Your approach to feedback is probably wrong (and here’s how to do it instead)

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What is the purpose of giving feedback?

The correct behaviour, to improve, to change you may answer. I would have, and my understanding of feedback has evolved over the years. An evolution of understanding feedback as a nicer word for correcting behaviour, to shifting the focus of the word towards desired outcome, to shifting the focus to the process of change.

Over the last years I’ve shifted yet again to a new understanding of what feedback is, or rather what the ultimate purpose of feedback is. Sometimes you need to give feedback to correct behaviour and achieve specific improvements but I’d argue that’s a result of not practicing great feedback to begin with.

And if the title of this article triggers you, you definitely want to read it to the very end…

So what is the ultimate purpose of feedback then and what does great feedback look like?

Feedback as we learned it

As a young manager going through the corporate training programs we talked about constructive versus destructive feedback and I was taught, the nowadays dismissed, sandwich-model of feedback, to sandwich a negative piece of feedback between two positives’. Most often a not so subtle form of manipulation.

Me and my fellow first-time managers intellectually got it but it was difficult to get it right, so we role-played, rephrased our statements and went on refresher trainings. Despite our efforts it was difficult to shake off the feeling of deflating the feedback-receiver and this feeling caused anxiety preparing for our feedback sessions.

As a receiver of feedback myself that feeling was confirmed and my colleagues and I half-joked that “the helping hand strikes again” when called into our manager’s office. We all had good intentions in our feedback sessions, our manager included, we just didn’t know how to do feedback in a more empowering and impactful, maybe even transformational way.

Constructive feedback is fundamentally flawed

Constructive feedback is based on the assumption that the feedback-giver is correct, and the feedback-receiver must be corrected. We’re taught that we need to be specific and direct about how a direct report’s performance has not been up to standards.

We learn that it’s our responsibility as feedback-giver to clearly articulate what’s wrong, package the message in a helpful way, suggest a better way of doing things and do all this at a time as close to the wrongdoing as possible. The empathic feedback-giver may include how the wrongdoing makes them feel as well.

If constructive feedback is fundamentally flawed, and we know destructive feedback is clearly wrong, how should we approach feedback?

Challenge your assumptions

Before we talk about the better way of feedback let us first explore the underlying assumptions of constructive feedback.

Would it be possible the feedback-giver doesn’t have the full picture of the “wrongdoing”?

And would it be possible, that even if he/she has the full picture, their interpretation of the events is off and their suggested better way is actually not the best way?

These questions are more pertinent the higher up the organisation we go as the context gets more complex. The higher up, the more moving parts, and they move faster by the day so how does a leader make sense of it all to gain the full picture and to articulate the best way forward?

Well, we can’t make sense of it all. It’s a superhuman endeavour, so I suggest we approach the challenge with humility. And if we can’t make sense of it all we need to nurture wisdom — the ability to continually assess relevance of, and be willing to change with, each emerging event, to hold opposing ideas in our minds and at the same time seek new perspectives.

This approach requires curiosity and the willingness to deconstruct events to explore what’s going on under the surface.

Deconstructive feedback

Developmentalists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey offers a third approach to feedback in their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, called deconstructive feedback. The idea originates from French philosopher Jacques Derrida who wrote about “the instability or elusiveness of meaning”.

This is the very essence of deconstructive feedback, is focused on how we create meaning.

Kegan and Lahey define constructive feedback as Communication for Informative Behavioural Change and deconstructive feedback as Communication for Transformative Learning.

Note the distinction, constructive feedback is informing somebody to change their behaviour and deconstructive feedback is about facilitating transformative learning.

The difference between change and transformation is often missed but is an important one: when you transform you can’t go back to the previous stage, a butterfly transforms from chrysalis to butterfly, whereas if you change the old behaviours are still latent and are likely to return, especially under pressure, like when you change lifestyle by starting a fitness routine on January 1st and find yourself back in the couch by mid-February.

Assuming that we all do what we think is best in any given moment the opportunity for transformation lies in understanding how we make sense of events, explore different perspectives of the events and with new sense-making we may choose different actions.

With a deconstructive approach to feedback we engage in triple loop learning, learning about learning, to better understand how we shape assumptions, interpret events, and make decisions.

Kegan and Lahey summarises the differences between constructive and deconstructive feedback with the following table.

Source: How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work; Kegan & Lahey 2002

Why is deconstructive feedback difficult?

Talking to leaders about deconstructive feedback a first reaction is: “So it’s about asking more questions?”

It’s not quite this easy because deconstructive feedback requires a certain mindset to ask the right questions, to hold the answers and ask the right follow-up questions. It’s too easy to settle for the first answer and move into informing about desired behavioural change.

