10 Tips for Giving and Receiving Effective Feedback

For many of us, just hearing the word “feedback” makes us brace for impact—the word alone is the first of two shoes dropping.

What a shame. Feedback is how we learn and grow. It is the distillation of what it feels like to  work together, the experiential data that, if delivered skillfully and with care, feeds into our own, and our colleagues’, growth and evolution.

Without feedback, the only thing we all have to go on is our own, hyper-filtered story about what others think of us. That story is missing most of the important details about how we are experienced by others.

Perhaps the issue is that we’re not particularly skilled at giving or receiving feedback since we do it so rarely. To help bridge that gap, here are some tips to get you out of the feedback starting blocks.

  1. Start with SBI. It stands for “Situation” “Behavior” and “Impact” and it is the foundation of all good feedback. This is the practice of phrasing feedback as, “When we were in [situation], you [behavior] and that had [impact] on me.” SBI is foundational because it bounds the feedback to a time, a place, and a specific set of actions and their impact on you. You aren’t giving someone feedback about them as a person, and you are not claiming that your experience with their behavior is universal. You are simply describing your own experience with that behavior in a way that it can safely be discussed. Plus, the SBI phrasing makes the conversation much more actionable because it is so specific.
  2. Keep it positive. “Feedback” is often a dirty word because we only share what’s not working. I remember once being told by a colleague that he wanted to stay on a call with me after a client dropped off, and naturally I got nervous. It turned out his “feedback” was something very positive. If we only give feedback – and only use the word “feedback” – when we have a criticism, it’s no wonder that the word can feel heavy and that hearts start racing when we hear it.
  3. Remember the 5:1 ratio. According to Harvard Business Review, in the best-performing teams, the ratio of positive to negative feedback is a whopping 5.6 to 1. And remember that positive feedback also is best using an SBI structure. Don’t say “Great work on those deliverables,” say “I was so excited when I read that deck you wrote, because the headlines really popped, and they brought the data to life for me.”
  4. Never say “always” or “never.” “Always” and “never” statements are, by definition, about a person and not about her behaviors. They’re both inaccurate (no one does anything “always”) and they are much more likely to be experienced as personal attacks. Don’t use those words.
  5. It’s OK to talk about your own feelings. This is an important detail under the “impact” column of the SBI framework, as long as you won’t get too emotional if you share your feelings. Sharing feelings can help make the experience of impact more real and vivid, and it can help calibrate how big an impact a specific behavior is having. “During the final days of our project, when we were all pushing towards the deadline, you being less responsive than normal to my emails made me feel worried that we weren’t going to hear back from you in time on the final deliverables. I found that being worried made it harder for me to focus at a crucial juncture in the project, and I also had to spend more time managing the team to help fill the information gap and calm their nerves.”
  6. Stay curious. Remember that, if you are the person giving feedback, you are only describing your own experiences. You are not speaking the Ultimate Truth. Find a balance between speaking and listening, so that you can remain open to different interpretations of what happened. Similarly, as the person hearing feedback, try to stay curious. Cultivate genuine interest in what you are hearing, and avoid the mental trap of an internal dialogue refuting every point being made (or, worse, defending yourself at every turn to explain away what you’re hearing). What you are hearing is someone else’s truth. If it is different from your truth, your job is not to be right, it is to understand why you and another person—someone you like and respect—have such different perceptions of the same events.
  7. Reiterate what you’ve heard in your own words. One of the best ways to ensure that the person giving feedback feels validated and heard is to articulate back what you’ve been told. “So, I understand that these three behaviors—behavior 1, 2 and 3—are often having this impact on you and the team. Is that right?”
  8. This is not the time for ‘the kitchen sink.’ If you’re new to giving feedback, or if you give it infrequently, it can be tempting, when you get the courage to share your experience, to share absolutely everything. I call this the “and here’s another thing” trap. The conversation you’re having today is not a one-time occurrence, it is the first in a series of dialogues that should get easier over time. Your goal is twofold: (1) To have a productive conversation about a specific set of behaviors, both positive and negative, that you want to discuss; (2) To have a conversation that is positive enough for both people that you both are more likely to have conversations like this in the future. If you overdo it and share everything that’s ever bugged you about that someone, you’re likely breaking the 5:1 ratio and, worse, you could make it harder to have a similar conversation in the future. That’s not a good outcome for you or for your colleague.
  9. Make a plan. The best feedback conversations result in ‘contracting’ between the people involved about what both will aim to do more and less of in the future. It might take some time for both people to develop this plan, and that’s OK. Come back together to discuss the boiled-down version of what both of you will do in the future, and agree to check in on progress in two months’ time (or whatever interval works for you). This drives accountability and signs you both up for a productive follow-up conversation.
  10. Express receptivity. if you are the person receiving feedback, and especially if you are senior to the person giving feedback, the onus is on you to make this experience positive and productive. Part of your job, in addition to listening intently and with curiosity, is to overcome the natural expectation that more-junior people don’t give constructive feedback to more-senior people. Recognize that the person sitting across from you feels like they are taking a risk, and do everything you can to mitigate that feeling. The way you behave during and after this conversation will either justify this fear or chip away at it.

