The Practice of Feedback

Ten year olds on a basketball court get and give a lot of feedback. Yes, there is the teasing and the joshing, the urgent calls of “Here! Hey! Come on, I’m OPEN,” the cajoling and teaching of the coaches, the whistle. But the feedback I was watching most (as I sat on a very hard gym floor for an hour and a half during my son’s practice) was from the ball.

Bounce, bounce, throw: miss

Bounce, bounce, throw: miss

Bounce, bounce, throw: swish

Bounce, bounce, throw: miss

Bounce, bounce, throw: swish

Bounce, bounce, throw: swish

Every move, every moment, the ball was giving feedback to the kids under the net. Immediate, clear, impartial. And compelling – a basket was reinforcing, a ball off the rim was a reason to try again. These kids just kept going back, getting their hands on the ball, putting it up for another try. They embodied the word practice.

Feedback can be a practice, too, in the way that a sport or faith or love is a practice: a discipline you consciously engage in, work at, grow into over time. Even ten year olds know that they won’t become basketball masters by playing once a week. They understand they will have to work at it a bit every day if they want the tournament to go well, and if they stop practicing they’ll forget what they know, their muscle memory will fade. At work we should be giving each other feedback the way the ball gives a player feedback, and we should approach feedback the way a child tackles a sport he loves, with dedicated practice.

Annual performance reviews and the like are tournaments. High stakes, stressful for everyone. And yet we go into them without a dedicated practice of feedback, with atrophied muscle memory. We can’t expect to be feedback masters by giving and getting feedback once a year, or even quarterly. We need to practice daily, get our hands on the ball, take a shot, miss and swish, and try again.

So here is my challenge. I am going to practice feedback in March, the way I practice oar handling when I row, or the way my son practices free throws: regularly, thoughtfully, maybe even joyfully. What might that look and sound like? It won’t be dramatic.

Maybe someone I supervise will hear: “Did you have a busy week last week? I noticed you were staying late in the office. How about we talk through the tasks on your plate to prioritize for the coming week?”

Another colleague might hear: “I had a hard time hearing and understanding everyone on the conference call yesterday. Can we talk about how to facilitate these calls when they get a little chaotic? I want to be sure we don’t just hear the loudest people’s opinions.”

And my bosses have heard, and will hear again: “I’d like to get you that write up immediately, but I can’t stay late today. Can I get it to you tomorrow?”

Practice with me. Miss. Miss. Swish. Miss. Swish. Swish.

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