Leadership insight #16 / 2022: The importance of feedback for a learning culture: Part 2
5 September 2022
Feedback is about providing useful data to do things better. The importance of feedback for learning and development – for individuals, for teams and whole departments and organisations – cannot be overstated: It is a crucial part of any improvement or learning cycle. A critical aspect for learning from feedback is that the feedback message is well intentioned, carefully prepared and curated and delivered effectively in interpersonal conversation or team meeting format. Part 1 of this article has focussed on what good feedback looks like, and how to structure a feedback message to be effective in supporting learning.
When we are giving feedback, we are thinking in terms of what data we can provide another person that can help them understand and build more skills to do their job better, and how to deliver this data most effectively.
Equally important for learning from feedback is to think about receiving feedback and seeking feedback from others.
When receiving feedback, we are focussed on the data being provided to us: Have I understood correctly? Do I understand the link between what they are saying and how I understand my role and responsibilities and the way I carry out my work? Do I understand what I could do differently to get better? Do I have a way of knowing if I’m improving over the next few days/weeks/months? In order words, we need to be able to use the feedback to form an action plan for improvement.
When seeking feedback, we are focused on eliciting information that can be most helpful for learning and improvement. What is the data that will be most helpful to assess how I’m going with my role / task / particular skill etc? Who can I ask this information from? How and what can I ask to receive the most useful information?
This article examines receiving and seeking feedback and the things you can do to get the most out of feedback you are given.
When we are listening to someone giving us feedback, it is most helpful when the information shared is:
- Clear and specific (rather than abstract and vague)
- Relates to your role and the work you do (rather than targeting something person for example)
- Helps describe the actions and behaviours – and changes to your current actions and behaviours – that will help to improve performance and outcomes
In other words, to get the most out of the feedback, we’re looking for the feedback GIVER to be doing all the things we discussed in Part 1 re the SBI model as a framework for giving effective feedback. That is, to be clear and specific, to refer to specific behaviours observed in your work and – hopefully – to be framed by good intentions, meaning that the feedback is intended to support your learning and development, rather than be a comment, criticism or judgement.
As the listener or receiver, you can also do the following to get the most out of the in the moment:
- Practise good active listening skills – listen to the message and check your understanding, and work on managing your emotions and responses in the moment
- Stay in role – remember that this is a professional conversation, and the intention is to support learning and development
- Listen for specific and concrete language, and specific behaviours and examples
- Work on understanding what is being said
- You can ask questions to clarify and ensure understanding
- If you are feeling very vulnerable or upset you can ask to continue the conversation at another time
Asking for feedback is another important piece of learning and development at work. From this perspective, you are in the driver seat, and you intention is to seek information that will help you improve your work and get better outcomes. To obtain information that can be helpful for learning and development, take some time to prepare:
- What is the data I need to know that will provide insight into how I’m going with my role / task / particular skill etc.
- Who can I ask? How and what can I ask to receive useful information?
- When would be a good time to approach this person to ask this question?
As with giving feedback, and using the SBI model, the basics are the same: Feedback can be effective when:
- It is specific and concrete – focusing on the behaviours that you are doing/ not doing
- It is described in a way you can understand, and include real examples
- Can lead to an action plan going forward
Research shows that very often the feedback we receive is general and abstract or vague. For example, “you’re doing great” or “you need to work on your communication skills”. The problem is that general and abstract statements don’t help us make an action plan for developing specific new skills and behaviours to learn from this feedback.
When it comes to seeking feedback, Heen and Stone advise feedback seekers to “Ask for just one thing” (at a time!) . And when we do this, ask for feedback on a specific behaviour, rather than ask in general (which is our tendency and habit).
Don’t say: “Do you have some feedback for me?” or “How am I going?”
Do: be specific, and request feedback on something concrete e.g., “What’s one thing you see me doing (or failing to do) that holds me back?” .
What is your one thing?
If you were able to ask a colleague one thing, what is it that you would like some specific feedback about to improve/support you at work?
For a broader question we can ask – what is the culture of my team or department with regards to feedback? Is it safe to talk to each other about what’s working and not working? How often – or how easily – can we give each other feedback outside of annual perf reviews?
A strong culture of feedback is unfortunately quite rare. So, let’s think of some useful starting points. If you are interested in building a stronger culture of feedback in your workplace, here are some effective ways to start.
- Give positive feedback whenever you can; and use the rule of making sure that it is specific and refers to observed behaviours.
- Ask for feedback for yourself – from trusted colleagues and mentors to start. Again, remember the rule – ask for just one thing at a time, and be specific.
- For those leading a team, you could ask your team for some feedback on how things are going. For example, what is going well? What is not going so well, and what could we improve on? Could be three general types of question formats. A word of warning here – if you do ask, always be clear on what you are asking and why; and then ensure that you respond to the feedback appropriately. It’s effortful to give feedback – especially good feedback, so take time to say thank you and show how you are taking it into account.
Developing a culture of feedback is part of any healthy workplace culture – it’s worth the effort. Good luck!
Dr Anna Clark (PhD)
AMA Victoria Leadership consultant and coach
Dr Anna Clark is AMAVs Leadership consultant, coach and educator, currently offering individual coaching for doctors and directing the AMA’s professional development programs in leadership, the Emerging Leader Program and Middle Leader Program.
-  Find the coaching in the criticism | Harvard Business Review
- The Situation Behaviour Impact model of feedback | Mindtools
- The simple way to make giving feedback easier | Sloan Review
- Building a Feedback a Rich Culture | Harvard Business Review