What is "Feedback" Anyways?


It’s a word that comes up a lot with my clients, students, and friends. Things like, “How do I give this feedback to my boss?” or “If only I heard feedback like this more often,” or “I had a really hard time giving that feedback to my co-founder” frequently find their way into my day-to-day conversations. And though each situation contains its own unique challenges, realizations, and pieces of advice, there’s a top level context that ties them all together: what do we really mean when we say the word feedback?

It may be an obvious question—potentially even mundane at first glance. Why talk about this “what is feedback” crap when what I really want to improve on is how to give it? Well this is one of those scenarios where one begets the other. The what of feedback strongly informs the core how. So what is feedback? Here’s my definition:

Feedback is the practice of sharing with you the impact of your behavior on me (and potentially on the team/organization) with the intent of helping you be more successful.

It’s a relatively simple sentence that has powerful implications for the art of actually giving it. Let’s break it down.

1. Feedback is a form of disclosure. It is, in it’s purest form, a process of me sharing part of myself with you that you are otherwise blind to—namely my reactions to your behavior. This is a subtle but important shift from the more common notion that feedback is a process of me telling you about you. When I share my reactions to your behavior, I can do so with absolute certainty. When I attempt to tell you about you, I’m stuck in the realm of guesswork. Thinking of feedback as disclosure ties to the adage you may have heard that “feedback says more about the giver than the receiver.” I’m not sure that it’s always more, but it’s definitely at least as much. Whether I’m conscious of it or not, each bit of feedback I give you reveals what I notice, what I care about, and what expectations I carry. It tells you a lot about me.

2. Feedback should be behaviorally specific. In order to minimize defensiveness and avoid misunderstanding about the facts of the matter, feedback should be grounded in localized, behaviorally specific data. A way I often think about this is if there were a camera recording the situation you want to give feedback on, what would it pick up? —use that footage as the basis of your feedback. For instance, if you were giving feedback based on a colleague being late to an important meeting, instead of starting with “When you were careless…” say “When you were late this morning…”

3. Feedback names the impact. It doesn’t label the other’s intent. In any feedback scenario, there are three main components: Intent —> Behavior —> Impact. That is, there is the other person’s original intent, then the behavior they did or didn’t do, then the impact of that behavior on you, the feedback giver. It’s worth noting that this impact can take many forms. It can be your reaction, your feelings, your concern, your excitement, etc. It can be enthusiastically positive (something we often forget when discussing feedback) or more negative. Either way, as we’ve outlined in the two points above, your feedback should cite the behavior and name the impact. It may be tempting to make inferences or judgements about the other person’s intent, motivation, and desires, but naming them as facts during a feedback conversation is usually a recipe for disaster. Rather than labeling their intent, try asking them about it (so long as you’re genuinely curious and not insulting).

4. Feedback comes from a place of positive intent. Name it! On the topic of intent, I encourage you to try to connect to and name aloud your positive intent when giving feedback. I say positive intent because, whether you’re sharing appreciation, frustration, or course-corrective performance feedback, you’re intention is hopefully to help the other person be more successful. And just as you don’t know the other person’s intent behind the behavior you’re giving feedback on, they don’t necessarily know the positive intent of your feedback unless you tell them. If they sense and believe your positive intent, the odds of a productive feedback conversation will increase meaningfully.

5. Feedback is a practice, not a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. The best feedback is regular and timely. You carve out time for it in regular and recurring intervals, and beyond that, you give it in a timely way (within a couple of hours or days) when urgent. When feedback is a practice it has higher impact. It becomes a key tool in people’s growth and development as it unlocks helpful shifts and new possibilities. The more you do it, the better you get at giving it and the more others improve at receiving it.

There you have it. Five “how’s” of feedback that spill right out of the the “what.” Obviously there are a heap of other nuances for situational feedback conversations, but if you can nail these five, you’ll be well on your way.

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