A New Approach to Feedback: Think Like a Coach

What is it about feedback that can feel so bad? Just the word makes us cringe.  Unfortunately, many of our experiences with getting feedback haven’t been pleasant or productive; so we avoid giving it and detest getting it.  Helping develop others is a fundamental skill of leadership – yet we practice it annually or monthly – and either way, it’s too infrequent and misinformed by stale notions about how people learn.  

As leaders, we limp along without becoming more skilled in the art of giving and receiving feedback. Feedback is a crucial skill in leadership. It holds the potency of vulnerability and courage for the giver and growth for the receiver.  Yet we avoid it and ignore daily opportunities to give or get it in an act of self–protecting justification that waits for ‘the next time.’ By then, though, it’s too late.

In HBR’s recent article Why Feedback Fails, co-authors Marcus Buckingham, and Ashley Goodall share their research findings on what inspires us to excel – and how we learn.  It’s not criticism or some self-centric perspective of hearing what ‘better’ for us looks like to the other person.  

Their findings are that:

Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel and telling how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.”   

Research has found that when someone shares their ‘truth’ about us- it’s their version of the truth about our strengths and gaps.  What our limbic system hears in this type of feedback is judgment – what’s wrong with us, not good enough, what’s missing, and what’s got to change.   Even with a decent feedback delivery that includes our strengths as an appetizer, we’re waiting for the meat – and it’s the negatives.

Consider the last time you had a personality or leadership assessment – and scrambled to the back pages to find the lows, negatives, or “opportunities” for growth.  These are the comments we believe truer – and we tend to hold onto them more so than appreciating the good that’s been shared. We go to work with the desire to gain approval more than to truly understand and resolve what’s being identified by others as growth opportunities – ugh.

What do we need to know as leaders so we can give meaningful feedback that moves others forward?

Most feedback is received as judgment or criticism, and the brain’s tendency is to shut down – a self-protecting instinct. Within milliseconds, our limbic system injects a powerful chemical cocktail of hormones and adrenaline that takes our prefrontal cortex offline. Rather than weighing out long-term options, we’re in survival mode thinking swiftly in binary action – flight or fight.   

Over time, we learn the professional way to manage our limbic rush, but the inner toll over time is great. While we look innocuous and nod in agreement with the feedback and promise to change, we’re actually sitting there seething or trembling inside. It’s even possible we don’t recall anything but our version of what was really said. We’re not thinking clearly about the feedback – only how we can avoid getting it again vs. truly partnering in finding solutions and growing.  

Helping others learn and grow through our observations and questions involves the belief that they both can and want to grow.  Buckingham and Goodall found five techniques, based on recent neuroscience and how humans truly learn, that I hope will become the new approach to feedback.  

They parallel the approach used by ICF trained coaches:

  1. Look for outcomes. Highlight patterns and moments that allow someone to anchor and recreate it often.
  2. Replay the instinctive reaction. Freeze frame and replay moments of excellence – review them with ‘what worked?”
  3. Focus on the highest priority. The brain is most able to receive and digest what excellent looks like.
  4. Explore what’s working in the present, past, and how that informs the future. The brain thrives on oxytocin and the ability to see and apply patterns. Finalize action with ‘what will you do now?”.
  5. Look to the future and apply. What do you want to happen? How do you want to be in that moment? What actions can you take right now?  This allows someone ownership of their future.

The similarities to ICF coaching and what the authors have laid out are huge. Bringing a coach approach to your leadership equips them to be future leaders.  

When we stop and think about those times in which someone really helped us learn, it’s probable that some (or all) of these five elements were involved. It warrants repeating from the article in closing:

We humans do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we ‘really’ are, and what we must to do fix ourselves. We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular, when they see something within us that really works”.

Consider adding a coaching approach to your leadership toolkit. Your people will thank you.

Connect to schedule a coaching conversation: www.krmoore.com

Humans are better equipped to address goals and challenges when they generate the information and solutions themselves. From this, they find ownership, motivation, and meaning.  We don’t become wiser reading someone else’s manuscript alone.

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Kim Moore

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