giver thinks you aren’t doing particularly well.

The first reaction is the defensive denial, which we’re moving beyond thanks to the practice of graceful acceptance.

The next stage is the long form denial and rationalisation. That’s where we find some other reasons to discard the feedback provided. It’s wrong, misguided or doesn’t match my style. Very rarely that’s 100% true. What’s more likely is that it’s not fully wrong, nor truly correct. It’s filtered through the knowledge and bias of the feedback giver, so it’s right for them, but not quite right for you.

Speaking from personal experience, telling them where they are wrong doesn’t work! It’s a second order failure of the graceful acceptance model, it’s just delayed a bit from the initial sharing of the feeedback.

So, instead of discarding it or telling people they are wrong, what can you do?

Just try it out.

Find some low risk scenarios to trial it. Maybe you’ve been told that your questioning style feels aggressive, but you think you are just direct. Hold off questioning in a big forum like an all hands for a while, and instead try out some softer techniques in a team meeting or other small group.

Go heavier than you feel comfortable with. You are trying this idea on for size, and you know it’s not something you 100% agree with, so it’ll be tough. If you dial up to 11, then you’ve got a fair shake of hitting a 7 or 8.

Think about how it felt, see if you can get any specific comments about it, compare the inside and outside views to find the truth that’s somewhere in the middle. You blend this fresh feedback with your own values and styles, and find the right change for you.

The power move is to then take this change and show it in-front of the person who’s given the constructive feedback. You’ve wrapped it in your own authentic style, so are happy. They see a change, so they are happy the feedback was taken on board.

Finally, if trying it out really doesn’t do anything for you, then you are still able to “return the gift to the shop”, fully aware you gave it a fair shot.


Showing Appreciation

If you are running remotely fully, or just more distributed than usual, then it can be tough to show appreciation in the ways that you are used to. The one that you’ve probably lost is the immediate positive feedback.

Giving feedback close to the event is one of the most important ways to make sure it’s understood and recognised. Giving a quick bit of positive re-enforcement on a good performance is especially beneficial. It’s the “Good job with the really clear chart on Slide 5” or “Great handling on the tough question from Marketing”.

You still need to give these little positive updates to the people you work with, but when there’s no corridors to walk around, it can be hard to find out the right way to do it.

It’ll depend somewhat on your culture, and on the meetings you are having, but you can consider these approaches:

  1. Just do the shout-out in the meeting. Works great for the truly positive and if the person you are praising enjoys the public recognition.
  2. Hold on for your next one-to-one. If you are having them weekly, then it’s probably still close enough to be effective. Grab some notes in the moment and refer to them in the session.
  3. Drop it in at the start of another meeting. You will be in and out of video calls all day, so pick a time when both you and the person you are giving the appreciation to are early to a call, and go for it then.
  4. Go big. If you’ve got a big all hands or departmental meeting, grab a few seconds in the appreciation section to recognise the great work.
  5. Send a note in instant messenger. This will be close to the situation, but can lose some of the emotion and meaning, so craft it carefully.

Five options to let someone know they did well, pick what works for you and which will also have the right impact on the person you are praising.

One final thought. Never ask for ‘a quick call’ from your chat software, especially if it’s the sum total of your message. That’s certain to put the fear into the person you are talking to. The unexpected escalation to a more personal form of contact is too often used for bad news, so avoid this approach wherever possible.

Coaching Leadership

Accepting Feedback

A really great way to get a better view on the impact your actions have is to practice the art of accepting feedback.

If you are in the habit of blaming the messenger, then pretty quickly you’ll find that no more messages are sent. You’ll lose access to a valuable source of information and be making decisions on much shakier ground.

Of course, this is rarely a problem if the news is good! It’s very much a skill to practice when hearing something difficult, when the impact of your actions is at odds with your intent or when the messages don’t align with your view of who you are.

So, what’s the benefit?

If you accept feedback with poise and grace, then it’s likely that whoever if giving it to you will continue to do so. It builds trust that you can handle difficult conversations and that it’s worth continuing to have them.

Practice this skill as it can be difficult to master. If you’ve struggled in the past, then reflect on the reasons why. Do you leap to your own defence? Are you quick to point to your intent? Do you try to flip the conversation to your own hurt feelings?

To start with, try this. Thank them for the feedback. Then stop, and don’t attempt to address it immediately. If you need to, say that you’ll need some time to reflect on the thoughts they’ve shared.

Feedback is a gift, it gives you more information than you had before, about an area that may be hard for you to see on your own.

In the same way that a pair of socks for your birthday may not be the most looked for gift, so might any specific piece of feedback. You might plan to send those on to the charity shop the next day, but you’ll still thank the giver in the moment.

It’s about building the long term relationship. Remember that and you’ll be learning more about yourself and supercharging your journey of positive change.


I’ll Know It When I See It

Sometimes it’s incredibly easy to tell if you’ve achieved your goal. If it’s measurable, if it’s concrete, or if it’s a binary yes/no outcome, then you will just know. You either get the promotion, or you don’t.

A lot of the time, you’ll want to work on something that isn’t easily measured. It can be anything from improving your presentation skills, to expanding your emotional literacy. What can you do to understand this growth and progression, without being stuck in an “I’ll know it when I see it” hole.

Self-Reflection – Do the thing you want to get better at. Have a tough conversation or give that presentation. Afterwards, write down what went well and where you felt there were areas to improve. Focus on those areas, do it again and repeat the cycle. This is great for understanding the things that you can see and recognise, and an excellent resource to take into a coaching discussion.

Feedback – Gather thoughts from a trusted partner. Sit them in the audience, then ask them what was the best moment of the presentation, and what was the weakest. This opens you to the views of others and lets you close down your blind-spots.

Surveys – In a leadership position, you might be lucky enough to benefit from the results of regular engagement surveys, or you may be able to run these following a particular interaction. These are sources of large sets of feedback with an aggregate view. The aggregation is key here. Don’t get hung up on outliers or single comments, but look for themes and trends to measure improvement.

Recognition – If you are the go-to person for a skill or a trusted source of advice on a topic, then that’s a strong indicator you are really great at that topic. If you don’t feel you deserve this recognition, then ask the people coming to you what’s driven that decision. This will really let you understand what’s helping you succeed, and to see the growth you’ve managed through the process.

If you are working to improve a skill or to make a change that’s hard to measure, then use these techniques to understand your progress. They are powerful tools for growth and learning that will turbocharge your journey to greatness.