A useful feedback conversation is a choice by two people to invest in their relationship, to truly listen to each other, and to work together to become better partners. It’s not easy, and while it is going on it can certainly feel hard or unpleasant. But no person and no organizational culture can possibly reach their full potential without giving and receiving effective feedback. Have at it!

Announcing the Launch of 60 Decibels

I have exciting news to share.

Today marks the start of a next chapter for me professionally: I’m launching a new social enterprise, called 60 Decibels, that I’ve co-founded with Tom Adams. Our goal is to reboot social impact measurement, to make it useful for people who are doing the work of building social businesses and NGOs. We want to help them serve customers better and, in so doing, create more social impact.

Our thesis is simple: understanding social impact should be based on listening directly to people.

60 Decibels will take forward the Lean Data approach, which was first built at Acumen to solve our own impact measurement challenge and has already been used by more than 200 non-profits and social businesses in 34 countries.

Imagine if we truly held ourselves accountable to the people that impact capital and philanthropy are meant to help, by systematically including their voices in how we assess impact.

(And, for those of you who don’t work in this sector, it’s worth articulating the counter-factual: yes, it’s true, today, when we ‘measure’ impact in impact investing, most of the time we don’t actually talk to the people whose lives we aim to improve. Crazy, huh?).

My belief is that if we can get this right, we have the potential to make a massive shift in the world.

Everywhere, the cracks in capitalism are being exposed. That’s leading to backlash against “plutocrats,” it’s creating waves of populism, and it’s generating calls, in some circles, for a new model of capitalism: one that creates wealth without being so extractive, one that balances the needs of shareholders, customers, suppliers, employees, and the planet.

But how are we going to put the needs of customers, suppliers, employees and the planet on more equal footing?

Our bet, with 60 Decibels, is that it starts with voice: that by listening better, and by amplifying voices that are currently left at the margins, we can create a system that’s more in balance.

The in’s and out’s of how I think we get from here to there is a longer conversation. (You can get a sneak peek here at the 60 Decibels website, where we’ve written a white paper that’s equal parts manifesto and social impact data). The short version is that 60 Decibels helps companies that are in the business of creating social change listen to their customers. We leverage the power of technology and mobile phones to make it easy to listen to anyone, anywhere, and hear from them about their lived experience. And we move fast, getting results in weeks (not months or years), because that’s the only way we’ll be relevant to the people doing the real work.

So, if you’re in the business of social change and have found social impact measurement to be challenging, burdensome, complex, or frustrating, let me know, maybe we can help.

And, if you’re wondering, 60 Decibels is the volume of human conversation.

