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When is feedback a gift?

| April 26, 2022

by Vijay Menta

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Vijay Menta, CIO of Middlebury College.  Vijay may be reached at [email protected].]
MOR has taught many important leadership lessons that are often repeated by many of us and sometimes used as a mantra in our everyday conversation.  One that is often repeated: feedback is a gift.   While I firmly believe that feedback is a gift, I always felt that phrase was incomplete without a qualifier or further clarification.  It may sound odd, but it occurred to me recently this phrase purely reflects the viewpoint of the person who is giving the feedback, not of the one that is receiving the feedback.  I am digging into my hypothesis to see if I got that right. 
Feedback is a gift. There are two keywords in there, feedback and gift.  Most feedback can be broadly categorized into three categories.  Affirmative feedback, constructive feedback, and critical feedback.  Affirmative feedback provides the recipient with the necessary energy boost and validates their work.  Constructive feedback provides the recipient with feedback accompanied by solutions or suggestions for improvement.  The giver of the feedback means well and is supporting the recipient.  Whether it is a professional setting or a personal setting, giving and receiving feedback is a common practice and many of us are very comfortable providing positive constructive feedback without any hesitation.  Critical feedback is often very direct and rarely offers any solutions with feedback.  It may even feel like a personal attack.
Now, let’s examine the second keyword.  Gift. Let’s start with a simple question.  How is a gift usually delivered?  Even the tiniest gifts are packaged well.  Now combine the art of packaging with delivery.  With a world-class delivery and exquisite packaging, we have a winner that the recipient will remember.  The recipient may forget the exact feedback received, but will never forget the way you made them feel.  That is the most important thing in my opinion when providing feedback.  They need to feel supported, not attacked.
Keeping those in mind, I went down the path of analyzing some situations that I have encountered in my professional career that further explain why “packaging” is important.  The biggest discovery for me is that the “packaging” that is needed to deliver a gift differs from one individual to another.  When the giver understands the recipient, the “packaging” of the feedback can be customized.  If done right, the “packaging” is customized and the feedback essentially turns into a treasured gift.  So how does one understand the other?  Here is what I have done in the past.
When I took on the role as a CIO at Middlebury College, as a team we focused on understanding individual leadership profiles by completing DiSC profiles and openly sharing with each other.  During one of our leadership retreats, we discussed what it means to work with various personality types.  Whether DiSC or some other personality assessment, it is an important part of understanding how to work with each other.  What works with one colleague may not work with everyone.  We all have distinct personalities.  A direct approach may work for some while others may prefer coaching, mentoring, or affirmation. 
I am NOT doubting feedback is a gift.  I have the utmost respect for the phrase and I have kept all my 360 surveys for the last 20 years.  I have hugely benefited by receiving feedback from my coaches, mentors, and colleagues.  I am also fortunate most feedback was well packaged and customized to suit my personality type.  I always felt they were looking out for my growth and continuous improvement.  However, on the flip side, when the feedback was really not packaged well, it neither helped me grow nor inspired me to improve.
In my earlier post, Hiring Good to Great Leaders, I mentioned it is more important to have a strong team than a single superstar.  Everyone is not going to be a superstar.  We need to respect each other and play off everyone’s strengths and build a stronger cohesive team.  This is why the packaging of feedback becomes critical.  If the giver of the feedback customizes the feedback accordingly, it can build a super cohesive strong team. 
The other element I discovered while diving into this analysis is that there is a responsibility on the receiver too.  A tense situation may be avoided if the recipient also invests in understanding the intent of the feedback.  Questions could be as simple as:

  • Thank you for your feedback.  I understand we have not met your expectations.  Could we take time to dive into details and create a plan to improve going forward?
  • Thank you for your feedback.  I would like to acknowledge that your feedback is valuable to identify the problem.  However, I would like to partner with you and your team to collaborate on a workable solution going forward.  Can I set up a quick meeting?
  • Thank you for your feedback.  I was not aware of this situation until you brought it to my attention.  I would like to reflect on your feedback, consult with my team, and come back to brainstorm further on solutions that can be mutually beneficial.

In summary, I also want to point out that there are several expert articles on this subject. As I continue my leadership journey, I always try to improve on the art of giving and receiving feedback.  No matter how well we are prepared, it is good to note Jim Bruce’s excellent article which is as relevant today as it was 12 years ago.  I highly recommend keeping this article on How to Handle Surprise Criticism in your backpack for those unexpected situations.
I hope you can reflect on what I have said here and consider your experiences to grow and make feedback the gift it truly can be. Have a great week ahead my friends!


This Week’s Survey

Which one is your favorite gift?


From Last Week
Last week, we asked about being able to can say “no” as often as you should to achieve your desired balance?

  • 21% say “yes” way too often.
  • 4% say “yes” a lot, but have it under control. 
  • 39% can usually say “no” when needed. 
  • 36% never take on more than they should.

Congratulations!  3 in 4 of us feel we’re generally able to say “no” when needed.  This is such an important skill to prioritize our only truly limited resource: our time.  For those of us who sometimes find this a struggle, check out The Art of Saying No by our own Jim Bruce.