“True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.” ~ Daniel Kahneman
As a kid, I loved playing cricket. I was a fast bowler, and also a halfway decent batsman.
We had a lawn big enough to have a cricket pitch, and all through the summer, I’d practice my bowling, using our trampoline, lying on its side, as a wicket keeper. One day, a close family friend and keen cricket enthusiast said “you need to stop skipping in your run-up – you’ll be much faster”. Honestly, I had no idea what he was talking about. As far as I knew, I ran up: left-right-left-right-left-right all the way through my arm action into delivery. He worked with me for the afternoon, got me to slow right down and practice in slow motion (which felt stupid, and probably looked even more stupid), but eventually I cracked it.
I had to break a habit that had formed over many years, and completely re-form my bowling action.
The result? Much faster and more accurate bowling.
The most frustrating part? I had been playing for years, and either nobody else had ever noticed, or worse, they’d noticed but didn’t bother telling me.
Research shows, consistently, that most managers dread providing feedback (by way of performance review) to their direct reports – and that most employees dread receiving it. Yet, we know that feedback is the most effective tool for improving employee engagement, and ultimately performance.
Anders Ericsson is credited with introducing us to the popular and attractive idea that any skill can be mastered if you dedicate 10,000 hours to it. Learning a language, mastering a musical instrument, becoming an expert chess player…
But Ericsson is the first to point out that practice alone is not enough. To master anything, you need feedback – either in the form of an insightful coach, or the ability to deliberately reflect on your own performance.
Feedback Allowed Within Agreed Parameters
The problem is we put boundaries around feedback. We fence it in.
We’re quite comfortable receiving feedback from a coach, within the specific confines of a domain of expertise building – sports teams, music teachers, anybody we’re explicitly paying to provide us with feedback…
And there are some places where we expect to provide feedback.
Customer service, book reviews, if we are a coach, a parent of a toddler, focus groups, political campaigns, television-watching and film-going.
The workplace? Well we kind of accept it should happen, we want it if we aren’t getting any, but then if it isn’t what we want to hear… well, it’s not so welcome.
So what would happen if we stopped seeing feedback as context specific and started seeing it as a fundamental building block of human relationships?
What would happen?
Imagine if you had the courage to reposition your own view about feedback as a negative/dreaded thing and think of it as the most helpful thing you can do for your colleagues.
Imagine if you found ways everyday to help somebody overcome their equivalent to the ‘skip’ in their run-up.
Imagine if you received a piece of feedback that immediately made you more effective in your role, and ultimately saw you promoted.
Imagine if those around you deliberately set out to improve their coaching skills, and worked together to raise performance across the whole team.
Imagine if feedback ceased to be something you dreaded, and instead became something you genuinely looked forward to and sought out.
Imagine if you knew exactly how your colleagues viewed your performance, and you knew that they were all working to help you succeed.
The Feedback Mindset
I know it sounds a bit utopian, but deliberate mindful leadership creates opportunities for your to put meaningful ‘coaching’ feedback high on your list of daily priorities. Here’s how.
Be Mindful of Internal Chatter
Chances are, your mind is busy ‘noting’ things that warrant feedback, but you act on a tiny fraction of them: the colleague who is frequently late; the co-worker who never shoulders their share of the project workload; the intern who chatters noisily to someone right beside your desk; the peer who spells your name wrong in a memo… From the sublime to the ridiculous, there will be many examples of things everyday where you mentally attribute responsibility to another person, but don’t follow through with the actual ‘out-loud’ feedback. And by the way, this will apply equally to positive things – just as worthy of feedback.
So listen to that chatter and act on it. Your mind has filed it away as though you had raised it. The consequence of which is that you gradually become resentful that the thing-that-bothered-you-umpteen-times, and-you’ve-mentally-rehearsed-what-you-should-say-to-the-person, but-never-actually-said, hasn’t yet resolved itself. This is unfair to your colleague, and takes up way to much valuable mental space in your head.
Reframe Feedback as a Precious Gift
When you provide feedback to somebody, you are actually providing them with a valuable (and potentially vulnerable) insight into how your mind works. Not theirs.
In the same way you carefully think about the birthday gift for a very dear friend – that you want it to be meaningful and precious to them, and possibly beautiful, or useful or treasured in some way – apply the same level of thought and preparation to feedback. Right down to the choice of wrapping paper and trimming.
The same applies to receiving feedback. We’ve all had Christmas gifts we secretly despise, but we don’t reject them. We don’t get angry. We graciously accept them, and assess whether the object has any potential value to us, before deciding upon a potential disposal strategy.
What’s more, when we receive a gift that we adore, we let the giver of the gift know how grateful we are.
Give the Gift of Feedback Generously
Feedback is not a finite commodity. It shouldn’t be a once-a-year thing.
Deliberately seek out ‘feedback-worthy’ events everyday. Positive ones that you are grateful for, and negative ones that you’d like to see less of. Make feedback so regular that it doesn’t raise an eyebrow.
Nobody likes a miser!
Diarise it if necessary. Schedule it at certain times of the day. But ensure the ratio of positive to negative feedback tips in favour of the good.
Give generously, and you shall receive as well!
Recommended Reading: All links are Amazon Associate links – if you purchase from these links I will earn a small commission – for that, I thank you!
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool
Anders Ericsson has spent thirty years studying The Special Ones, the geniuses, sports starts and musical prodigies. And his remarkable finding, revealed in Peak, is that their special abilities are acquired through training. The innate ‘gift’ of talent is a myth. Exceptional individuals are born with just one unique ability, shared by us all – the ability to develop our brains and bodies through our own efforts.
The astonishing stories in Peak prove that potential is what you make it.
I want to help you to lead. Not from a position of power, but from exactly where you are now.
So I’m writing a book specifically for you. It’ll be out early next year (28 February 2018 to be precise).
If you’d like to know more, please sign up for my newsletter (I don’t spam, just a weekly newsletter) where I’ll keep you up to date on progress, test some ideas, and even share a preview or two as we get closer to launch-day.
Let’s do this!