Have you ever made the mistake of buying someone a gift that you’d like, instead of considering what the other person really wanted?
Several years ago I received a pair of heavy-duty work gloves in my Christmas stocking from my husband. He obviously saw the confusion on my face and blurted out, “I thought you might need them to help with stuff around the house outside.” Okaaaay. Thank you? I understood that his intentions were good, because he knows that I like to wear gloves when I’m working outside, but that is not how I received the gift. Instead I thought to myself, "So, you waited until the last minute to pick something out, and all you could find were work gloves.” He eventually was able to articulate what he really meant - that we both enjoy working in the yard and thought that new, heavy-duty gloves would be useful. Let’s just say it’s a good thing the gloves weren’t my only gift that Christmas.
Giving feedback can sometimes be like this. We have good intentions, but the gift isn’t well-received. But if giving feedback can be a gift, then why aren’t we good at giving it? Because it’s HARD. We like to be liked. We are wired to avoid discomfort, hurting and disappointing others, or disrupting relationships. And so we avoid anything that resembles conflict.
Harry Kraemer, a longtime business executive and professor of management and strategy at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, argues that our natural compulsion to be liked needs to be trumped by higher values: “If you like to be liked, the chance of being respected is extremely low. However, if you start off focusing on being respected [for your honesty and candor], you have a chance of being liked.”
So, how do we put this to use?
To get better at giving feedback, first, consider the recipient. Here are a couple of questions to consider:
- What’s my relationship with this person and what do I know about them?
- What can I offer them that’s meaningful?
- How do I say it in a way that shows I care?
- What specifically do I want this person to have clarity about at the end of our conversation?
Second, the feedback should be in context.
Handing someone a gift when there isn’t any context for it is awkward – like getting work gloves in your Christmas stocking. Feedback, in the same way, should come with some kind of context. If it’s not obvious to the other party why you’re sharing feedback, it’s your job to frame the context. To do this, it’s helpful to share WHEN you observed the behavior/actions, WHAT you observed – what you actually saw, not perceptions – and HOW what you observed impacted a situation.
If you remember from my last blog, my colleague provided me feedback as she observed how fast of a walker I am (the WHAT) when going through our department (WHEN). She suggested that my pace might convey a message that I’m “too busy” or “in too much of a hurry” to stop and connect, or even that I’m “too important” or “not interested” (HOW my behavior might impact others' perceptions). The context she provided was very helpful in how I received the feedback.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, allow them to accept the gift — or not.
Once a gift is given, you don’t get to decide what someone does with it. They may tell people about it for decades, they may not remember it at all, or they may be figuring out how much time is left to return it.
It’s the same with feedback. Once given, you can’t control what the other person decides to do with it. Sometimes they’ll take it to heart, sometimes they’ll do nothing, and sometimes, they’ll reject it. Aim to be the kind of person who gives meaningful feedback in the right context — and then allows the other person to decide what they’ll do with it.
The goal of giving feedback should always be to help one another, and that help can’t be delivered without consideration, honesty, and respect. That’s the difference between niceness and true kindness - just like well thought-out gift. So the next time you go to give feedback, lead with these 3 things, and remember - it's a gift.