The Second Most Essential Ingredient for Human Life: Giving Feedback

Mike Manning & Mary Nash Care for people, Change, Leadership

SeashoreSome years ago it was suggested that humans can go only three minutes without air, three days without water, and perhaps three weeks without food – but only three hours without offering someone our opinion, our critique, or some of our good solid advice. Some of us are even hired to give feedback. Yet, we all experience just how inadequate we are at giving feedback that the receivers of our wisdom actually use. These following thoughts on making feedback effective are distilled from the guidance of the masters themselves – Charlie and Edie Seashore.

Just over a year ago, the field of Organization Development (OD) lost two founding luminaries, Charles N. “Charlie” Seashore and Edith “Edie” Whitfield Seashore. Charlie was a preeminent social psychologist whose expertise in group process and OD and change interventions was unparalleled, except perhaps when working with his partner and wife of 50+ years, Edie. Edie began as a student of Douglas McGregor, was one of the earliest women in the field of OD, and as an example of the interesting and critical work she conducted, was instrumental in the process of integrating women into the US military academies.

Individually they were great, but together they were unmatched – in 2006, the duo was named among 11 of the world’s most creative business thinkers, by strategy+business (Helgeson, 2006). Charlie and Edie were distinguished visiting faculty members to the Benedictine Doctoral programs for many years. Not surprisingly in hindsight, Edie passed away just hours after holding and delivering a eulogy at Charlie’s beautifully moving and meaningful memorial service.

Feedback is information about past behavior, delivered in the present, which may influence future behavior.

One of the Seashores’ primary scholar-practitioner contributions was in the area of communications, specifically providing effective feedback (Nash, 2014; Seashore, 1984; Seashore, Seashore, and Weinberg, 1992). They defined feedback as “information about past behavior, delivered in the present, which may influence future behavior” (1992).

If the purpose of feedback is to influence future behavior in a positive way, why is it universally considered so difficult to deliver? In our experience as consultants, executive coaches, and educators of executive doctoral students, we have seen plenty of examples of missed opportunities where it comes to providing – and receiving – feedback effectively. Here we provide 4 rules of thumb, which when applied to giving feedback, will significantly enhance the effectiveness.

  1. Feedback says more about the giver than the receiver. Think about it. I feel the need to provide feedback – does this say more about me and my need (to demonstrate my knowledge, to teach something, or to be right?), or the receiver’s need to hear it?Before providing feedback, stop and think what’s behind the need to provide it, and what the likely reaction and impact will be. If you do decide to provide the feedback, strive to do so in a way that best enables the receiver to learn and grow from it.
  2. Feedback is a gift. We recognize that anything also known as “constructive criticism” can be difficult to see as something as positive as a present. The human brain tends to focus on the criticism part of the phrase. However, reframe giving feedback from being a distasteful duty to being an opportunity to give someone information they need in order to grow, develop, or at the very least, surmount a barrier that may hold them back.It helps if you see feedback in this positive light yourself – model receiving feedback gracefully, and then if the shoe fits, wear it. Say a simple “thank you,” and consider the learning with an open (not defensive) mind.
  3. Feedback is only useful (and used) when it is asked for. How many times have you offered unsolicited feedback, only to have it fall on deaf ears? And if you are asking yourself how often someone who needs feedback has actually asked for it, ask yourself this instead: How many times have you asked the question “Are you open to some feedback?” It’s a hard question to say no to. If the recipient does say no, leave it at that. Often curiosity will bring them back before you can turn around. Once the recipient admits to being open to hearing some feedback, you have won half the battle. Then, present it with the explicit intention of helping them develop self-awareness and grow professionally.
  4. Once feedback is asked for, it is often no longer needed. Once a person is self-aware enough to ask for feedback, he or she may actually be looking for validation of something they already know, or strongly suspect. A question may be more helpful here, rather than your feedback. “What causes you to ask?” can provoke further self-awareness, and prompt an even richer conversation.

Providing feedback effectively is but one aspect of a much broader area of study to which the Seashores devoted their professional lives as a scholar-practitioners: Use of Self. For example, How do I use my self optimally in interactions such as giving feedback? Pay attention to that the next time you feel compelled to give the gift of feedback, and give these rules of thumb a try.

Watch for an upcoming post to delve more deeply into Use of Self!

Dr. Mike Manning is a Professor of Leadership, Strategy & Change at Benedictine University and a globally recognized researcher and consultant in leading organization change. Dr. Mary Nash, Principal, The Nash Group, consults to organizations worldwide with a focus on strategic transformational change. Both Mike and Mary had the privilege of considering Charlie and Edie as close friends, colleagues, and mentors.”

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References:

Helgesen, S. (2006). Masters of the breakthrough moment. strategy+business, 45, 56-67..

Nash, M. M. (2014). Organization development’s consummate scholar-practitioner: The life and contribution of Charlie Seashore. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science.

Seashore, C. N. (1984, May). The future of feedback. Alexandria, VA: NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science.

Seashore, C. N., Seashore, E. W., & Weinberg, G. M. (1992). What did you say? The art of giving and receiving feedback. Columbia, MD: Bingham House Books.