One June Friday afternoon and Saturday morning I sat in on 2 master classes during the Charleston International Music School (CIMS) summer program and saw kid after kid get criticized in front of a bunch of people, and be grateful for the comments. Or at least respectful and engaged.
The way a music master class works is that a musician, or group of them, performs for the master teacher, in front of a group of peers and possibly other guests. Then the teacher critiques each person’s performance; sometimes peers also critique the playing.
While many of the comments are encouraging, I also heard things like “You need to play each note the way it is written” or “You keep getting behind” or “We talked about correcting this yesterday and I’m still hearing X.” X can be wrong note, wrong tempo, wrong color, wrong phrasing, too much or too little pressure or 99 other details.
That’s what happens when you are so interested in mastering something that you pay a coach to help you. Which is not the situation in giving feedback at work.
Certainly most people hate receiving any criticism of their work. Either they do not want to hear anything challenging or they don’t want to hear anything at all from a specific person.
What happens is that much of what goes for feedback is worthless; a lot of truthful criticism is delivered in such a way that it’s impossible to swallow.
Yet effective feedback is a precious rare jewel. Like the One Ring, full of power.
Feedback can be the catalyst that spurs someone on to the next level and the next.
You can get this feedback from physical experience, for example you try out as a comedian and no one laughs at your jokes. Or you can make a widget that doesn’t actually function the way it’s supposed to. Life is full of feedback, if only you choose to listen.
Because of humans’ inherent Negativity Bias, our bodies pay a lot more attention to negative comments and threats than to any positive feedback. Unsolicited or unwanted negative comments are physically distressing to hear.
Here are 3 guidelines for giving effective feedback that work. Mostly don’t give any unless the situation or the person specifically requires your input. J
- Set up the conversation for success.
Consider what you can do to make a performance review or critical conversation successful. What does success in that context look like?
Here’s what successful feedback does not look like: Anger. Diatribe. Rant. “You always.” Loud. Run-on sentences.
Effective feedback happens when the recipient wants to get better at something and is willing to listen to you.
You prepare a person to receive constructive comments by first affirming how important and valued she is to you, the company, the organization, the world.
Be precise and specific.
Not this : John, you’re doing a great job, but I need to you get more detailed in those SOWs.
Both phrases are too general. Specificity is sexy. Especially when giving feedback of any flavor. More detailed how? Great job means what? And the ‘but’ shuts people down. Use AND.
(That’s why we do “yes, and” improv exercises in Mixonian workshops.)
John, your meeting the deadline for the SOW and attention to grammar are great, and it’s better if you specify the deliverables in greater detail. For example….
- Ask questions.
When coaching people, I ask them what they think needs to be done to move forward. Usually if you ask enough questions, point out the value they add to the system, the person usually sees for himself what needs to be done. You don’t really have to say much. People often know what they need to do, and they hate hearing it from other people, but they shouldn’t mind telling you.
Asking questions to improve performance is a great tool in working with multinational and multicultural teams. The concept of saving face is actually phenomenally helpful and asking questions about how to solve a performance problem gets instant engagement.
At the music master class I heard questions that began with
- How can you…?
- What do you think is the best way to…?
- What do you see/hear..?
3. Earn the right to deliver constructive comments.
If you’re not respected and admired for your work by the person you need to correct, there is much to be done before you can move this person forward.
If you’re not willing to receive feedback yourself, you have no business giving any.
In music, the teacher does more showing than telling. If you’re not able to show the preferred path, be careful about advising others.
If the person you want to give some important feedback to does not feel appreciated by you, you’re wasting your breath.
When in doubt, keep your feedback to yourself. Don’t throw the proverbial pearls before swine.