The art of feedback – why we should serve more than a “praise” sandwich

A couple of days ago, my good friend and classmate Kendalle Harrell sent me a link  to the latest research article on Performance Feedback… I know what you’re thinking…quite a sexy topic for an Organizational Psychology grad student.

Yes, gosh darnit, it is! We’ve all been given feedback – welcome or unwelcome, formal or informal, yearly or monthly.

Performance feedback is an art. So let’s draw some connections to the art of Improvisation, shall we?

Peter Sims gets us thinking about how, and compares this art to the artsiest folk of all, Pixar animators.

  1. Make it personal – no cookie cutter feedback here. Not everyone likes a praise sandwich, in fact, some people will throw away what’s inside and just focus on the praise, or visa-versa. Strong performance feedback has…
  2. A narrative – a journey, a co-created one at that… between the feedback giver and receiver. Decide on a vision that you can co-create. To help you write this narrative focus on…
  3. Agreement – what can the feedback receiver agree to (and come up with themselves) to improve? Utilize the power of give and take (Thanks, Adam Grant!).
  4. Be specific – focus on specific behaviors, action items, and examples.

Pixar utilizes “plussing” as a developmental tool (you may call this “Yes, And…as you wish).

“The point, he said, is to “build and improve on ideas without using judgmental language.

Here’s an example he offers in his book. An animator working on “Toy Story 3” shares her rough sketches and ideas with the director. “Instead of criticizing the sketch or saying ‘no,’ the director will build on the starting point by saying something like, ‘I like Woody’s eyes, and what if his eyes rolled left?”

Using words like “and” or “what if,” rather than “but” is a way to offer suggestions and allow for the creative juices to flow without fear, Mr. Sims said.”

Performance feedback is a muscle that can be developed with practice.  I’d argue that many of us inherently know this already, but don’t always put it into practice. If we want to improve, we can think about it as we would our own performance feedback. Focus on the specific behaviors we can improve on tomorrow, and who can help keep us accountable as we learn and grow?

The Secret to Getting Ahead, via the NY Times

It would be easy to read yesterday’s NY Times profile of Professor Adam Grant and his book “Give and Take” and conclude the secret to success is to give more and take less.

We could come to similar, easily digestible conclusions with other, recent management development offerings. We could “lean in” more, “be more mindful”, or say yes or say no more often. But would this stick, or just make us more resentful, anxious, paranoid, or busy?

One thing is certain, I completely agree and appreciate Grant’s work and his message:

“The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

As I see it, the key to encouraging more giving is by focusing on the feeling it brings.  In essence, we follow the feeling. Sometimes it is indescribable, but it sticks with us. 

If giving more, leaning in, taking more time for yourself, or saying no more often makes you feel better, more whole, more on purpose, then that is reason enough to do more of it. Perhaps it will allow you to give with more gusto, to listen in a way that offers the support your friend or co-worker needs.

We can save the quantity vs. quality of giving debate for another time. I feel better when I give help, advice, support, encouragement, and that is a powerful, potent, push to do more of it.

Mixing motivation and giving isn’t easy. If we view giving as a means to an end, (“matchers”, as Grant calls them in his research) than we’re missing the point.

Improvisers give in the form of making their partner look good. We give because it is the Improvisers credo. It builds trust. And it fuels creativity by opening us up to more possibilities and points of view.

But we are also good at saying no when we need to, when it feels instinctively wrong.  We are skilled at the polite, “NOPE!”. Guilt or pushing doesn’t motivate giving, that is certain.

“The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.”

The impact of this work is profound if we give it and share it with others. It is the foundation of a learning organization, of a company of shared social capital and support. And it is sustained not because your boss told you to give more, or because you read about it in an article in the NY Times, but because you know how it feels when someone gave selflessly to you, and you want to pay it forward.

Why our brains focus on the negative – via the New York Times

Joe Joseph (let’s call him) walked out of an important meeting at the company he worked for, “Golden Handcuffs” (let’s call it), and immediately felt horrible. He had received a ton of criticism (not much of it constructive), and other assortments of negative information.

Over the course of the day, he had also been on the receiving end of some general compliments from his peers, an easy commute, and a thank-you note from a good friend.

But all he could focus on was the negative.

“This is a general tendency for everyone,” said Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University in a recent article in the NY Times…“Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”

Research tells us, bad feedback has much more of an impact than good feedback. In fact, “The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” said Professor Nass… Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.”

Joe Joseph is not alone. We as a culture and a society tend to focus on the negative for a variety of reasons, and now, some neurological research tell us this is normal.

But, normal does not mean healthy.

Can you soak up and stack up enough “positives” to out-weigh the negatives, and is it simply a matter of working hard (very hard) to modify your outlook enough to concentrate on the positives?

Evolutionary tales tell us those who were more attuned to negative events were better equipped for survival and threat deterrence. But, we want more than to just survive – we want to thrive.

Here are some practical tips to help focus on the positive:

  1. Spend your time around people who lift you up. View your brain as a bank – our goal is  increase positive deposits and decrease the number of  negative withdrawals.
  2. Don’t shun criticism but remember its place. Constructive criticism is important and un-avoidable – focus on action steps, and stick to facts instead of feelings.
  3. Take a cue from Professor Amabile, who writes of the power of small wins. Take note and strive for making progress on meaningful work and the steps forward you can take every day.
  4. The article gives the example of a “Kudos File”, or positive piggy bank. Work to remind yourself of the positives, steer your focus towards them, and in return, offer specific praise to friends and colleagues when you can.

.