So far, it’s been a lot of fun, it’s really challenging, and we’re just getting started. We have a team of 30 amazing people in the US, UK, Kenya and India and we’re working with customers all over the world.

And, in terms of this blog, I’ll still be here every week sharing what’s on my mind. I expect that, gradually, the content of the posts I write will shift slightly. That’s nothing new—it’s been happening since I started blogging in 2008, as my bullseye has moved from fundraising and sales, to generosity, to leadership and the work we all need to do to be grounded, effective agents of change.

A closing thought: in many ways, this blog is a chance for me to think out loud about the issues I find most important, most challenging and most meaningful. That exploration is an important part of my own evolution and growth. To the extent that I’m ready to take on this next challenge, that is due in no small part to what I’ve been able to figure out, week in and week out, through the dialogue that unfolds here on this blog.

None of that would be possible without you showing up and continuing to read and respond. So thank you.

Here’s to the next chapter. Thanks for continuing this journey with me.

Maybe You Should Focus on This

I notice this all the time with my kids.

I can’t solve problems for them.

Often, as they get older, they don’t even want my help any more.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I can say, “I think focusing on this part will make a big difference.”

And it does.

Because they have the skills. That’s not the problem.

Some of the time I can help them with diagnosis: how to apply their skills to this problem.

But most of the time it’s not even that. They have all the tools, it’s just that it feels uncomfortable–to them, to to anyone–to stick with and prioritize the hard bits.

As bosses and colleagues, as coaches and spouses and friends, we don’t need to have all the answers. Even if we had them, that wouldn’t matter, because they’d be our answers, not someone else’s.

What we do need to do is to listen attentively, to pay close attention, and, occasionally, by reflecting on our own experience, context and perspective, suggest a slightly different focus: a new lens through which to see a situation, a rejiggering of what could be at the very top of the list.

We shouldn’t be in the solutions-giving business. The answers we can provide are rarely just right, and, even if they were, it’s disempowering when an answer comes from someone other than the person facing the challenge.

But helping people channel their energy in the right way—that’s a great way to partner.

That’s Right!

A classmate of mind in graduate school earned himself the nickname, “Yes, but…” He could disagree with anything, and he would happily voice that disagreement.

It’s easy to fall into this trap, to only verbalize when you have a critique to make.

No stranger to this mistake, for many years I was most comfortable speaking up when I saw a fault in someone’s logic, a gap in a plan, or when I had a new idea that I thought was a better solution.

I thought I was helping. I thought I was moving the group towards a better outcome, and that it made sense to speak up with my ‘yes, buts’ and to otherwise keep quiet.

Not surprisingly, I was part of the problem.

To build great teams that come up with great solutions, we should spend most of our time verbalizing specific, heartfelt positive comments. In fact, on the best-performing teams, the ratio of positive to negative comments is a whopping 5.6 to 1. (Incidentally, the same goes for marriages: the ones most likely to stay together have the same 5 to 1 positive-to-negative comment ratio). For the worst-performing teams, the ratio is an abysmal 0.36 to 1.

Why is expressing positivity so important for team performance?

First, because it cultivates an environment of trust and motivation. Let’s remember that most of us, most of the time, are our own worst critics: we barrage ourselves with the echoes of our negative internal narrative. So, each external critique serves to amplify this narrative, while each compliment is muffled by it.

This is why what looks like an environment full of “helpful suggestions” is really one in which the dial on criticism – of ourselves, of each other – is turned up all the way. In this sort of space, people stop taking risks and being willing to do things that might not work.

But wait, there’s more.

The ‘yes, but’ approach does more than undermine trust and chip away at bravery and confidence. It ends up hacking away at the roots of what people need when trying something new.

In areas in which we are not yet skilled, we literally do not know the difference between good and bad. It doesn’t matter if we’re trying to write an email in a new way, practice a new technique for closing a sale or learning to play the violin, at the beginning of steep learning curves (and all new micro-skills have their own steep learning curves), right and wrong action are, to the novice, nearly indistinguishable.

