The F Word


It can be a terrifying word. I don’t know which is more frightening, the thought of getting or giving feedback. Either one has the potential for conflict and hurt. What we don’t think much about, though, is that feedback truly is an opportunity for kindness and growth, whichever way it is going.

Sometimes it goes wrong.

My first experience with workplace feedback was when I was in high school, spending the summer working in the office of a large health and development organization. My mother was fairly senior there, and as I was available and the organization needed an admin for the summer, she suggested the match. I can’t imagine that happening today, and I squirm a bit thinking my first job was a blatant case of nepotism.

One of my main roles was faxing stuff to far off places. This was before email, people. These were the days of monthly pouches of documents, infrequent calls, and communication by thin rolled sheets of fax paper. All of those things were terribly expensive. One day I was told to fax a document to our office in Peshawar, Pakistan. It was an important document, and I was told that if it didn’t go through, keep trying. So I did. Again and again and again. And again. And again. I don’t know how many times I tried, but a lot.

The next day a colleague told me I was wanted in the boss’s office. Not my boss’s office, but the big boss, the head of the organization. I remember walking up wide stairs into his office and seeing his big wood desk on his beautiful red oriental rug. He told me, quite kindly, that I had just cost the organization a lot of money. Each one of those faxes I tried to send had been an international call, and each one of them was expensive. Next time, he said, ask for help. And I was dismissed. I wanted to die.

Why had the big boss been the one to give me the feedback? I can only imagine that everyone between us on the org chart had refused, given that I was the daughter of another senior staff member. And so what could have been a routine lesson in asking for assistance when something isn’t going right has been seared into my memory in the way only humiliation can be.

But I did learn something that day: never ask someone else to provide feedback you should give. We must have the guts to say difficult things, whether it is to people above, below, or beside us on the org chart.

So how should we do feedback? Let’s treat it like we do other communication. We are communication people. This is just another kind of behavior change communication. We can do this. Right?

But some tools might help. What are some of the hallmarks of good social and behavior change communication that we can apply to feedback?

Timely: It arrives when it is most relevant and one has the ability to understand and act on it. When talking about feedback, both positive and negative, it should be as close to the behavior as possible, but (unless giving kudos!) never public. Let’s try not to humiliate each other.

Repeated and frequent: We don’t air our radio spots once and call it done. Sometimes it takes repeated exposure to the same message, ideally across different channels, for a message to be actionable.

Call to Action: It must be something people can act on, change, and have under their control. That doesn’t mean easy; feedback about deep character traits or skills that are difficult to attain can be fine, but be clear about what it is you are asking someone to do.

Clear and direct: It is presented in language that is easy to understand, unambiguous, and free of jargon. It is easier to use jargon or euphemisms to protect ourselves from saying hard things.

Multidirectional: It is a conversation, not a memo. Feedback should also flow up, down, and across org charts, not just from supervisors to their supervisees.

I said earlier that feedback is an opportunity for kindness and growth. I think we all understand how feedback can help us grow, but an opportunity for kindness? I think of it this way. There are probably a dozen things I do all the time in my work that could use a little behavior change, but I don’t know about them. It’s like I am walking around with lettuce in my teeth, smiling away, and no one is telling me about the lettuce. Help me out, friends! Be kind. Take me aside (but not onto the red oriental carpet behind the big wood desk, please), put your hand on my shoulder, and tell me straight up: “you’ve got lettuce in your teeth. I thought you’d want to know.” Because I do, really.

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