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Feedback: How to Give People What They Want

ellie.hamilton
Published on April 9th 2021
Thanks for the Feedback by Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. (Fair use)
Outline:
  • Why is it important to consider the different types of feedback?
  • Appreciation (thanks)
  • Coaching (here's a better way to do it)
  • Evaluation (here's where you stand)
  • Separate the Types of Feedback
  • Get Aligned
  • Summary

Why is it important to consider the different types of feedback?

Feedback can be a really powerful tool for development, but getting it wrong can be really damaging. Even if the feedback giver has good intentions and thoughtful feedback it can still go badly. Some of the times feedback has gone the worst was when I was asking for one type of feedback (e.g. appreciation) and I got a different type (e.g. coaching).
I've also seen this go the other way with people ask for feedback about what they could be doing better (coaching) and just being told what they're doing well (appreciation). The person who asked for feedback is left feeling frustrated as they haven't got what they were looking for.
The authors of Thanks for the Feedback call these cross transactions - they can happen because a different type of feedback was wanted to what was given, or because the feedback has been interpreted incorrectly - coaching has been interpreted as evaluation.
For example, there was a time when I was really struggling at work and felt like I wasn't doing a good job. I indirectly asked for feedback and what I got was a whole list of of things I could be doing better. It did not go well... and it took a while to repair the working relationship. I learnt this lesson the hard way:
Be explicit about the type of feedback you're asking from someone or to give someone. And where’s the best place for that conversation. Don’t be tempted to avoid getting or giving feedback until it all comes out over drinks in the pub!
However, the right feedback at the right time can be a huge career accelerator. I've had it save me years of frustrating trial and error. I used to encounter a technical problem and when the team lead asked for my thoughts I would just reel off every option I could think of for solving it. My team lead gave me some feedback explaining that this was a lot of cognitive labour to put onto someone else and made it really hard to follow what I was saying. She said if I could highlight the top couple of options and present my recommendation that it would help me get the outcome I was looking for.
So how do we make it more likely that sharing the feedback will go well? First, it helps to get an understanding of what types of feedback there are and then we can use these types to get aligned on what type of feedback is being asked for or given.

Appreciation, Coaching, Evaluation

Appreciation (thanks)

Appreciation does what it says on the tin. It's about acknowledging and thanking someone for what they're doing. It helps people feel seen and that their hard work is appreciated. It's the 'continue' in the stop/start/continue feedback framework and it gives people a good baseline for what they are already doing well and should keep doing.
"Appreciation motivates us—it gives us a bounce in our step and the energy to redouble our efforts. When people complain that they don’t get enough feedback at work, they often mean that they wonder whether anyone notices or cares how hard they’re working. They don’t want advice. They want appreciation."
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (p. 43). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Helpful appreciation feedback requires a little more thought than a generic "good job". There are three characteristics to consider in giving appreciation feedback:
1. It has to be specific
"The way you covered the content in that presentation was really clear and helpful for someone who was new to this topic" is much more insightful and helpful to the receiver than a generic "good presentation".
2. It has to come in a form that the works for the receiver
"For some, a monthly paycheck is all the “attaboy” they need. For others, public recognition is meaningful, whether in the form of team e-mail, kudos at a meeting, or organizational awards. For some it’s promotion and titles—even if they earn the same or less pay. And for many of us, it’s the feeling we get from knowing we’re a trusted adviser or indispensable player. I know you appreciate me because we laugh a lot, or because you come to me first with tough challenges. "
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (pp. 53-55). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
3. It has to be genuine
"If employees start to sense that everyone receives appreciation for the smallest accomplishments—“thanks for coming to work today”—appreciation inflation sets in, and the currency becomes worthless. "
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (pp. 53-55). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Absence of Appreciation