That’s what makes it so invaluable to say, “Yes! That! Do more of that, it was great!!” It both identifies the right, new behavior, making it much more likely to be repeated; and it reinforces that new right action will be rewarded, both intrinsically and extrinsically.

The good news is that there’s a monumentally easy fix for the ‘Yes, but’ rut.

Just say ‘Yes, and…’

Try saying that five times a day and you’re off to a good start.

Words are Branches, Thoughts are Roots

My face has always been pretty easy to read. Indeed, my wife occasionally tells me that she doesn’t like how I’ve reacted to something, to which I’ll reply, “but I didn’t even say anything!”

“Ah, but you were thinking it.”

Possibly.

We all have versions of this, the non-verbal cues that we communicate irrespective of what we do or don’t say.

The question then arises: when we discover that we’re not showing up how we’d like to the people around us, when we learn that their experience of our non-verbal, energetic responses to them aren’t what we thought they were, what do we do?

Maybe, we think, we should change the words that we say.

Do we feel timid? We can say something confident.

Are we often quick to contradict? We can stay quiet for longer.

Have we been finding a colleague frustrating? We can complement him.

Do we secretly know that we’re not up to this new stretch assignment? We can talk the talk.

All of that is a start, certainly. In fact, often it works to behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.

But we can also fall into a root/branch trap here, and never claw our way out. When this happens, we let ourselves off the hook of digging into the underlying thoughts that are what’s really going on.

Where that fear comes from.

That judgement.

The avoidance of a courageous conversation with that colleague.

The skills you believe you don’t have that you so desperately need.

To create real and lasting change in how others experience us, we must begin by observing, with intent and curiosity, where our root thoughts come from. We must bravely drag them out into daylight and see them for what they are.

Then, slowly, slowly, we start chopping away at the roots of our habitual responses.

Without doing this work, we end up hand-waving in defense of the words we said (or the micro-expression that flashed across our face), instead of acknowledging the work we still have to do on the underlying thoughts racing through our minds.

Speaking of which, we’re turning the page to yet another low point in American politics. It seems like soon we will all be discussing whether the President of the United States said the n-word, and then surely, if he did, watching smokescreen discussions of why “it’s just a word” and how we are all overreacting.

Let’s not forget that the real conversation isn’t about the word, it’s about the thoughts that lead to it.

The real conversation is the unspoken truth of the ugly, hateful, dehumanizing root thoughts that give rise to those words, roots that are indefensible and immoral.

 

The Walk-Talk Gap

“Change is hard.”

“You’ve got to show up every day.”

“To learn new skills, you must to push through a period of incompetence.”

“Self-knowledge is hard-won.”

“True acts of leadership are rarely praised.”

“We only grow when we’re willing to let go of some of our most deeply held beliefs.”

“Sometimes you just have to compromise.”

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago, and my going-in expectations about learning Bahasa Indonesia, the fifth language I had studied.

“I’m good at languages,” I thought, “so this shouldn’t be so hard.”

And then I remember the blindingly obvious observation I made about a week in: how, to speak this new language, I’d have to learn a new word for nearly every single thing on the planet: types of food, trees, animals, verbs, possessive…the list was endless.

As if there was going to be some way to skip those steps.

Just because we possess hard-won knowledge of what the path looks like from here to there, just because we’ve walked that path a few times before, does not mean it will be a breeze to walk the path this time. Far from it. It just means that we might walk it with a bit more perspective and perseverance, a dash more courage and determination.

Being in the trough, though, that valley in which we find ourselves face-to-face with an important compromise, feedback that cuts deep, or the recognition that, this time, the person who is set in his ways is us…

The question we’re faced with at that moment is the only one that matters: this time, are we going to be willing to do the hard work?

Here’s How I Intend to Make You Feel

For the longest time I was blinded by my own good intentions.

