When full marks aren’t a good thing

When I was involved in electronic design, feedback was a tricky business. Feedback is inherent in a working amplifier design, but it is a careful balance. Too little and the amplifier doesn’t work, too much and you get a howling screech.

In our organisation, we have a couple of times a year where we formally revise our Personal Development Reviews. As part of that process, we seek feedback from those around us, and it launches a flurry of 360 degree feedback requests (in a variety of formats). During this process I’ve seen a few examples where people have marked their peers as being exemplary/best possible (full marks) in every element of the values 360 degree questionnaire, yet not provided any comments to back up that opinion.

To me that feedback is almost worthless and represents a missed opportunity.

For starters, it would be very rare for anyone to genuinely warrant being scored as having exemplary strengths in every area. We all have room for improvement! I think the best way to think about it is that someone doing well in this area should be marked as competent — and then to think carefully if they exceed this by some degree.

From some of the consolidated scores I’ve seen, inconsistencies in the scoring of the type just described means that I’m more interested in the comments. Therein comes another challenge. I’ve seen people with only glowing positive comments. Of course, it is good to have an opportunity to acknowledge the good work of our colleagues, but for this process to have value, we need to be helping our colleagues by pointing out things they can improve on as well.

So, my advice is that before you start typing, a simple guide is to think about your feedback in three stages:

  • What has the individual done well and how has this helped?
  • What could the individual do better?
  • How could the individual develop to be even more effective?

Giving good feedback takes practice. As I’ve spent some time reading various things about feedback, I’ve reflected on the feedback I’ve given recently and noted how I could improve it. The key things I’ve learnt are:

  • Be specific and give examples
  • Give consideration on how you’re stating feedback. Frame things from your own perspective “I have noticed..” or “I feel..”
  • Sometimes my feedback is going to be wrong. I need to be prepared to acknowledge that

Why Wait?

One important things about feedback is not to wait until the 360 degree form comes out or some other formal occasion. Cloke and Goldsmith observing successful teams and identified 10 contributing skills — one of which was the skill of feedback and evaluation. “In a true team environment, self-critical perspectives are expected, welcomed, acknowledged and rewarded”. So if we want to build great teams, we need to value this skill and develop ourselves in this area.

Choosing the moment to give feedback is also important. One suggestion is that the most effective feedback is to provide it immediately, as the brain learns best by being caught in action. The tip behind this is to be tough, but not mean. Interestingly, the same article suggests that the traditional feedback ‘sandwich’ (good-improve-good) devalues the good feedback. Others suggest giving good and negative together, so there is an element of personal preference there. Motivation for giving the feedback is also important:

  • To give feedback indicates you care enough about them to consider their situation and work is worthy of your attention. You’re affirming the worth of the person and offering them your views on something into which they have put some effort.
  • Helpful feedback makes a conscious distinction between the person — who is always valued — and particular acts or specific work — which may be subject to critical comment.

Feedback on Feedback

Feedback isn’t a skill that comes naturally to many of us, so consciously practicing is the only way to get better. Given with the right motive, and listening carefully to how your feedback is received will help your learning.

Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves what the purpose of this feedback is. I particularly liked a phrase from Halogen software:

The purpose of giving feedback to someone is not to change them. That’s not something you can do as a manager or peer; only the person themselves can initiate change.

So for the next 360 form you’re given, please take a minute and think about what you’re about to do. It could be the first step in helping your colleague, manager or peer to initiate their own improvement process.

[Disclaimer: This is a re-publish of a blog I wrote on an internal company blog in April 2016]

Husband. Dad to 3 smashing lads. Cub Leader. MAMIL. Group CDIO for Northampton and Kettering Hospitals. Ex NHS Digital. Views own. Always learning.