The art of feedback
Not long before Covid, I found myself in a classroom full of strangers. We came together for a mandatory leadership course. The topic was how to give good feedback.
I arrived curious. I left quietly yelling “YES!” in the privacy of my own skull.
It was that good a course.
What made it good was that we didn’t just learn how to give feedback. The course was experiential: We witnessed feedback in action. We saw for ourselves what worked, what didn’t, and why.
One exercise stuck with me. It started with the teacher picking five volunteers. One volunteer pretended to be an employee performing a task. The other four acted as leaders, taking it in turn to provide feedback.
The teacher gave the volunteer employee a ball and placed an empty trash bin on the other side of the room. The employee’s task was to toss the ball three times with each of the leaders, trying to hit the basket. But the catch? The team member kept their eyes closed for the whole exercise. They couldn’t see the target.
The four leaders provided feedback, each using a different style.
The first leader was told to ‘cheerlead.’ As the employee tossed the ball they responded with things like “well done,” “great throw,” and “you’ve got this!” They were positive without fail.
The employee laughed and smiled, but missed the basket every time.
The next leader was told to berate the employee. This was honestly hard to witness. As the team member threw the ball this leader responded with “nope,” “that was terrible,” and “not even close.”
The employee did not laugh, did not smile, and did not hit the target.
You probably see where this is going, yes?
But there were still two leaders (and feedback styles) to go.
The third volunteer leader was given their instructions in a whisper the rest of us couldn’t hear. The demonstration started. The employee, eyes closed, threw the ball and waited for feedback. The leader said nothing. Silence stretched. The employee asked “did I hit it?” The leader said nothing. The employee asked “should I try again?” The leader said nothing. Eventually the employee tried a second and third time. Again the leader said nothing. All three throws went wild. The employee was visibly uncertain. The rest of us were shifting uncomfortably in our seats.
Finally we arrived at the last part of our demo. The final volunteer leader read a set of instructions before starting. The employee tossed the first ball and missed. Everyone tensed, wondering what ‘feedback’ was about to happen. The volunteer leader said “try aiming a bit to the left and give it a bit less oomph.” The employee relaxed visibly and tried again. The ball missed but not by as much. The leader nodded and said “better but the direction’s not quite right. Here, let me help.” They guided the employee’s hand to show them the right angle. “Try that, and give it the same amount of oomph.” The employee tossed the ball gently in the direction they’d been shown, and it bounced off the edge of the basket. “That was so close,” the leader exclaimed, “if you had another throw I think you’d have it!” The employee finally got to open their eyes. They high-fived and the demo ended.
Feedback in action
Cheerleading created some great positive energy, but no results.
Berating created terrible energy and equally poor results.
Silence — an absence of feedback — created uncertainty and confusion and poor results.
The only feedback that actually helped was the last approach. This approach created a good result for both the employee and the task.
Why? Because this feedback was helpful. It created a good result by providing good direction and answers to these questions:
- How am I doing?
- What do I need to do differently?
- Am I close to the target? If I’m not, where should I aim?
- Are the changes working?
Equally important: It did all this while staying positive and encouraging. And in this dynamic the leader and employee acted as true partners.
This is constructive feedback.
The elements of constructive feedback
So where does that leave us?
There are many approaches to feedback, but constructive feedback:
- Defines a clear, shared goal and direction
- Tells the person how they’re doing, what they need to change, and how to do it
- Reduces trial and error with timely interventions
- Provides progressive updates to help the person zero in on the goal
- Provides encouragement and support along the way
Sound complicated? Here’s another way to put it:
“A little to the left.
A bit more oomph.
You’re almost there.”