Feed Me, Don’t Devour Me!

I really look forward to those long lazy Sunday lunches or Christmas dinners. I feel energised by a hearty homemade broth on a winter’s day. I relish Thursday because it’s ‘Hurry for a Curry’ night.

I enjoy my food, and I choose it carefully. I choose how much I want and where to get it. I decide who I want to have it with. I make sure it’s good for me and I try not to overdo it. That’s a recipe for contentment, nourishment and growth.

What I don’t do, is stuff my face three or four times a day with rich foods, piled high on my plate, washed down with copious amounts of alcohol. I’m not like the cat, Six Dinners Sid, who visits six houses, one after the other, for a slap-up meal at each. And I don’t starve myself all week, so that I can go to an ‘eat all you can’ banquet on a Friday night.

There’s a reason for that. I’m not a glutton for punishment. I know that overeating is bad for me and binging makes me ill.

So my mantra is little and often, regular and nourishing, healthy and wholesome, varied and satisfying.

That’s what I want my feedback to be.

I believe that feedback is a powerful instrument for good. Used well, it has the capacity to transform people and the companies within which they work. Yet I am continually frustrated each time I visit a new company by the realisation that it isn’t used at all, or it isn’t used wisely.

So, I think we’re missing a trick. What’s it going to take to get fed, instead of getting fed-up?

Feed Me!! 

The clue is in the title. Feedback should be like food for the soul; it should nourish and sustain us; it should enable us to grow.

But often our experience is anything but. Too often it’s more like:

  1. A feeding frenzy as each colleague dives in for another bite of the kill

  2. Starvation rations

  3. Cutting you down to size

  4. A weak insipid soup

  5. A drunken orgy of mutual adoration

I don’t wish to be unkind, but most people who have ever tried to give me feedback seem to have confused the whole sordid event as an opportunity to get a few things off their chest. They’ve often left me feeling like I’ve been covered in phlegm.

I can’t be too hard on them, because when did we ever learn to give each other feedback? I certainly don’t remember anyone teaching me how to do it, so like most other people I stumbled through the process, trying to work out how to do it myself.

It’s not easy, especially if you’ve never been taught, and you don’t get much practice.

That’s the first problem.

Then we don’t make it any easier for ourselves by our own response to feedback when we do get it.

Typically, whenever anyone tries to give us feedback we respond in one of the following ways:

  1. Run away

  2. Get embarrassed

  3. Dismiss it

  4. Take it personally and start beating ourselves up

  5. Take it personally and start beating them up

  6. Argue

  7. Feel sick/go off sick

So the problem of giving feedback is often compounded by our apparent inability to digest it.

But there’s a third problem, which is not knowing how to ask for it in the first place.

Some people are courageous enough to ask for feedback, but many people choose not to or don’t know how to broach the subject.

So now we have a triple whammy:

  1. We don’t know how to ask for it

  2. We don’t know how to give it

  3. We don’t know what to do with it when we get it!

To get feedback on the company menu, we have to look at the three problems separately. It’s like putting together a healthy three course meal.

We have to learn:

  1.  How to Ask for it

  2. How to Give it

  3. How to Receive it

Asking For It!

We can’t react to feedback if we’re not getting it, so first we have to take practical measures to make it possible for people to give it to us.

The trouble is people are often afraid of giving us feedback because they don’t know how they will receive the feedback and respond to it. [Or maybe they know EXACTLY how we will respond!]

But maybe most of all, we are reluctant to give people feedback because we don’t know they want it.

I’m talking about formal, face-to-face feedback here, but in reality, we’re getting and giving feedback all the time. It’s just that we don’t always see it as that.

These are all ways that people let us know what they think of us.

But it’s unsatisfactory; it’s too subtle, covert or indirect. We need to find a way that brings feedback into the open.

So the best way to make people feel comfortable about giving you feedback is to ask them for it.

We have to let them know that we want it. Without an invitation, they don’t know whether they have a right to offer it.

That’s the easy bit. The tough bits are:

  1. Asking with an open and enquiring mind

  2. Signalling what it is you actually want by asking the question

  3. Being prepared for what you might hear

Let’s go back to the question we used earlier:

Is this person really asking for constructive feedback or do they simply want to know that you’re paying attention? Do they really want a detailed critique of the way the fabric hangs, how the colour does or doesn’t complement their skin tones, or whether it matches their shoes? Probably not. But how would you know?

