Giving Feedback (and SCAB!)

Published on: Wed 9 March 2016 by Admin

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stuck this set of sums on the wall

1 + 1 = 2
2 + 2 = 4
3 + 3 = 9
4 + 4 = 8

then asked my numerate learners: “Can I have some comments on my performance as a mathematician, please?” Usually I get a straight answer, and the one that is most useful to me: “3 plus 3 is six, not nine.” Or: “You’ve got one wrong – and it’s a pretty basic error.”

This is what I like to hear. This is intelligent feedback. I can take criticism. I don’t need to know that I’ve done very well on three out of the four, and if there was one thing I could do better next time it would be to remember that 3 plus 3 is 6, not nine, but overall, well done, I got 75 per cent, which is a great result. And that my handwriting is beautiful.

In any organisational situation where feedback is sought – a staff appraisal, a how-did-we-do meeting with a customer, a catch-up between CEO and majority shareholder – the feedback serves one key purpose: to improve performance. And the best way to do that is for it to be honest.

I don’t really care whether it’s labeled ‘good’ feedback; or ‘bad’ feedback; better-next-time feedback; or more-of-the-same feedback; a feedback sandwich, with jam (or something nastier) in the middle; or a neat sounding feedback formula which tells me, precisely, my actions, their impact and the desired improvement (‘AID’, I think that’s known as).

What I do care about is that the feedback will inspire me to go away and do my job better. If not, don’t give it to me.

Having said that, if feedback is to be constructive, it needs to be given in a way that encourages me to listen and act on it. If I feel resentful, put-upon or victimised, chances are I’ll ignore it, go into denial and turn the tables on the sender of the message with a dismissive ‘you can talk… why should I listen to you?”

The guy from downstairs came up the other day and told me I was making too much noise. He asked me to ‘do something about it’. I thanked him for raising the issue. It’s good to know, I said, now I can see what I can do not to disturb you. (It was the first time we’d met and I wanted to be polite.) He said (and I think I detected a hint of irony here): “It’s not ‘good to know’. I won’t ask again.” Then walked off.

This is the kind of feedback that doesn’t work because, while I knew there was probably something in what he said, deep down I disliked him for the way he’d delivered his message. He hadn’t acknowledged my needs or concerns at all. The last thing on my mind was to listen to him or act on anything he’d said. (Actually, I closed the door and turned the music up).

So be sure to make your feedback honest. And so that it lands well and is acted on, be Specific and Concise, and Acknowledge the needs and concerns of the recipient. And be clear on why changes to the recipient’s Behaviour (or continuation of current ‘good’ behaviour) will add value to their role.

(That’s SCAB for lovers of feedback formulas. And another good reason I don’t like them).