A common first result of exploring deconstructive feedback is to get better at constructive feedback.

After feedback training we go to a Manager as Coach training where we learn to ask questions about the other person’s actions and explore why they did what they did, but the questions tend to be activity focused.

In deconstructive feedback we ask meaning-making questions to explore the underlying assumptions and thoughts that led them to take a certain action.

This requires us to put our ego aside and engage in conversation with genuine curiosity, share how we made sense of a situation and allow the conclusion of the conversation to be that we’re completely or partially wrong.

This is the first challenge, to be willing to be wrong. To let go of the assumption that we are right and the feedback-receiver needs to be corrected.

The second challenge is related to perspective-taking and this a capacity that evolves as we mature. Kegan is most famous for his work in adult development theory describing how our relationship to ourselves and our world changes over time.

Our consciousness doesn’t stop evolving when we leave adolescence but go through stages of gradually increased capacity to see through our own ego-stories and deal with complexity and polarities.

Kegan labels the three main stages as the socialised mind, the self-authoring mind and the self-transforming mind.

The first half of this journey of consciousness happens naturally as we mature but the latter stages typically require a conscious effort of reflective practice of exploring, resolving and coming to peace with the ways in which we deceive ourselves.

For this reason the capacity for deconstructive feedback may be beyond the feedback-giver’s current stage of consciousness development.

However, aspiring to practice deconstructive feedback is in itself developmental as we’re stretching our capacity to take different perspectives.

What could deconstructive feedback look like?

The essence of deconstructive feedback is to explore sense-making so we need to learn how to ask questions in a different way. Constructive feedback questions tend to be activity-focused and in deconstructive feedback we try to get under the surface of the activities and explore the thought process that led to the actions.

In constructive feedback we may ask: “What happened? Who did you consult? What did he say? How did you react? What will you do next? What’s your desired outcome?”

In deconstructive feedback we go under the surface of these activity-focused questions and may open the enquiry with: “From how I see things I’m puzzled, can you tell me in which way I may misunderstood things?”

And continue the conversation by probing sense-making with questions like: “What were your assumptions leading you to the decision? In which ways are those assumptions proving true? How did you interpret that? What did that stir up in you? What would be a different perspective on the situation?”

Meaning-making questions seek to explore how the other person makes sense of their own and other’s actions while at the same time being aware of our own meaning-making.

This is the challenge, to hold two different interpretations of reality in mind at the same time and consider both plausible, including a third new co-created reality as equally plausible.

When we reflect on our own assumptions and interpretations of actions we open a door to intrinsically motivated change which in turn may lead to transformation.

The neural impact of criticism

Is it worth the effort learning to shift from constructive feedback to deconstructive feedback?

Yes, because we are much more vulnerable than we’d like to admit and when criticised and told how to change we instinctively go into defence. Feeling threatened we either fight, argue for what we did is the right, or we flee, withdraw and shut down. And this shows on neural level as well.

Brain scans in an experiment by PhD. Richard Boyatzis at Weatherhead School of Management shows how the brain reacts differently to when a feedback conversation is focused on possibilities and learning versus failings and correction.

Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are remarkably potent biologically, almost as those to our very survival.” says psychologist Daniel Goleman so while criticism from your manager will not kill you, it may make you feel like your livelihood is at risk and mentally you do into survival mode.

A constructive approach to feedback runs a high risk of shutting down learning capacities so a shift to deconstructive feedback is essential for sustainable performance in life and business.

As the pace of business is increasing, as we move our work from offices into remote virtual teams, and as we seek more purpose, autonomy and purpose in our work we must do everything we can to nurture learning and intrinsically motivated transformation.

Shifting towards deconstructive feedback is a process and you’ll not see the potential of your capacity to engage in it when you start out.

Take small steps to begin with. A great way of practicing deconstructive feedback is with your children and friends.

Be patient with yourself as you mess up, reflect on what happened and try again.

Finally, a little reflection for you

What did the title of this article stir up in you? Did you feel provoked? I mean, who am I to assume that you probably got feedback wrong?

Did you start reading to prove me wrong, that you indeed do feedback correctly, or maybe with an open mind to discover if there’s something to learn?

The title is presumptuous of me and for that I apologise. Nevertheless, you’re reading this and I hope this article has triggered reflections on the importance of entering conversations with an open mind, trying to check assumptions at the door, and engage in an exploratory journey.

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Fredrik Lyhagen

Fredrik Lyhagen

Ready to become who you could be? I’m an Executive Coach and Leadership Consultant writing about Leading Self & Others from a lens of Integral, Jung and Zen.