The Feedback Loop

In a world where the norm is to avoid feedback and everything that comes with it (the judgments and criticisms), conscious leaders genuinely and continually seek to know themselves better (for better or worse), so they invite and crave feedback. They seek feedback for the same reasons as others—it’s the best way to improve—but conscious leaders desire outside feedback because more than others, they understand the reality that they have blind spots (things about themselves and their leadership that they cannot see for themselves). Thus, conscious leaders know that outside feedback is the only way to see the way that others see them, their decisions, their actions and their leadership.

Similarly, conscious leaders are committed and willing to deliver open and honest feedback to the people around them so that they too can experience the gifts of high-quality feedback. And yet there remain many obstacles to feedback (giving and receiving), especially when the feedback comes in the form of statements (which also tend to be judgments, more than feedback). Enter the feedback loop process, which a leader can use for their own self-feedback and to offer feedback to the people they serve.

The feedback loop is a simple and structured process which allows someone to self-assess and take ownership of what they did well and what they could do even better. The process also allows someone to receive high-quality and typically very specific feedback. This process also requires the giver of feedback to be pay more attention and to be more present in working with the receiver, since it’s designed to deliver the best kind of feedback – specific, empowering and impact oriented.

Before jumping into the feedback loop, let me offer one key additional element for the feedback loop process and any time you offer feedback. It’s a specific and simple question that I ask every time I want to offer feedback to someone (e.g. team members, clients, friends, etc.). It’s a question that opens the door to authentic sharing, learning and shows respect for the person receiving the feedback. Are you open to feedback?

When you ask someone if they’re open to feedback, this lets the other person know that you respect them and where they are in the moment. Even with my team members (who I do expect to be open to feedback), it’s okay for them to say “no, not now” in response to this question. One of the reasons that we’re failing at feedback is that we try to give feedback (and ask the receiver to receive it) when the circumstances indicate that now it not a good time for feedback.

If the giver of feedback is energized (e.g. angry, frustrated, distracted, etc.), it’s not a good time to give feedback. Similarly, if the receiver of feedback is energized, distracted or simply not present, it’s a bad time for feedback. We don’t want to put off the feedback too long (because the best feedback is on the fly and right now), but we also want to give and receive feedback when the people and the circumstances are ready. Specifically, if you want to use the feedback loop with someone, start off by asking “Are you open to a feedback loop?”

Finally, the following feedback loop is a great structure and process for high-quality feedback, and it’s not a process that you want to use every time you give any feedback. The feedback loop will take several minutes and not every situation calls for or fits with this process; however, you can use this process for any situation or circumstance. Once you start to utilize the feedback loop, you’ll find that it’s easy to use and that everyone will get used to the flow of it. Almost immediately everyone involved with start experiencing the deep gifts of high-quality and impact-oriented feedback.

The feedback loop consists of two sections of two parts each as follows:

Section One:

  • Question:  What did you do well and why did it work well?
  • Giver:        What you did well was ____ and it worked well because ____.

Section Two:

  • Question:  What would have been even better and why would that be better?
  • Giver:        What would have been even better would be ___ and it would have been better because ______.

Believe it or not, you’re now ready to use the feedback loop process but it’s helpful to have a couple of tips for each element.

What did you do well and why did it work well?

There are two things to keep in mind with this first question to the feedback receiver. First, most people struggle to give themselves so-called positive feedback and they’re quicker to focus on what they think they did wrong. There are many reasons for this default mode of mistakes first, but that’s the subject of another blog. For now just beware of this likely response and don’t let them do it

Many people will say something like, “I did a few things well, but here’s what I messed up.” Stop them right there and don’t let them move to the even betters. Invite them to stay with and focus on what they did well and keep asking them until they run out of things to tell you that they did well.

Second, it’s critical for the learning process that they give specific reasons that what they did well worked. This is the impact question since you want to help them understand (through your questions) the ways that what they did well created a positive impact on them, the team, the process, the organization, etc. And this must be specific. 

For example, if someone says that what they did well worked because it was “good communication,” that’s not an answer. Guide them to find specifically what the “good communication” was and in what ways this specific conduct created this positive outcome. Without the context of why it worked well, people won’t learn from this process. In addition, if you do this process in a group (which I highly encourage), then everyone gets to see and understand the many positive impacts that come from the things we do well.

What you did well and why it worked well!

