Over time, within the context of management training and leadership communication, the concept of feedback has shifted from the description used by musicians, performers, and athletes to the much more narrow focus related to acts a supervisor performs, most often during an annual review. Most people think feedback is a message a leader creates and distributes to an employee. And business leaders typically describe the word “feedback” to mean something they supply or dispense to employees to correct improper behavior.
Such self-serving beliefs about “feedback” invariably fail. “Giving feedback” is an oxymoron. Are you insulting, offending, or disrespecting your employees under the alleged pretense of giving them feedback—or are you facilitating their ability to experience natural, motivating, self-correcting feedback from their work and those they work with? Giving feedback leads to diminishing the relationship with employees; facilitating feedback strengthens relationships.
What is feedback, really?
Feedback is commonly misunderstood. Consider taking a hot bowl of soup out of the microwave and burning your hand. That’s an example of self-correcting feedback; you’ll be sure to use an oven mitt to remove hot items from the microwave from then on. What about shaving? You use your own vision and a mirror for feedback on your performance—not video cameras with others giving you instructions on how to do it.
In contrast to the dictionary definition and the definition believed by most leaders, feedback is everywhere. The key is to learn how to recognize feedback that occurs naturally and use it to improve your own performance.
Taking responsibility for using the feedback you receive means that you change your own behaviors instead of blaming the microwave manufacturer for a burn. A little league baseball player can take the coach’s suggestions on how to hold the bat before taking a swing. But the most important feedback comes from practice: learning how to position the swing of the bat, interpreting how the hands feel as the ball strikes the bat, and how to put a variety of factors together to get the ball to travel in the direction you want it to go.
The same is true for job performance-related feedback; someone provides you with information or responses that present you with an opportunity to improve your performance. But feedback is most useful when it’s experienced in a timely manner.
Keep in mind that feedback should not be perceived as negative—the type that only communicates errors. All feedback is positive, all feedback is good. Remember, feedback is everywhere. But feedback delayed is feedback denied.
About 5 or 10 minutes after an event, our memories tend to freeze, and we portray ourselves in the best light in any given situation. Has someone ever told you, “I didn’t do that!” even though you watched it happen? They may not have even realized their own behavior, and aren’t receptive to receiving feedback.
One of the most important factors for the perception of useful feedback is its timeliness. Delayed feedback causes people to feel defensive; when colleagues prioritize perfect delivery over honest and timely responses. Everyone benefits from immediate feedback when something undesirable happens rather than waiting to review the work days or weeks later.
Let’s say your annual performance review is in December. Does it make sense for your supervisor to mention mistakes you made all the way back in March and June? If you had received feedback about those mistakes nearer to the time they were made, you could have improved your performance and not continued to make those same mistakes for months.
Consciously communicating feedback
Pay attention to others’ perspectives on how they receive feedback so they can choose how to behave. Many people deny feedback because they think they’re right. Instead of thinking the other person will later appreciate the feedback you provide, guide them to their performance instead of dictating behaviors.
Learning how to bring to the performer, in a timely fashion, the feedback to help them self-correct boils down to conscious communication. Remember to consider your audience and the desired outcome before you begin speaking. And when you do start talking to communicate feedback, keep in mind that you’re receiving nonverbal feedback from that person in the form of facial expressions and body language.
Use that nonverbal feedback as an initial check to ensure the other person is grasping what you have to say. It’s common for people to unconsciously communicate only one way: by simply speaking some words. By doing nothing more than delivering the message, and failing to determine whether the recipient has grasped the information, you’re providing one-way communication. You can repeat the same words many times, but if the other person doesn’t understand the message behind the words you’ve chosen, you are literally wasting your breath because one-way communication almost always fails.