Delivering Balanced Feedback

Optimize feedback for reception, not delivery.

I was recently inspired by this fantastic point about delivering “balanced” feedback from Randall Stutman. I offer a lightly edited transcript (for coherency) below, but it’s a better experience to watch the clip directly on YouTube via The Knowledge Project:

Let’s take the idea of balance.

So no surprise, we all have a natural and intuitive understanding that negative information carries a lot more impact and weight than positive information. So even when I think you’ve done a lousy job, I’ll normally start it with some throwaway like, “Oh that went pretty well, you really worked hard at that, you know the audience seemed to really like like that one piece… “

You’ll start out with some softening of the blow, because number one you you want people to hear you, but number two you naturally know that if you go negative to start people withdraw: they shut down, they don’t they react, they do all kinds of things.

Most feedback and criticism — most of it other than praise and flattery and so forth — has a negative tinge to it. When you’re trying to improve people’s performance you’re giving them at least constructive criticism around, “try this differently,” “do this,” and so forth. We know that the negative and the positive are very different and because we know the negative is overweighted — it’s called the negativity effect — so we naturally buffer almost everything we say. We start with a little bit of positive and then we offer a little negative and then we get to our negative.

Now if I do that consistently - if I give you one little positive and then I give you my four criticisms — the balance is not there. It’s actually out of balance.

Let’s take an example of a presentation. I’m just gonna make it up off the top of my head, but let me give you two pieces of feedback on a presentation.

My first feedback goes:

”Hey, the presentation went pretty well, I think. The audience was engaged. But listen:

You know your slide in the deck - slide 10 - it was not really understandable. And slide 15 confused everybody. I didn’t think you tied the introduction to your conclusions so you lost people at the end. When you got to Q&A you started out okay but boy you were really flat footed on the second question - your answer was really weak - and I thought the audience was not as responsive at the end as they should have been across the presentation.”

And you’re thinking, “Wow - okay, I mean, you really thought the thing went okay and that the audience was engaged? I don’t remember that but I remember you just crapped a lot on everything I just did.”

Let me give you the same feedback but in balance. So instead the leader says to you:

”Listen, I think the the audience was engaged across your presentation. I think it went pretty well. I want to tell you that I never saw slide 8 before and I thought it was masterful - I thought you took something really complex and made it simple. I thought before you got to Q&A, when you reached your main point, I thought that you hit it hard several times to the point where it resonated with the group. I think they were excited to get to Q&A to ask you questions.

I thought you started out Q&A really well, and I believe that your answer to the fourth question, which was the hardest question of all around why we do what we do, you just hit it out of the park.

Now let me be critical on the other side. Your slide five was indecipherable - we’ve got to do something about that. Your slide 10 really took something that was complex and made it even more complex. I didn’t think you tied the introduction and conclusion nearly strongly enough. I thought when you got to the Q&A your second answer to the second question was really flat-footed and really left people wanting. And I think overall people could have been a lot more engaged if so some of those things were fixed.”

That’s an example of the difference between feedback in balance versus feedback being totally out of balance. Because I don’t know anybody that wants the first one (there are a lot of people that don’t want the second one either, by the way), but if you really want to get better, you want the second one, and you can deal with the balance of it.

So what did we learn? The behavior is not just about being in balance; it’s about how you’re in balance.

And when we study the best leaders on the planet, they all do the same thing. They all start positive, just like we all do intuitively when we’re going to be critical, but their positive is as vivid, elaborate and as detailed as the negatives, and they generally match in terms of number. So if I’m going to give you five criticisms, I probably need to have three, four or five really positive things. But they can’t just be at a level of vividness or detail that is not equal. So I’m going to start positive and I’m going to go as deep into that positive as I can.

I tell this to leaders all the time, and they’ll say, “well I have five criticisms but I only have one really good positive that I can focus on.” I tell them: stretch yourself. See if you come up with two. But more importantly, they’re only ready to hear two criticisms from you right now.

I often find that when I’m asked to review something - e.g. before a key presentation or sharing a document with a wider group - I engage the most critical and nit-picky parts of my brain. While it’s an exercise in good faith towards the author’s good showing, it does mean I’m in the headspace of looking for what what’s wrong instead of appreciating what’s done well. And that’s not great - to Stutman’s point, habitually glossing over positive feedback in service of delivering critique has the particularly bad outcome of making both positive and negative feedback less meaningful. Given the currency of trust, approaching feedback in the appropriate balance feels like a better strategy towards maintaining positive work relationships.

Delivering feedback is one of those “soft” skills that makes the transition to management difficult. Personally I’ve found a lot of guidance in Lara Hogan’s Feedback Equation, and I used the content of that post in the creation of a talk at LeadDev Together 2020: “Growing Teams and Culture with Actionable Feedback”. The key takeaway from that talk speaks to the same conclusion from Randall Stutman: the mark of successful feedback is in its reception, not its delivery.

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