This is the second of a six-article mini-series about TRUST and feedback. This article will discuss your reasoning for giving feedback and the relationship between perception and reality in your feedback. Once you know you want to give feedback, you will learn how to see if the recipient is ready to take your feedback, what to do if they are not, and when and where you should give that feedback.
Why are you giving feedback?
Before you offer someone feedback, ask yourself, why am I giving feedback? I’ve seen feedback offered for many reasons. Some people give feedback to feel better about themselves. When they belittle someone else, they believe they elevate themselves. Another reason I observed is to show others that you are better than the person you give feedback to (because, after all, one of our biggest sins is that we value ourselves and sometimes believe that others value us only in comparison). Some people give negative feedback to shame others, typically to cause them to change their political (or otherwise) positions to be aligned with yours, believing that shame would do that. And, sometimes, it does.
If, upon looking in the mirror, you realize that you are about to offer feedback because of one of the reasons I listed above, stop! Don’t give that feedback. You will be doing it for the wrong reasons.
The only good reason for giving negative feedback is to help the other person be a better version of themselves. It’s to help them fix what they might be struggling with, or maybe not even realize they are doing.
Here is another question: what if you didn’t give them the feedback they needed? First, you will deny them the opportunity to improve something you are aware of, and they might not. You will be immortalizing a bad behavior or situation.
But if they know that you could help them by offering them feedback and didn’t, what will they think about you? Will they trust that you have their best interests in mind?
Consider this: a person you speak with has something stuck between their teeth. You see it, and everyone sees it, but nobody says a word. Should you say something? What would happen if you don’t, and later they realize you could have prevented their embarrassment and, for whatever reason, you chose not to?
Perception vs. Reality
After selling Voyager to PCTEL in Silicon Valley in 2000, I joined the PCTEL executive team. We used to go offsite monthly for a strategic planning session. As part of it, our VP of HR, Tom Capizzi, facilitated a “hot seat” feedback session. Each of us would sit in the hot seat while the others gave that person feedback. I will never forget how he started the session. He would say, “remember that when you get feedback, 10% of it might be true in reality, but 100% of it is true in perception.”
Just like the person receiving feedback must remember that, so must the person giving that feedback. Keep in mind that the feedback you are offering is, for the most part, your perception of the other person, their behavior, and their actions. It might not be the reality.
Ask yourself what part of that feedback is based on assumptions versus fact? How are your personal biases affecting your perception? What do you really know about the other person and why they are doing what they do? Could there be a justification for their actions that you simply don’t know?
When you give feedback, focus on what you know. Not what you think you know. Also, qualify your feedback to the other person by telling them that your feedback is your perception, acknowledging you don’t know everything about them.
Also, be empathetic to them. To clarify, empathy is not sympathy, compassion, or pity. Empathy is your ability to see things from their perspective as if you were them. Do you have that capacity? Can you see things from their perspective? Are they at the same level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as you? While you are worrying about self-actualization (at the highest level), could they be worried about safety, security, income, or other things that could better explain their behaviors and actions? Do you really know?
Are They Ready to Take Feedback?
When my older daughter Maya was about two, she wanted to call me at work for the first time. My wife and I have an arrangement: when she calls, she opens the call with a question: “Can you talk?” If I pick up the phone but am still too busy to talk, I will say no, and if this is not an emergency, she will hang up. Before Maya placed her first call to me, my wife told her to do the same.
My phone rang, and I answered. On the other side, I heard Maya, “daddy, can you talk?” As much as I wanted to speak with her, I was just too busy at the time, so I said, “I’m sorry, Maya, but I can’t talk right now.” Maya didn’t hang up; she went on to tell me everything she went through that day. You see, my wife didn’t tell her what to do if I said I couldn’t talk…
Before giving someone else feedback, tell them that you have feedback for them, and ask them if this is a good time and place for them to take this feedback. Then stop.
Even if this is a good time and place for them to take your feedback or as good a time as any, they would appreciate you asking. In fact, they will be more receptive to your feedback if you ask than if you didn’t and just went straight into feedback.
If this is not a good time for them to take your feedback, don’t push. You could do more harm than good and escalate a situation by offering feedback when they are not ready. Make it clear you have feedback, and leave it at that. The ball is now in their court. They should reach back to you to ask for your feedback when they are ready. And if they don’t, your feedback is not important enough for them, and now you know.
When someone asks me for feedback, and I have some negative feedback to give them (again, by “negative feedback,” I refer to feedback about something bad they have done, and not feedback given in a negative way), I ask them if they want real feedback, the truth, or they want me to tell them what they want to hear. That is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek question. Nobody ever answered this question by “please lied to me. Tell me what I want to hear….” But, at least, you will be preparing them for what’s coming. Maybe they don’t know that you have negative feedback. Maybe they are asking for feedback, assuming you don’t have any. Give them a chance to say, “well, maybe we’ll pick another time.” Now they know not only that you have feedback for them, but that it’s negative feedback. The kind that will make them better, not just make them feel better, and there might be a better time and place for that feedback.
When and Where?
You can give positive feedback almost any time and any place. There is typically very little mental preparedness required by the recipient of positive feedback. However, negative feedback is different.
You can’t give negative feedback at any time. Imagine being about to go on stage to give an important speech or about to have an important business meeting. Would that be a good time to take negative feedback? Probably not. Especially if it is unrelated to the speech or the meeting ahead of you. It can distract you and cause you to do badly in that speech or meeting.
Sometimes, you might simply not be in a receptive state of mind or mood. Maybe you have other important things on your mind, or maybe even unimportant things, but such that prevent you from being completely receptive to feedback. Not any time is good to give feedback. Ensure you give negative feedback when the other person is available, physically and mentally.
Not every place is good for feedback. The environment has an impact on our ability to accept feedback. Maybe this environment feels hostile to the person you want to give feedback to? How “friendly” does it feel to get feedback from your boss at their office? Does it feel like being called to the principal’s office? Is that a friendly environment for you?
Before you give negative feedback, try to take the recipient of your feedback to a more friendly and less hostile environment. Go to their office. Take them to get coffee or breakfast. Give feedback in an environment that gives them more confidence and makes them more receptive to your feedback.
Don’t ever give feedback in front of other people unless you are all OK with doing that (such as in a “hot seat” session). Giving feedback in front of others will likely happen because of one of the reasons you should not be giving feedback. Not only that the feedback recipient will be much less receptive to your feedback in front of others and suspect your motives in giving that feedback, but you might even put the other people in an awkward position of listening to that feedback.
Finally, never give feedback behind the person’s back. This is one of the leading causes of the decline of trust. When you give feedback behind someone’s back, they cannot benefit from your insights and cannot improve if you don’t actually give them the feedback directly. Therefore, the only conclusion is that you gave that feedback for any one of the bad reasons and not to help them improve. To help them improve based on your feedback, they must first hear it.
The only exception to this rule is when you give the feedback to a third person with the intention of that third person giving the feedback to the recipient. Maybe the recipient doesn’t feel comfortable getting feedback directly from you. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable enough giving them the feedback directly. If the third person is someone they trust, who feels more comfortable than you giving feedback to the recipient, it’s OK to do it through an intermediary.