I wrote in my February blog post about how accepting feedback is essential to developing as a leader. In fact, leaders who ask for feedback are more effective than those who don’t. However, we may not be so keen on giving or receiving feedback – it is a common area of discomfort. So I appreciate the latest book from the Harvard Negotation Project, Thanks For the Feedback, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. They define different kinds of feedback and explain how this understanding can help us avoid the challenges we run into when we confuse the categories, both as givers and receivers of feedback.

An important distinction they make is that when we use the term “feedback,” it actually can mean three different things:

  • Appreciation – We notice and credit someone for his/her efforts and contributions. Used to encourage and motivate people.
  • Coaching We help someone increase knowledge or build a new skill. Used to fix a problem or improve capabilities.
  • Evaluation – We assess, rate, or rank someone. Used to align expectations, and affects decision-making.

Stone & Heen note that all three are important, and each serves a different purpose. However, one of the things that can lead to an unproductive feedback conversation is that you and I are not clear with each other about what kind of feedback is being exchanged. For example, say I am in need of appreciation but instead I get coaching from you on what I can improve. I may walk away feeling more than ever that my hard work is not valued. Or what if I am looking for evaluation of my recent deliverable but instead I get appreciation. I may think that I am not getting the kind of guidance I need to grow as a professional. So mutual understanding of whether the conversation is about appreciation, evaluation, or coaching is a first step toward fruitful communication.

They further explain that it can be challenging to distinguish evaluation and coaching since coaching inherently contains some level of evaluation. But it is important that we see these as two different things, for a couple of reasons. The first is that we need to take on board evaluation before we can receive coaching, even if we want coaching. Stone & Heen give the wonderfully illustrative example: “When a professor hands back a graded paper, the student will first turn to the last page to check their grade. Only then can they take in the instructor’s margin notes.” This is especially true if the evaluation we receive is different than the evaluation we were expecting. They suggest separating evaluation and coaching conversations by at least a few days, with the evaluation conversation taking place first.

The second reason is that receiving feedback as coaching or evaluation can make a huge difference in whether or not we hear it in a productive way. This is because our identity – how we see ourselves, and how we think other people see us – is easily threatened by evaluation but far less so by coaching. Taking on feedback intended as coaching as coaching, not evaluation, is not always easy, especially in relationships that are more meaningful to us, or during more emotional conversations. Too often we hear evaluation when coaching is intended, with much different impact. For example, your boss suggests that you include anecdotal examples along with the data in your presentation to the CEO, and you hear it as a judgment that your presentation skills are not up to par for upper management. Imagine the difference in the outcome if you hear a recommendation instead of an assessment.

From Stone & Heen’s book, I better understand the different types of feedback, and the importance of understanding these differences. I feel more confident now that my feedback exchanges – both given and received – are not something to dread but to actually welcome.

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