As noted above, your ability to provide high-quality feedback on what they did well requires that you pay attention to their conduct, be more present to and around them, and be prepared to give them additional feedback whenever positive. This is not only important so that they receive the benefit of your perspective and feedback, but it also gives your people a strong sense that they and their efforts are being seen. Team members have a deep desire to be seen and valued and this is part of the feedback loop process is where you get to give them that gift.

When it’s your turn to provide them feedback on what they did well, you follow the same approach as above. First, make sure it’s specific. Second, make sure you provide the “why it worked well” impact for them so that they can learn and grow more fully. This part of the process can be challenging if the receiver of feedback did a good job of self-assessing, but your mission as the giver of feedback is to make sure that you have something more to offer them through this process. Remember, sometimes the smaller the point the greater the learning and opportunity for different action in the future.

What would have been even better and why would that be better?

The most important thing to note here is the precise language used – even better. Not, how did you screw up, not what mistakes did you make, not how did you fail. What would have been even better? This is not meant to pretend that we don’t make mistakes, fail or screw up, but it focuses our attention on what we can do even better and it recognizes that there’s nearly always something that we could or would do even better. This is a reminder that growth and improvement is an all the time thing and using this approach focuses on the better (not what you did wrong).

In addition, it’s important that you guide the receiver of feedback to provide you with the even betters, not the wrongs. This is another process that may take some time since our default is to focus on what we did wrong, rather on what could be better.

For example, a typical answer to the even better question might be “I waited too long to ask for help.” This is not the even better response, so stop them and ask them to focus on what would have been even better (e.g. “An even better next time is I would ask for help sooner.”).

Similarly, the why the even better next time would work needs to be focused on the new action or behavior, not the old behavior. Referring back to the response above, a receiver might say “I waited too long to ask for help and that caused a delay in the project.” Instead, guide them to the even better action and the positive impact. For example, “An even better next time would be to ask for help sooner and that would work well because it would keep the project on schedule and allow other team members to feel like they’re part of the project.” As with the first two elements, it’s key that the receiver of feedback be specific about the positive impact that their even better actions or approaches would create.

What would have been even better and why that would be better!

In many cases, if the feedback loop process goes well and the receiver does well at their own self-assessment, this element is the most difficult for the giver of feedback. There will be times that you don’t have any more even betters, which lets the receiver know that they did a great job with their self-assessment. If so, tell them so: “You did a great job with your own even betters and why, and I don’t have anything else to offer you.”

In addition, I think this element is an opportunity for some great learning in the little things. So much of leadership and management is about the small strokes, not the big strokes, and helping someone to see a small even better and why could be the most important feedback they receive. This is why it’s so vital that you pay attention to your people and be prepared to offer them high-quality feedback even if it’s a small tweak.

For example, let’s say that the receiver of feedback says that what she did well was to step in when a meeting got off course and bring everyone back to the pressing topic. If she doesn’t self-assess an even better about the timing of her stepping in, your even better might be “An even better would have been to step in sooner. I watched you and you seemed to hesitate a few minutes before stepping in. Why that would be better is that stepping in sooner makes it easier to get everyone back to the topic. We also know that people in the meeting who perceive it getting off topic start to question the leader pretty quickly, so the quicker you step in the less impact on the team and their trust levels.” This is high-quality and actionable feedback. It also opens the door to a discussion about the reasons for her hesitation, which will also make her better in the future.

There you have it – the feedback loop process. It’s a powerful tool for growing your team members and yourself (ask someone to run the feedback process with you). And when you ask team members to run the process with you, you create a more empowering, authentic and engaged culture around feedback, self-assessment and growth. Yes, it’s different than what most of you are used to – always telling people what they did wrong or what they should do different. For the most part, it replaces statements with questions. It replaces telling them with them telling you. It puts what you did well first and what you could do even better second. It focuses on self-assessment and learning rather than outside assessment and judgment.

There are many gifts in the feedback look process for the giver and the receiver of feedback, and your entire team. While it may seem bumpy to start (after all it’s a new muscle you’re exercising), the process is simple to use and easy to follow. It’s just a matter of doing it different and allowing you and your entire team to build a new muscle – a muscle that will serve each team member, the team, the organization and you to grow and improve more fully and quicker while all the while focusing on different actions in the future and creating the impacts you desire. The  process is simple but the impact will be transformational – not bad for just a few different questions.

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