Thanks for the Feedback - Book Review

For the Thanksgiving season my goal this year has been to complete a post on the book THANKS for the FEEDBACK. Among the many things for which I am grateful this season is the opportunity to get coaching and 360-feedback at work. 

A confession: A kind and well meaning HR professional suggested I read the book many moons ago. For the most part in a work context I am not a procrastinator, but this book is a BIG exception.  When the Cowen Book group read it earlier this year, I finally completed the read.

Why did it take me so long? First, the timing of the initial suggestion struck me at the time as evaluative, instead of coaching, feedback.  Plus  the title seemed to be an admonition to be more gracious for feedback, in the words of the Post-it graphic on the cover, "Even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered and, frankly, you're not in mood."  Having now read the book, I understand the admonition I imputed has a lot to do with baggage - and the book discusses the "last straw" dynamic that may have been in play. 

By constitution a life-long learner, I gained new tools for hearing feedback. It was fortuitous to have finally read the book at the right time.

The authors are Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen of the same group of thinkers who produced Difficult Conversations, a book that was very useful to a group of employees at The Rockefeller Foundation in the era I was there. A lot of that book is seen in the approach to recognizing contributions to conflict. Typical to their work, you will find strategies for difference spotting and building out the puzzle from different pieces by asking clarifying questions, such as "Why do we see this differently? What data do you have that I don't have?"  The book provides plenty of examples, so you can see those strategies in context.*

From the outset the book acknowledges that most people feel conflicted when receiving feedback and are not good at delivering feedback. The book asserts that we have to find strategies to learn from the feedback anyway.

What I take away from the book is that feedback is not about who you are in a vacuum, it is about how you encounter a specific culture of interrelationships. The book has helped me to put back on my cultural anthropology hat and think about "What can I learn about the culture and how to navigate successfully from this?" instead of getting stuck in feedback "accuracy." 

Top 10 take-aways for me:

  1. It's better to deliver one type of feedback in a conversation, rather than as a mixed salad.  If someone requests feedback, it is helpful to understand what type of feedback they are seeking: Appreciation, Coaching or Evaluation.
  2. When facing feedback, it can be good to name what you are receiving and re-direct to what you were seeking if the two are not aligned.
  3. Triggers in response to feedback defeat learning.  The 3 types are driven by perception of truth, your identity, or your relationship with the person providing feedback.  Each of these triggers receives its own deep dive over 2-3 chapters (and each chapter has nicely summarized take-aways). The book is chock full of recalibration strategies. One of my faves is to give yourself a second score for how you respond to feedback.  For example, “I listened carefully and responded respectfully without acting defensively – A+!”
  4. Our reaction to feedback can be explained by our emotional baseline, swing from that baseline and sustain (for positive) and recovery (for negative) feedback.  Strong feelings tend to push us to towards extreme interpretations but we can counter to encourage nuance with respect to our own identity instead of an all or nothing outlook. 
  5. We all have behavioral blind spots. These can include facial expression, tone, patterns of activity, and choice of language. We typically ascribe our own emotions to the situation and our intent, and others' emotions to their character and impact on our feelings.  To the extent we can disentangle situation from assumptions re character and intent from impact, the easier it is to have a clarifying conversation with the goal of understanding.  
  6. As referenced in the prior point initial conversation around feedback should focus on mutual understanding, not problem solving.
  7. Step back to perceive feedback loops within a system: (a) Differences in preferences, assumptions, styles or implicit rules between 2 people, (b) Any inherent tensions between the 2 roles (for example, in legal ops our role as a change agent often has inherent tension with clientele operating within their comfort zone), (c) Other players influencing our behavior and choices: Are there elements of physical set-up, structure or processes contributing to the issue?  (d) What am I doing that contributes to this dynamic? Taking a systems-based perspective can help us reduce judgement, enhance accountability and uncover root causes.  In other words a Six Sigma 5 Whys can help on the feedback front.
  8. A feedback conversation has 3 acts: An opening where you set context, a body with two-way conversation and a close. 
  9. To master the three-act play of a feedback conversation 2 skills you need are:
    • Listening with a purpose - in which you ask clarifying questions, paraphrase the giver’s view and acknowledge their feelings.  Have your inner voice state what the purpose is to help reduce your innate trigger responses ad give it an assignment; e.g. “Be intensely curious about what the giver is saying” for example.
    • Referee Moves: Step outside the conversation to note where you and the giver are getting stuck and suggesting a more productive direction, topic or process (again, this is legal ops comms 101, but in feedback mode we may not have this front and center of our minds).
  10. Adopting a growth mindset. I tend to think that by definition legal ops professionals operate from this mindset by default, but at times, when we feel misunderstood, we may lapse.  The book shares techniques for shoring up one's growth mindset defenses. 

In my 20+ years of work experience, I've found, as the book describes, that each workplace has different implicit rules. Each of us will find some contexts more transparent and others more opaque.  In particular when a culture feels opaque to you feedback can become the compass you need to navigate successfully. 

The book provides the advice “don’t decide, experiment – try it out.”  And that’s my recommendation with respect to this book.  Got feedback? Comments welcome!


*Among the examples is a story about Dr. Atul Gawande trying a coach, because there did not seem to be a downside and in doing so and discovering an upside both for himself and his colleagues who saw him as being open to experimentation (if you’re a Gwande fan, as I am, see p. 124).