Feedback is a Gift

By: Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading is an essay by John E. Hill, Instructional Technologies Specialist at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His essay first appeared as a leaders program reflection earlier this year. [John may be reached at  <>.]
Several weeks ago, I needed to have a difficult talk with an employee. (I’ll call him “Bob”). With the usual dread, I began to plan what I would say to Bob and how I would say it. Then the realization – I have tools to help me with this. Feedback is a gift! In fact, giving feedback is one of my goals for the leader’s program I’m now participating in. I want to become better at giving feedback, so that others around me know that I’m paying attention, know that I care about what they are doing and have an accurate understanding of what I expect or need for our mutual success.
You’ll notice that my goal focuses on giving feedback, because I find this so much harder than receiving feedback. I think I do a pretty good job at receiving feedback – at least that’s what people tell me. (A little feedback joke, there.) However, I’ve never felt comfortable giving feedback for fear of hurting feelings or being afraid of what people will think of me. So, I felt relieved that I could frame the situation differently. I could ask if Bob would like some feedback about the situation. I’d be positive, be specific, be descriptive, and be timely.
Before I tell you how it went, I want to bring up how this shows how much I (really, we) can get caught up in the daily routine, feeling like there’s no time to step back and think. I’ve found that I need time to reflect. I’ve been sitting in these leadership program sessions with the rest of you.  Yet I had to step back and think before I realized I had an opportunity to apply what we all have been learning.
Anyway, the talk with Bob didn’t go that great. Well, it could have been worse. I went in to the meeting feeling prepared, with a positive attitude, and ready to get down to specifics. As the discussion progressed, I could see Bob slipping into a fog, shutting down. Later, I realized maybe I wasn’t descriptive enough and I could have been more timely (four days had passed before we had the opportunity to talk). It could have gone better. And, I have a feeling that next time it will. I gave it a try and I identified some mistakes on my part, and I stepped out of my comfort zone and gave it a shot.
Years ago, my daughter decided to take flute lessons. She brought home her shiny new flute after her first lesson. Her practice for the next lesson was to blow into the flute and make a sound similar to a note. Pretty easy lesson, right? Have you tried that? I found out that it’s hard to blow into a flute and make it sound like a flute! She threw down the flute in frustration (on the soft living room couch, or there’d be a different ending to this story) and cried, “I’ll never be able to do it!” I had to remind her about all the things she can do now, only after much practice – riding a bicycle, kicking a ball, walking, chewing solid food (well she didn’t remember that far back!). Years later, she was first chair flutist in a youth orchestra that performed and traveled around Europe.
So now, it’s time to remind myself about practice. My first attempt at our new feedback method didn’t produce sweet melodies, but I’m going to keep trying to step out of my routine and keep practicing.


Note several things here. John, having set a goal, held himself accountable to following through. He recognized that this is hard for him. He developed a plan and executed the plan. And, like many (most?, all?) times our first attempt isn’t all that good. Note the example of John’s daughter and her initial attempts to play the flute. 
And, if you are honest here, you can probably recall first attempts of our own that did not go well. Rather than giving up and denying yourself the joy of succeeding, keep trying and perfect the skill you are working on. It will take time. However, the joy of the result is worth the pain of getting there.
Jennifer Porter, a leadership and team development consultant, puts all of all of this together:  “Great leaders are great learners. … Getting and learning from feedback [as well as learning how to give feedback effectively] isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, if we want to become better. It’s rare that our colleagues will offer us the kind of feedback we need to develop, and also rare that we respond in a way that rewards their efforts and helps us improve. It’s worth building the skills to do this well if we want to reach our full potential.”2
Make it a great week for you and your colleagues.  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Further Reading:

  1. David Rock, Beth Jones, Chris Weller, Using Neuroscience to Make Feedback Work and Feel Better, strategy+business, August 2018.
  2. Jennifer Porter, How Leaders Can Get Honest, Productive, January 2019.
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