When we hear phrases like “I need to give John some feedback”, we intuitively sense that John must have somehow messed up. Depending on the tone, we may feel some sympathy for either John – who is going to get “whipped” – or for the manager – who will likely have to face a string of denials, rebuttals and resentment. But does it have to be like that? Not really.
Observational Feedback, a technique frequently used in the academic and teaching worlds, or in peer coaching, is seldom used in business consulting and not as often as we may think in people management. And yet it is one of the most effective ways to engage people in their own development as well as to positively influence their professional growth.
The problem is that we often confuse FEEDBACK with other much less effective forms of communication, namely UNSOLICITED ADVISE or JUDGMENTAL EVALUATION.
Imagine the following situation: you are invited by your colleague Emma to join a meeting with a Key Client; Emma brings along a young associate, Jimmy. In the middle of the discussion, Jimmy offers a comment, but Emma abruptly silences him and continues the discussion, oblivious of Jimmy´s awkward expression. You feel sorry for Jimmy and decide to bring this up with Emma, after the meeting. What do you tell Emma?
- “You should really watch your behavior, you never give space to anybody else, Jimmy was really upset that you did not let him talk”
- “I noticed that you interrupted Jimmy in the middle of a comment; was it intended? I also noticed that the Client seemed puzzled and that Jimmy withdrew, did you notice?”
- “What was THAT all about?! You crashed Jimmy´s confidence, you have been rude and totally insensitive!”
Comment “b” is an example of Observational Feedback. It consists of a factual observation (e.g. I noticed you interrupted) and it is offered as a selfless gift to a person, without any attached expectations of provoking a change (because it is up to the receiver to evaluate whether to act upon the comment or not). One can always complement the observation by mentioning possible consequences or relevant observed reactions of others (e.g. the Client seemed puzzled and Jimmy withdrew). Depending on the relationship, one can also show curiosity and offer to talk about it (e.g. did you notice? was that your intention?)
Comment “a” is Unsolicited Advise. Comment “c” is a Judgmental Evaluation, and a negative one on top, sounding like a rather blunt and not constructive criticism.
Observational Feedback is very useful because it offers something that others know or have noticed about us, which we may not be aware of by ourselves: something that we call the Blind Spot. It is an incredibly generous gift to give and to receive and it is a real shame that we often pollute our generous intentions with unnecessary advice or judgment.
In the example above, comment b. gives Emma the extremely useful opportunity to reflect upon what was observed by others, that she might not be aware of, and to compare it with her own intentions.
Let´s explore this case a little bit more, in order to find out what this means.
Let´s assume that Emma really intended to be blunt with Jimmy (after all, they had agreed upfront that he would simply attend to listen and learn, while refraining from offering comments, given his relative inexperience with the complexities of the deal), yet in her preoccupation to prevent a possible misunderstanding, she had not paid attention to the Client´s reaction and had thus missed the cue that the Client was puzzled by her abrupt behaviour. In this case, the observational feedback helps her watch her tone next fine she needs to interrupt a colleague in front of an external party.
Or maybe her intention had not been to undermine Jimmy´s comment; she had done it without even thinking, so stressed she had been, and focused on her own comments. In this case, the observational feedback helps her pay more attention to her unconscious reaction of dismissal towards a junior colleague; she may apologise to Jimmy and learn to adopt a more respectful behaviour in the future, which will strengthen her effectiveness as people manager.
In either case, the Observational Feedback is precious in bringing up something that she may not be aware of, providing greta learning opportunity; importantly, she is the only one who – knowing her own intentions and discovering where exactly there is a mismatch between intention and impact – can decide how to use the observation to improve her own performance.
We can now better understand what is “wrong” (ineffective and possibly disrespectful), with comments “a” and “c”: we make assumptions based on our perception, without knowing what is the real intention of the person, we give unrequested advice that tends to irritate or judgment that can be rather offensive, all together shifting attention away from the key “feeding back useful information” message.
So in net, this is how we give really useful Observational Feedback:
- We speak in a respectful way, to the point, concise and direct
- We speak as peers (no matter the hierarchical relationship)
- We focus on our own factual observations and stand by them (observations are neither right nor wrong, they are our own observations)
- We do not expect nor demand any reactions; this is a selfless gift
- We may also share our personal concerns, describing observed or potential consequences, without stretching or indulging into drama
- We leave it to the receiver to decide what to do with the feedback and we leave the door open to talk more
- We refrain from giving advice in any form (e.g. “you should / should not”; “if I were you I would”; “one must always remember to”)
- We watch out for our own assumptions and rather clarify our own intentions; we do not comment on something that “we do not like”, or does not fit with our own moral values, only on something factual that we think the other person is not aware of, but would appreciate to be made aware of
- We do not express evaluation or judgment (good or bad) and do not make assumptions about the intention of the other person (I call it “always giving the other the benefit of the doubt”)
Incidentally, the best way to respond to observational feedback is to say “thanks” and watch out for defensive justifications. Taking the observational feedback at face value requires some self management also on the part of the receiver.
Does it all sound obvious yet hard to remember and apply? Are old habits of reprimanding and advising hard to subside? You are not alone! Giving effective feedback is “top of the list” in leadership development wishes for most executives. All it takes is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, and PRACTICE! Using a buddy or a professional Executive Coach can help at start; also practicing in teams (team coaching, initially facilitated by an internal or internal expert) is an effective way to keep up the practice and learn from each other.
Laura Lozza is co-founder and CEO of GROOA, a European Partnership of Coaching Consultants, which specialises in “Leadership Development”, “Dealing with Change, Disagreements and Diversity” and “Strategy”. A former P&G and NorskHydro/Yara executive, an IMD graduate and a professional certified coach, Laura has also authored the ebook “The 7 Qualities of Brilliant Executive Coaching” (free download at http://bookboon.com/en/the-7-qualities-of-brilliant-executive-coaching-ebook)
Coming up: Introductory free webinar on Courageous Feedback that Builds Engagement and Performance. December 2, 2014 at 4:00 PM CET (Central European Time). To reserve your slot and receive connection details, please send an email to: email@example.com