Feedback that feeds the soul

If you’re like me, as much as we struggle with receiving feedback, we experience just as much angst, maybe more, when we have to give feedback. We want to balance encouragement with correction while avoiding drama. It’s not that we don’t address what holds people back, but our aim is to reach mutual commitment in pursuit of our shared purpose. Above all, we must engage in feedback with deep respect and regard for those we lead. How do we get to that place from which great feedback flows?

We start with ourselves. We first need to check how we perceive the person we are giving feedback to and then ask ourselves what we intend our feedback to accomplish.

  • Are we just seeking compliance? Or are we working together toward common vision, mission, and values? Compliance is passive. Commitment is creative.
  • Are we teeing up a monologue comprised of commands? Or are we inviting people into conversations that lead to binding commitments on both sides?
  • Do we think, perhaps unconsciously, of the feedback recipient as a “lost cause” and not worth our effort? Or do we see the other as a feedback partner who is capable and willing to grow and improve if we make the necessary investment?

If we can genuinely and authentically answer that we are seeking the good of the feedback receiver, commitments that stick, and investments that will pay off for everyone and the whole organization, we’re in the right starting place.

So what are some practical steps we can take to offer feedback that feeds the souls of those we serve? Here are six practices articulated by ThirdRiver Partners*. I’ve seen these effectively put to use  in higher education, the non-profit world, and high-powered, for-profit firms, and I commend them to every servant-leader.

1. Ask for permission

Sketch out the topic, and whenever possible, allow preparation time for the conversation. Making space for preparation demonstrates power with. Springing feedback on an unsuspecting recipient signals power over. Script and practice your invitation and you will balance the power dynamic. After all, your intent is for others to excel, not to win in a contest of wills.

2. Begin with what is working

Lead what existing strengths and assets to leverage for improved performance. Only then do you broach weaknesses and deficits. Be sure to move from what’s good to what can be better with the word “and” rather than “but.” For example, “I like the way you lead your group, BUT you need to be more assertive in team leader meetings” effectively cancels everything positive that came before that big BUT. In contrast, “I like the way you lead your group, AND I think you can make a real contribution to the leadership team if you share your ideas and experiences with us.”

3. Ask for their perceptions

We need to ask our feedback partners: “What is your take about your behaviors and the motives behind them?” We all come with different points of view. There are frequently gaps between what others intend and what we perceive. Give your partner the chance to close the intention-perception gap. To do that, stick with “I” statements of what you see, think, and feel, and how you’ve been affected by their behavior. Then actively listen to your partner’s self-assessment of their actions and intentions.

4. Ask for their improvements

And then graciously offer your own suggestions based on your experience and expertise. This is your chance to learn as you lead. Listen first to their insights; you will become much more insightful as a result. Make sure you focus on behaviors; you don’t want others internalize feedback as a judgment on their character, self-worth, or the value they bring to the world.

5. Feed-forward

Yes, we assess past performance in terms of both relationships and results. But we can’t change the past. What we can do is:

  • Change the way we choose to see, think, and feel.
  • Rekindle our passion for excellence.
  • Learn new skills, gain knowledge, develop our distinctive talents, and practice effective behaviors.
  • Make amends if needed and forgive ourselves.
  • And move forward with focus on desired outcomes.
6. Summarize and commit

Ask them to play back the highlights of the conversation with special emphasis on points of agreement. From this shared understanding, decide on mutual actions that you both put on your calendars, and review these in the near future. Remember, it’s not real until there’s an agreed date to come back and reassess. (And not the next year’s performance evaluation!)

The gift of feedback

Robert Greenleaf, the father of modern servant leadership, maps the way with his “best test” of a servant-leader. In his essay, The Servant as Leader, he measures servant leadership by what our followers are becoming under our leadership:

Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to become servants?

These six attributes – growth, health, wisdom, freedom, autonomy, and service – are the fruits of feedback that feeds the soul and inspires us toward greatness.

Remember always, feedback is a gift. Give it well.


(Copyright © 2018 The Serving Way — Chris Alan Thyberg.) 

* Third River Partners, LLC is a management consultancy that provides leadership and cultural transformation through the actions and practices of Serving Leadership.

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