Feedback as a Learning Tool: It Takes More than Talk

by Julie Winkle Giulioni | Posted | Learning

Feedback as a Learning Tool: It Takes More than Talk

“I’ve got some feedback for you.”


It’s an expression that strikes fear into the hearts of even the most confident professionals. It’s generally connected to criticism, complaints, and performance deficits. Neuroscientists tell us it triggers the same fight, flight or freeze response as does a real physical threat. But whatever is going on in the brain, one thing is for sure: feedback is something that both employees and managers agree can be painful.

Over the years, sensitive leaders have tried valiantly to soften the edges of this frequently challenging interaction. They’ve given it kinder, gentler names like "constructive" or "developmental" feedback, thinking that a different label might reduce the emotional charge. Others have concocted delicious feedback sandwiches, slipping the behavior that must change between two palatable compliments, so it goes down more easily.

And still, those six words can wreak havoc.

But organizations committed to moving past the fear factor can shift the feedback culture — and, in the process, drive individual performance and organizational outcomes.

And, all that’s needed is a rebranding of feedback as a tool for learning. Once it’s no longer about fixing people or solving problems, feedback becomes nothing more — or less — than vital information that unlocks the possibilities associated with awareness, choice and change.

Making this shift and rebranding feedback requires expanding the limits that we’ve traditionally placed on feedback. It means no longer treating it as a discrete conversation.

Of course, the conversation is critical. But, if the end-game is learning, then a conversation alone won’t move the needle.

Learning takes time, reflection, exploration, and experimentation… and all of this can’t be contained within the envelope of even the most timely, specific, and interactive feedback conversation.

Creating a better culture of feedback begs a new image

Making the shift to "feedback as learning" requires an entirely new picture.

The conversation — that’s traditionally been treated as the main event — is really only the tip of the iceberg. What translates that conversation into action is what’s happening under the waterline. And it involves strategies for extending feedback and learning beyond the conversation and into the ongoing world of work.

Under the waterline of feedback are three interrelated practices that help the conversation pay off.

3 practices that help position feedback as a learning tool

If you want to create a culture of feedback, where feedback and learning become interlaced,

1. Ensure accountability

Help others take ownership for how they will respond to feedback. Facilitate the development of actionable next steps. Then, shift responsibility for change to where it belongs… with the other person. Inquire about how he/she will monitor the plan. Help others develop the ability to be self-reflective and evaluate their own performance and progress. This is the first step toward teaching others to practice "self-follow-up" that doesn’t depend upon managers to be enforcers.

2. Leverage progress

Harvard’s Dr. Teresa Amabile’s research finds that progress has considerably more motivational power than we might think. Achievement and accomplishment around something that’s important to people can inspire them to persevere and persist. Managers who understand this help others recognize how far they’ve come despite how far they may still have to go.

3. Provide encouragement

Catching people doing things right, offering acknowledgment and recognizing achievement go a long way toward communicating what’s important to the manager and the organization. This kind of positive attention also helps to sustain focus, effort and results as people work to change behavior or improve performance.

When feedback supports growth, learning and change

When managers incorporate these practices, their employees know that those six words are nothing to fear. Rather, they know that “I’ve got some feedback for you” is just the tip of the iceberg… and that support for growth, learning and change is not far away.

Best Practices in Giving Effective Employee Feedback

Learn how to change your perspective and approach to feedback.


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Best Practices in Giving Effective Employee Feedback

Learn how to change your perspective and approach to feedback.


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