Leadership Science: Feedback, round two!

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get better at presenting and I make it a point to ask my colleagues for feedback. It’s typical for me to hear things like “That was awesome!” or “Nice job!” I appreciate the often kind words, but some feedback I got last month gave me a bit of a jolt - in a good way.

As is typical for me, I asked a colleague for feedback on a presentation he listened in on. Instead of saying “That was great Jordan,” my colleague said, “I’d give you a B+ or A-. You’re good, but you can be better.” We spent the next 20-30 minutes brainstorming how I could improve. We touched on several key topics that could help me overall, and a couple that were specific to the presentation he had listened in on. It was one of the most insightful conversations I’ve had in the last few months.

Feedback Science

In a study published in 2014, students submitted papers that were graded and randomly assigned to one of two feedback methods. Half the papers received the following note as feedback given by their teacher “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” The other half of the papers were accompanied by this note from their teacher, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.”

About 40% of students who received the first version of feedback - the one that didn’t mention high expectations - reworked their papers. Nearly 80% of students who received the second version - mentioning high expectations - reworked their papers, and they made more than twice as many corrections as the other group of students.

The feedback that mentioned high expectations is known as the high standards + assurance formula (see “Power of Moments” by Chip and Dan Heath, pg. 122). When giving this type of feedback we make it clear that we have high standards but also express confidence in the person.

By providing feedback in this way my colleague was saying “Jordan, you matter to me and I care enough about you that I’m not going to let you stay where you are.” I admire my colleague for providing this feedback. It takes guts to be honest about this kind of stuff.

Commitment and Final Thoughts

If you’re a manager or colleague that is asked to provide feedback, take this responsibility seriously! My respect for the colleague’s willing to provide me with this kind of feedback grows immensely and our relationship is typically strengthened in the process. Commit to sharing feedback candidly using the high standards + assurance model if you really want to help others become the best version of themselves.

Almost everyone needs to get better at responding to this kind of feedback. The worst thing you can do is get defensive, but it's so natural. Notice when your fists start to clench or your jaw tightens. Commit to letting the first words out of your mouth be something like "I'm grateful you trust me enough to share that feedback. That takes guts and I'm glad you were willing to tell me the truth."

When Sheryl Sandberg was asked "What's the number one thing you look for in someone who can scale with a company?" She responded with,

Someone who takes feedback well. Because people who can take feedback well are people who can learn and grow quickly.
— Sheryl Sandberg

Couldn't agree more Sheryl! Besides, reacting in a negative way to criticism as a means of justifying yourself or repairing your image is nuts - seriously, it's insane! What do we actually think flying off the handle is going to accomplish? Perhaps, we surmise, that once we finish our tirade and have set them straight they're bound to think more highly of us. Yeah right!

What really happens when we get critical feedback is that we typically don't think at all. We react. We prepare a counter assault. Before our colleague can finish talking we're rolling out the heavy artillery and calling in the air strike. The moment that person stops talking we're prepared to let them have it! Once our counter attack has been launched our colleague either escalates with us - which is sure to cause greater harm - or just writes us off as someone that can't take feedback so they'll never give it again.

Take feedback for what it is, a gift. Work like crazy to calm down when you hear something critical. One piece of advice I have appreciated is "assume positive intent." Assuming positive intent will help you calm down and listen.

Next level: When someone gives you this kind of feedback they’re being vulnerable. I sent the following email to my colleague within an hour of our feedback discussion, because I a) wanted him to feel comfortable providing the feedback again, and b) I wanted to make sure he knew I didn’t take offense to his candid remarks. 

"Hey ________,

I just wanted to make sure you know how grateful I am for you candidly sharing your feedback. You made some excellent points and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. I don’t get that very often, more just pats on the back, so it’s helpful to have someone that is willing to help me take my game to the next level.



His response reiterated his appreciation of my willingness to ask for and listen to feedback, as well as his desire to help me up my game.

Warning: I believe I can learn something from everyone, but some people know more about a given topic than others. I recommend that you be careful when providing someone with strong feedback like my colleague did. If you’re going to provide feedback then be sure you’re ready to provide some real, actionable, ways for the other person to improve that are based on good research or deep experience. If not, you’re likely to come off as a egotistical jerk.