The Gift of Feedback

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ken Blanchard is credited withlabeling the word “feedback” as the “breakfast of champions.” Blanchard was giving us more than a clever sound bite by borrowing from the tagline from the familiar Wheatiescereal ad.

When you dissect the word into its parts —“feed” and “back” — you get the intended connotation of feedback as a tool for nurturing wisdom. Think of it as learning fuel.

How do you give feedback  to fuel growth? Start by recognizing that while giving advice can surface resistance, giving feedback can stir up resentment. Advice is about expanding the scope of knowledge; feedback is about ?lling a blind spot.

Consider this experience.

In the late 1960s, my co-author Chip Bell served in Vietnam as an U.S. Army infantry unit commander with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Attached to his combat unit was an artillery of?cer who worked as the forward observer for the artillery unit that supported ?eld operations in the rear area. This observer served as the eyes for the gunner pulling the lanyard on the artillery piece. As rounds were ?red several miles out, the officer observed their impact and, using a ?eld radio, called back corrections to improve the accuracy of the next shot.

The observer never responded with, “Lousy shot.” He would say, “Drop 100 meters.” This was feedback, not advice; the officer had a perspective the gunner needed and didn’t have.

There is one difference between artillery feedback and mentoring feedback: Artillery feedback is not likely to make the recipient angry. Advice is expertise the protégé may have or could acquire. Resistance to advice is therefore about premature smartness — that is, “You (the mentor) are telling me (the protégé) something you know that, in time, I might learn on my own.”

But with feedback, the issue is this: “You (the mentor) are telling me something you know that I (the protégé) will never learn on my own, and that irritates me.” The danger with advice is potential resistance; with feedback, it’s potential resentment.

Ultimately, con?rming feedback should contain the same level of care as corrective feedback.

Below are ?ve steps to make feedback more productive.

Create a climate of identi?cation. A key factor in giving feedback is the protégé’s embarrassment or awkwardness over some blind spot. Granted, embarrassment might at times be too strong a label for the protégé’s feelings, but at other times it is not strong enough.

In any event, the mentor can enhance the protégé’s receptivity by creating a climate of identi?cation. Make comments that have an “I’m like you” message.

State the rationale for the feedback.In addition to overcoming embarrassment about the blind spot, the protégé will need tounderstand the context of the feedback. Help the protégé gain a clear sense of the reason for the feedback. Ensure there is a clear perspective for making sense of the feedback.

Assume you’re giving yourself the feedback. Besidesbeing clear and empathetic, feedback must be honest. This doesn’t mean it must be cruel. Think of your goal this way: how would you deliver feedback if you were giving it to yourself? Take your cues from your own preferences.

Focus on the future, not on the past. The protégé can do little about the past. Granted, there can be lessons learned through re?ection and review. The primary focus of feedback should be on providing a keen understanding that creates insight that leads to a new future application.

Ask for what you gave — feedback.There is one action you can take that will both help youimprove your mentoring and level the playing ?eld in the protégé’s mind: Ask for feedback.Remember this relationship is designed to be a partnership. Let the protégé know that you want the feedback process to work both ways.