How to provide effective feedback by listening more and talking less, according to a social scientist

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When it comes to feedback, it turns out we want a good listener more than we want a good talker.

Most of us think of feedback as one-way communication. If I have feedback to give, then I will tell you to listen. Even the Business Dictionary defines feedback as a  one-sided communication: “Feedback: the information sent to an  entity . . . about its prior behavior so that the entity may adjust its current and future behavior to achieve the desired result.” You might be telling someone to keep doing something -” your two graphs were brilliant”- or to stop doing

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LET’S TALK.

something -“you need to stop burning popcorn in the microwave”- but it still boils down to a simple I tell, you listen.

It’s gloriously simple and it’s often ineffective.

How do I know that a  one-sided conversation is problematic? I’m a social scientist and I study feedback, the good, the bad, and the bruising. I conduct surveys to identify people’s reactions to feedback. I also analyze the feedback itself to understand the kind of comments employees receive and whether an employee’s identity – whether they’re male or female, Black or white – affects what other people praise or think needs improvement. I interviewed sixty hardworking employees, from entry-level workers to CEOs, about feedback moments they love to relive as well as feedback moments they wish they could forget.

In one of my studies, I asked employees about their worst feedback experiences at work. I asked them to describe one of their most demotivating feedback experiences, with all the details about who was giving the feedback, what the feedback was, how it adversely affected them, and for how long. Of all the questions I asked, the most revealing was, “What would have made you, the feedback recipient, feel better?”

Before I conducted this research, I expected that the most common response was going to be, “I would have felt much better if I had trusted the person giving the feedback.” In just about every management book, there’s a discussion about how trust is essential, that we need to build trust if we want colleagues to accept unwelcome news. It makes perfect sense – if I trust you and you tell me that I’m not living up to my potential, then I’m going to take that to heart.

Sure enough, some people (19 %) said that trust would have made an awful feedback experience better, but most people pointed to other factors. The results are summarized in the table below. Trusting the feedback giver was ranked tenth.

 

When you look at the top five answers, two clear themes emerge. First, we see that people want their hard work acknowledged. Most of us want our hard work to be recognized, especially by our managers. The second theme is that people want a chance to provide their side of the story. When you look at answers two through five, we see that feedback recipients would have felt better if they’d had a chance to correct inaccurate feedback or if they’d had a chance to discuss the feedback or to work jointly toward a solution. When it’s feedback time, it turns out we want a good listener more than we want a good talker. Researchers find that if employees think you’re a good listener, they also think you’re better at giving feedback.

And employees’ perception of the feedback experience matters. When employees believe that they’re getting good feedback from their managers, when they see their managers trying to promote their growth, then all kinds of good things happen. Employees who believe their managers give good feedback do more creative work. They express less desire to leave the company, they feel more loyalty toward their managers, and they see their work as more complex and engaging.

Read more: This 23-year-old CEO founded two businesses at university. These are her 6 tips to maximize productivity.

What’s fascinating is that employees’ perception is key. In these studies that find that good feedback leads to greater employee creativity and lower attrition, no one recorded what managers said. No one compared the manager’s actual feedback to some model of good feedback. No one even asked managers about their intentions. All that mattered was that employees believed that their managers were investing in them. I’m not saying that you should pretend to care about your employees’ growth when you couldn’t actually care less. I am saying that if we want feedback to work, we need to prioritize how employees want to be treated in the feedback process. And what we know is that employees want to be heard.

It’s a bit counterintuitive that feedback needs to be a two-way conversation. After all, as the manager, it’s your job to share what you see working or not working. You’re looking out for the team’s goals, and that gives you a much-needed perspective. All of this is true. But when you dig into the examples of incredibly effective feedback you’ll see that they all have one thing in common – two people engaging in conversation. 

It’s not one person telling someone what’s good or what’s bad, it’s two people talking. What I hear again and again in successful feedback conversations is that they were actual conversations in which two people talked and those same two people listened.

From LET’S TALK:  Make Effective Feedback Your Superpower by Therese Huston, published by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.  Copyright © 2021 by Therese Huston

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Therese Huston.

Therese Huston, Ph.D., is the author of the new book, Let’s Talk:  Make Effective Feedback Your Superpower (Portfolio / Penguin).  Huston was the founding director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University, and she gives talks and consults on how to give and solicit better feedback at work.  This is her third book.

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