I’d focus too much on what I’d meant others to feel and see, asking them to carry the weight of any miscommunication, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation. They should be open to honest feedback, and not caught up in the specifics of how the message was delivered. They must know that we all value their hard work, never mind that it wasn’t as well-received as they’d hoped in that big meeting. And certainly they are filling in the blanks just the way I’d expect, even though we’ve not been in touch for a few weeks or months.

Well no, actually.

Good intentions are nice enough. They are certainly better than bad intentions. But, to quote that old saw, all you need is good intentions and a token (OK, a Metrocard swipe) to get a ride on the NYC subway.

The skill of leadership is the skill of mobilizing others to action. This starts with consistently, intentionally, and skillfully translating our right intentions to everyone else’s right experience.

If our message doesn’t land in the right way for different people – people who process information differently, people who show up differently, people who have different relationships to power and autonomy and to themselves – then that’s on us.

Some days

Some days you get a lot of praise for work well done.

It can feel like this praise isn’t deserved, or that it is for things that came easily to you, or that it is not worth all the fuss. Often this means that you won’t allow yourself to fully hear the gratitude and appreciation that someone expresses.

Other days you toil and sweat and put your heart and soul into a thing and nothing comes back. Or, worse, it’s exactly your best work that engenders criticism or nit-picking or downright resistance.

The thing to remember is this: gift-giving is circular. Your best ideas, your art, your emotional labor, your love, these things never come back to you in a binary way. Imagine instead that the positive words you’re hearing took a long, circuitous route to get to you. They are the winding, imperfect product of you putting bravest, truest self out into the world.

What we need from you is your continued courage, grit and determination.

And what we encourage is that you allow yourself to be sustained by the positive words that do come back your way, because the people sharing these words are, secretly, messengers for many.

Those closest to us

Our friends, allies, the people who care, they are the ones who are most likely to say the little things that we need to hear. Especially the things we don’t always want to hear.

Yes, we all crave more pats on the back, but as long as people are speaking up and telling us what’s not working for them, it means they still care and they’re still paying attention.

The dangerous thing is when we speak and we hear nothing back. Crickets.

What we need to avoid isn’t criticism, it’s the deafening silence of apathy.

Strengths, and Weaknesses

I got back on my yoga mat this morning for the first time in a long, long time.   I used to have a regular practice, but my days keep getting fuller, my kids are going to bed later, and time is squeezed.

Yoga is a healing practice, and lately, without yoga, I’ve been walking around only noticing the things in my body that hurt a bit: my left knee, thanks to a torn ACL 20 years ago; one of the joints in my left foot; my right Achilles tendon that I tweaked a bit playing squash; the rotator cuff on my right shoulder that is still only back to 90% three years after an over-zealous week of vacation-tennis. As I walk down the street, I cycle through a broken record of “knee, toe, heel, shoulder….” as I notice the discomforts.

On the yoga mat, things feel a little different. I had a yoga teacher years ago, a guy named Rolf Gates, who, only joking a little bit, would demonstrate a flowing series of yoga poses and say, in his booming voice, “Now, say to yourself while doing these poses, ‘I am the most beautiful yogi in the world!’” It was silly, but it also made us all move with a little more poise, a little more grace. Being on the mat is a chance to feel more – to feel the parts that ache a bit, sure, but also to feel yourself being strong, graceful, and balanced.

It is so easy to walk around feeling only what hurts, to feel only the parts that aren’t working. We hear feedback about something we did wrong, and that becomes our whole story for a day, a week, sometimes even months or years. The perceived faults and shortcomings become everything, the throbbing knee or aching tendon that are the only things in our consciousness; while the things that went great, the thing that come easy to us, all of the areas where we shine, fade away.

Let us recognize the areas where we are still falling short, our niggling injuries that hold us back. But let us never let them eclipse all of the things that make us special, the things that are in clear view to everyone except – sometimes – us.