The absence of appreciation feedback, in any relationship, can cause problems. But if you've given it, it makes the coaching feedback more likely to land because it helps that person feel seen. They feel like you can see what they're working hard at, what makes them special and highlights where they've improved since the last time you gave them feedback.
If you're giving them evaluation feedback then you've already considered what they're doing well that you appreciate in coming to that evaluation, so you might as well tell them about it. It also makes it more likely that they'll be someone you'll continue to work with:
"In First Break All the Rules, authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman describe a landmark Gallup survey of eighty thousand workers. The survey found that “Yes” answers on twelve key questions—dubbed the Q12—had strong correlations with employee satisfaction, high retention, and high productivity. Of the twelve questions, three are directly related to appreciation:
Question 4: 'In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?'
Question 5: 'Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?'
Question 6: 'Is there someone at work who encourages my development?'"
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (pp. 52-53). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Coaching (here's a better way to do it)

When you want to know how to do something better or to give someone advice on how to do something better you're talking about coaching feedback.
Coaching is aimed at trying to help someone learn, grow, or change. The focus is on helping the person improve, whether it involves a skill, an idea, knowledge, a particular practice, or that person’s appearance or personality.
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (pp. 55-56). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Coaching can fall into one of two main needs:
  1. Improving your knowledge or skills to help you develop or take on new challenges.
This is more commonly the type of coaching covered in a work environment and could cover a whole range of things. For example, learning new technologies, a better way to do something in your role, a different way of working.
  1. Identifying a problem in your relationship, in the dynamic between the two of you.
This type of coaching is often prompted by emotion: hurt, fear, anxiety, confusion, loneliness, betrayal, or anger. The giver wants this situation to change, and (often) that means they want you to change: “You don’t make our family a priority,” “Why am I always the one who has to apologize?” or “When’s the last time you picked up the check?” The “problem” the coaching is aimed at fixing is how the giver is feeling, or a perceived imbalance in the relationship.
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (pp. 55-56). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Absence of Coaching

Some coaching relationships require extraordinary effort while others feel almost magically uncomplicated. But in either case, when coaching works, it can be deeply gratifying and impactful for both people. Of course, coaching can also be stressful, confusing, and ineffective. In some organizations, coaching is not formally rewarded—or “counted”—and is thus rarely given. Even when encouraged, mentors need only a few experiences where their efforts to help only make things worse, suck up time, or are met with arguments or ingratitude before they decide it’s not worth the trouble. Even well-intended coaches and coachees can become frustrated. We’re trying to coach or to be coached, but because our efforts are resisted, unappreciated, or ineffective, we end up with a coaching shortfall. Coaching shortfalls mean that learning, productivity, morale, and relationships all suffer.
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (pp. 55-56). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Evaluation (here's where you stand)

Evaluation tells you where you stand. It’s an assessment, ranking, or rating. Your middle school report card, your time in the 5k, the blue ribbon awarded your cherry pie, the acceptance of your marriage proposal—these are all evaluations. Your performance review—“outperforms” or “meets expectations” or “needs improvement”—is an evaluation. And so is that nickname your team has for you when you’re not around. Evaluations are always in some respect comparisons, implicitly or explicitly, against others or against a particular set of standards. “You are not a good husband” is shorthand for “You are not a good husband compared with what I hoped for in a husband” or “compared with my saintly father” or “compared with my last three husbands.”
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (pp. 46-47). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
It's the fear and anxiety around negative judgements that often make up our discomfort around feedback. It taps into our fear of rejection from the group which we evolved to keep us safe. On the flip side, reassurance and therefore inclusion in the group, such as, "you can do this" and "I believe in you" are positive evaluations.
There's always evaluation in coaching, and often coaching is misinterpreted as evaluation. You've told someone how they could be doing better so they assume you think they're doing a bad job.
Evaluation is most productive in a context where there is some centralised agreement of what "good" looks like. Whether that is clear performance grading, clear job roles or even just an overlapping set of values. However, that isn't a requirement there is still valuable insight to be had from someone who has a different opinion of what a good "x" skillset looks like.
For example, if your friends both agree that being on time is an important part of being a good friend then when one of them says it upsets them that the other is always late when they meet for coffee it's easier for them to agree that they're both on time next time. However, if only one of them thinks that it's important to be on time, there is still valuable insight to be had on what would make the friendship better. We don't have to agree on the same standard to have the conversation about expectations, and often we won't. Similarly, if you have a very different idea to your manager about what good looks like for your role at work there is insight to be had there even if, ultimately, the conclusion is that the company or role isn't a good fit for you. Aligning expectations, or at least, clarifying the differences in expectations is hugely helpful.

