Feedback Decoded

Feedback is valuable. It is also expensive. It is one of those things that gets costlier the richer you get. As you get richer, more successful or famous, the number of people who will give you candid, unvarnished and actionable feedback declines. Giving feedback is a difficult skill to master. For a person who isn’t doing well and evidently needs to improve, you will find that there are many items of feedback that you can put down on paper. When you try to deliver this feedback though, you tend to run into the Dunning-Kruger effect. The recipient is blind to his shortcomings and thinks that he is doing an adequate job, and the harsher the feedback, the more defensive he will get and the more likely it is that he will spend time thinking that of your motives than of what he needs to do to improve.

Feedback Decoded cover

A person who is doing well is actually likely to be more receptive to feedback, but finding the areas to improve upon is a daunting task, which is why, I suppose, a star player’s coach gets paid so much. One of the tensest conversations I had was with a high-performing direct report who was surprised to receive a lower rating than he expected. His argument, quite surprisingly, wasn’t that he was a great performer, but that I hadn’t pointed out the flaws he was acutely aware of himself, while my own reasons for rating him lower were bullshit. I quite appreciated his honesty. It was one of the most valuable items of feedback I have received.

There are many other things that make giving feedback difficult. Your own strengths and blind spots add to this difficulty. If something is your strength, chances are that you will underestimate how difficult that thing is for others. Your blind spot makes you blind to others’ strengths or weaknesses. You also have to ensure that the feedback you are giving is relevant to the recipient – Telling me, for example, that I have poor dancing skills, is an example of feedback that is quite true, but quite irrelevant to my career path or to my personal aspirations. And even if the feedback is relevant, is it actionable? What exactly can I do about my dancing even if I intend to improve on it?

Neelacantan Balasubramanian, or Neel, as I and everyone else knows him as, has written a great book that addresses these and many other challenges with the feedback process. Neel was my classmate in junior college and is one of the most creative guys I know. The book is a primer on Feedback in a workplace setting, made all the more relevant by the fact that it has a special focus on uniquely Indian cultural challenges around delivering feedback.

I am delighted to learn that Neel is as much of a dislike for the sandwich method of delivering feedback as I do. When criticism needs to be delivered, it never makes sense to me to have it delivered stuck between two slices of praise. Yes, the intent is to make the the criticism more palatable, but the sandwich method scarcely achieves this. Either the primacy and the recency effects kick in, in which case the meat of criticism is never tasted, or the emotional impact of the criticism is such that the softening impact of the praise fails to register.

A much better approach, Neel points out, is to have delivering unvarnished feedback built into the organization’s culture. Neel prefers the acronym CORBS for how one should deliver feedback, in which the “R” stands for “regular”. If feedback is delivered regularly in an organization, then praise and criticism will come in as part of the package. A meeting invite with feedback as the subject will not evoke the terror of an upcoming dental appointment. An item of feedback should be clear and specific – the C and S of CORBS. This can be achieved by the SBI method – by focusing on the situation, the behaviour of the person in response to that situation, and the impact that the action had.

CORBS does call for the feedback to be “balanced”, and this can be achieved not be striving for it within each feedback session, but by the overall regularity of the feedback. Of course, the feedback should be owned by the person who is delivering the feedback – easier said that done as the temptation to fire by placing the gun on someone else’s shoulder – especially that of the top management – is strong, but this is something to strive for.

If you are like me, you may have found it difficult to deliver praise – not because I am a hypercritical person, but because I find criticism a lot more actionable. My instinct is to regard praise as cheap talk – a lot of words repeating something my interlocuter already knows, while criticism is actually useful conversation, because from it flows things that one can improve upon. For people like me, the framework of the Johari window will prove useful, because one of the quadrants covers the strength that is hidden from the self, but visible to others. The useful takeaway here is that even your praise can and should be insightful and actionable.

How could I have handled the situation with my direct report better? He had blamed me for not pointing out the flaws that were visible only to him. Now, it seems a little unfair to expect me to do that, but perhaps another of the concepts in the book can help me be a better manager. Ultimately, the intent of feedback is not to teach but to learn, and sometimes the recipient of the feedback is served better by being asked questions and being left to find out answers for himself. The 4×4 matrix with Problem-Solution and Ask-Tell as axes is a useful guide to navigate the situation, and help both the giver and recipient of the feedback co-create (I hate the word, but it does seem apt here) actionable insights that both can own.

I did not mean this piece to be a summary of the book, and it is not. The book is packed with many helpful and actionable insights that I cannot summarize here. I do mean this to be a recommendation. Go ahead and buy Feedback Decoded. It is available in paperback as well as Kindle editions on Amazon.