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Can I offer you some feedback?

[This reading is from Dr. Julie A. Traxler, Associate Dean for the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University.  She is a recent MOR program alum.  Julie may be reached at [email protected].]

During our MOR sessions, I could see us collectively cringe, but we began slowly to get more comfortable (or maybe a bit less uncomfortable) with the language of feedback. I still find myself struggling with how to develop my own ability to effectively give and receive feedback. While I recognize the wisdom that feedback is a gift, I struggle with knowing how to receive that gift and how to even ask for it in the first place. In a place where the kindest thing I can say about the performance appraisal system is that it is underutilized and inconsistent, the promise of real feedback feels both exciting and terrifying.

I’ve been trying to pinpoint who and when and how I can ask for feedback. Asking my staff would be particularly helpful but possibly fraught. What’s the right time? How do I ask? What do I do with what I hear? That last is particularly important as I have to be willing to engage with what I hear, even if I disagree. I wrestle with similar issues when I consider how to assess advising. You can’t only query for satisfaction since advisors (and supervisors) often have to give bad news and enforce policy. So, how do I begin to get better at both soliciting and providing feedback?

To that end, I found a book profile that promised some good insights: Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback: the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). The parenthetical subtitle alone sold me.

Stone and Heen do a really nice job breaking down some of the complexities of feedback. They divide feedback into three different types: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Appreciation is about human connection and gratitude. Coaching provides assistance and direction. Evaluation tells you where you stand. The definitions underscore that it is necessary to understand what type of feedback you are looking for, and what type you’re receiving – or offering. It rings true for me when I remember dissatisfaction at times when I’ve sought coaching (how should I do this?) but received appreciation (you do a good job) or sought appreciation and received evaluation (next time, you might want to do this). While I am not always in a position to solicit exactly the type of feedback that I want, being aware of what I’m seeking can help me ask for feedback in more specific ways (Are there other steps I should take in this type of project in the future?) and understanding what type of feedback my staff is seeking can help me avoid misunderstanding and talking at frustrating cross purposes.

Additionally, Stone and Heen give me a language to solicit more useful feedback. They suggest replacing the general “How am I doing?” with a more specific inquiry like “What’s the one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that gets in my own way?” Mind blown.

Similarly, I struggle to provide negative feedback – largely, I think, because I primarily see feedback through an appreciation lens. I know that negative feedback offered as coaching or evaluation is a gift and may be even more valuable than appreciation. But, it requires preparation to be sure I know what I’m offering and that it is willingly and accurately received.

A guest speaker in one of our MOR sessions spoke candidly about a situation where a colleague offered feedback that she needed to get over her hurt feelings and change her response to a work issue or it would hurt her career in the long run. It was such a valuable piece of advice to be offered, but, it struck me that it had to be both hard to offer and hard to hear. I marveled that her colleague had stepped up to have that hard conversation.

That story reminded me of situations where I’ve watched someone consistently act in ways that hurt them in the workplace, but found I couldn’t or didn’t step up and speak up. I was afraid the advice wouldn’t be welcome or would damage my relationship or that I wouldn’t know how to effectively explain my concern. I recently had lunch with a colleague who confided that her boss refuses to have a hard conversation with another direct report, and consequently, staff come and go in a revolving door that hurts their office and their reputation.

So, in the spirit of “feedback is a gift,” I hope that you, like me, are working on getting better at soliciting, offering, and receiving feedback. Take – or make – an opportunity to ask a colleague for their feedback or ask them if they are open to receiving your feedback. Maybe ask, “What’s the one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that gets in my own way?” Then, listen thoroughly, appreciate the gift, and try not to cringe too much.



This reflection was featured in a MOR Tuesday Reading of Alumni reflections on valuing the gifts of others.