Absence of Evaluation

We are anxious about being assessed and judged, but at the same time, we need an “evaluative floor” on which to stand, reassuring us that we are good enough so far. Before I can take in coaching or appreciation, I need to know that I’m where I need to be, that this relationship is going to last. When evaluation is absent, we use coaching and appreciation to try to figure out where we stand. Why does the boss give me so much coaching on handling the customer more effectively? And why was I singled out for appreciation in that first group e-mail, but not the second? Should I be concerned? In the absence of clear signals, I’ll keep putting my ear to the ground to listen for rumblings in anything that passes by.
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (p. 52). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Separate the Types of Feedback

We need all the three types of feedback above, but they each serve a different purpose so it's generally more constructive to separate these types of feedback and give them at different times.
This is especially true if you're giving it in-person rather than written down. People generally can't process these different types of feedback at the same time and negativity bias means they sort for coaching and evaluation feedback. If you're sending it in written form they can reread the feedback and take their time to process the feedback so it might still work to send them together.
The evaluation conversation needs to take place first. When a professor hands back a graded paper, the student will first turn to the last page to check their grade. Only then can they take in the instructor’s margin notes. We can’t focus on how to improve until we know where we stand. Ideally, we receive coaching and appreciation year-round, day by day, project by project.
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (p. 63). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Get Aligned

If the giver and receiver of feedback are aligned about the type of feedback that is going to be discussed it's much easier to have a constructive conversation. The receiver isn't surprised by an unexpected type of feedback and the giver isn't asked to give a type of feedback they haven't prepared for.
If you’re preparing for a feedback conversation, it’s helpful to agree in advance which types of feedback will be covered, especially if the feedback is being given face-to-face where we don't have as much time/space to process information
Not everyone wants, needs or value all types of feedback in equal measure so getting aligned also helps you save time in not preparing feedback someone doesn't need. Although it is generally a good idea to cover all types of feedback in some form at some point.
Ask yourself three questions:
(1) What’s my purpose in giving/receiving this feedback?
(2) Is it the right purpose from my point of view?
(3) Is it the right purpose from the other person’s point of view?
Is your primary goal coaching, evaluation, or appreciation? Are you trying to improve, to assess, or to say thanks and be supportive? You won’t always be able to fit the messiness of real life into these clean categories, but it’s worth trying. Reflecting on your purpose before a conversation takes place will help you to be clearer during the conversation itself. And even if you can’t straighten out your purposes, there’s a benefit to understanding that your purposes are a little confusing, even to you. During the conversation, check in periodically: “I’m intending to give you coaching. Is that how you’re hearing it? From your point of view, is that what you need?” The receiver may respond that it would be nice to know if she’s doing anything right—a signal that she’s craving some appreciation and maybe a bit of positive evaluation.
Remember: Explicit disagreement is better than implicit misunderstanding. Explicit disagreement leads to clarity, and is the first step in each of you getting your differing needs met.
Stone, Douglas, Heen, Sheila. Thanks for the Feedback (p. 61-62). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Summary

  • Appreciation motivates and encourages.
  • Coaching helps increase knowledge, skill, capability, growth, or raises feelings in the relationship.
  • Evaluation tells you where you stand, aligns expectations, and informs decision making.
  • Evaluation is the loudest and can drown out the other two. (And all coaching includes a bit of evaluation.)
  • Be thoughtful about what you need and what you’re being offered, and get aligned.
This post heavily references this book:
I would highly recommend reading the book if you want to explore the topic further as I've tried to summarise a whole chapter of book in a few paragraphs.

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