Monday, March 30, 2009

The "What" and "If" of Feedback

I love the practice of feedback -- it has helped me grow. Having worked in a company like ThoughtWorks, where feedback is such an important part of our culture, it also helps me stay sane. I don't have any bottled up feelings against anyone I work with and that just works so well in terms of making me feel relaxed.

Most models of sharing feedback recommend that you give feedback as soon as you notice an infraction in behaviour. When I say infraction, I mean that the observed behaviour deviates from desired behaviour. So, coming back to the point I was making -- most wise people recommend that you give feedback after each infraction. In fact the Crucial Confrontations model recommends the following high-level steps:
  • The first time a problem comes up,talk about the Content
  • The next time the problem occurs, talk Pattern, what has been happening over time. Pattern issues acknowledge that problems have histories and that histories make a difference.
  • As the problem continues, talk about the Relationship, what’s happening to us. The issue is not that others have disappointed you repeatedly; it’s their limited response to feedback has caused you to lose trust in them.

As you can see, each confrontation has a different purpose and message and is caused by a trigger - the infraction. I know however that quite a few people find it difficult to determine if they should give feedback and if the infraction is worth talking about. This is the best part I like about the Crucial Confrontations book. It asks you to unbundle the problem into What and If.

So obviously the first part of the problem is to determine what the impact of the behaviour was. What were the consequences to the work at hand, the customer or you? Why do you care? If you were to discuss the problem what consequences will you discuss? This is the most important part of the "What". This apart though, its quite important to think of the Intentions behind the behaviour -- and to ensure that we humanize the action by trying to think through the best possible intention behind the action. Lastly, its important to think that if you were to talk about this infraction, what's the positive future that you will speak of? What do you want for yourself and the other person, as a result of this conversation.

Once you've got the What sorted out, you at least have part of the content for your conversation decided. This said, the bigger question of "If" you should speak up still remains. A lot of us believe in giving the other person the benefit of doubt and our way of doing that is to ignore the infraction. Firstly, if you were to tackle the issue with safety and enquire the reasons behind the behaviour, you'll perhaps be doing exactly that. Secondly, if you are assuming that the deviation from desired behaviour was unintentional, then its all the more important to make the other person aware of the consequences, so that you can brainstorm ways of avoiding the situation in the future. The authors of the book recommend a few questions that I feel are really useful to ask yourself:
  • Does your body language or behaviour betray your concerns about the behaviour?
  • Have you made a judgement that you're not sharing?
  • Are you confusing the question of how difficult the conversation will be with the question of whether you have the conversation at all?
  • Are you subconsciously avoiding the conversation since you don't know how to approach the other person?

Now, if your answers to any of these questions is "Yes.", then you should definitely have the confrontation. So effectively, the only situation in which you don't want to have the conversation is when you haven't done any preparatory work.

I strongly recommend that everyone in a professional setting reads the "Crucial Confrontations" book. It provides a model for handling difficult conversations that makes life so stress free that you find more time to concentrate on your work. With time, these conversations become so easy that you will be able to have them without fussing over them too much. And then: life will be (as I often say) on "cruise control".


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