It’s possible that they simply want reassurance before walking out of the door. Maybe they want to force a compliment. Maybe it’s just a habitual phrase that simply requires a cursory nod. But how would you know? Many a good relationship gets damaged by not knowing what you’re being asked for!

I recognise that intimate relationships have slightly different rules to the ones we have at work.

At home, we are expected to be highly intuitive of each other, to be able to read each other’s minds. In fact, it might not be a bad idea to tell our partners how fabulous they look without being asked!

But at work, we do need to ask, if only because we haven’t yet become used to giving feedback to each other.

So, at work, the next time you think you want feedback from another person think carefully about how you will ask for it. Think first, what is it I actually want?

  1. a.      Do I want praise and recognition?

  2. b.      Do I want reassurance?

  3. c.       Do I want to genuinely discover something new?

  4. d.      Am I looking for ways in which I can be even better?

  5. e.      Do I just want to check that my view of myself matches the view of my peers?

  6. f.       Do I want to be fed?

  7. g.      Do I want help?

Asking “does my bum look big in this?” is a valid question, because you can’t see your own bum without the aid of strategically placed mirrors. It’s a question that could be designed to uncover a blind spot.

These are all legitimate wants, but unless you signal this to your colleague, you might get much more or much less than you bargained for.


“I really want to learn from this experience and I’d like your help in clarifying some of the areas where you think I could have done things better or differently”…

…will get you a vastly different response than asking …

“Please tell me I did alright?”

And not asking at all will leave you guessing and relying on your ability to read all the subtle signs that are out there.

Giving It

If your colleague won’t feel richer or benefit in some way as a result of receiving your feedback, don’t give it? Or don’t call it feedback.

A ‘thank you’ or a pat on the back is nice and I wouldn’t choose to reject it. But it’s not the type of feedback I’m talking about. It’s recognition that might momentarily make me feel better, but there’s not much I can do with it.

I want to my feedback to go deeper. I want to know what I might be able to do to further capitalise on this quality that I have demonstrated and which has been spotted by someone else. That’s real feedback. That’s exciting. Now I’m being fed.

Because the purpose of feedback is to feed: it should always have a constructive developmental element to it. Otherwise it’s purely information – it’s just a light snack.

That doesn’t mean you can only say nice things, and ignore all the tricky stuff. Sometimes we choose to eat certain foods because we know they are good for us, not because we like them (who really likes broccoli?) So, constructive feedback can involve some pretty tough messages.

However, if you signal your intention clearly, and reassure your colleague that you wish to support them through the feedback and development process, they will find the tough messages easier to swallow.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that no matter how much truth hurts, lies hurt more.

When we take our car in for a service or an MOT, we want the mechanic to tell us if there’s a problem with it.

We don’t want them to pass it, knowing that it could break down at any moment. We don’t want them to tell us that it’s in perfect condition when it isn’t. We do want them to tell us that it’s in good order if it is, and possibly give us some tips about how to treat it better.

Even though knowing the truth might cost us, it could cost us a whole lot more if we are left to find out later. And so it is with feedback. We do people a disservice, by not being honest with them.

However, honesty can be a blunt instrument, and we are dealing with a fellow human being who is bound to have an emotional response to the feedback we give. Therefore, we have a responsibility to communicate it in a manner that will:

  1. Demonstrate our positive intent

  2. Show our desire to work with them

  3. Afford them respect and dignity

  4. Help them absorb what we are saying

  5. Make it clear that the feedback is based on our own observations

  6. Indicate that there are things they can do to address the situation

  7. Give them the freedom to accept or reject

If we can do this, the recipient will be able to gain sustenance from the feedback. It will genuinely feel like a learning process, of which we are a key part.

It means that you can comment on someone’s great qualities and successes whilst not being afraid to explore how these can be further utilised; and it means that you can address qualities and behaviours that are inhibiting success, because your intention is to support the person to make the required changes…and they know that.

Receiving It

It’s true that we might hear some things that we don’t like. They might shock us. They might embarrass us. We might not believe them.

But the alternative, as we have heard before, is that people only tell us what we want to hear or what we know already. Or, they don’t tell us anything at all.

So the way we respond when someone offers us feedback is critical to achieving a satisfying outcome.

Whenever I receive feedback I find it helpful to remind myself of three things:

Feedback is a gift.

It gives us clearer insight (and often confirmation) about the way we are, and how we are perceived by others.

It’s a chance to take active steps towards the achievement of meaningful and beneficial goals, through the development, correction and modification of certain strengths and behaviours. So I know that I can get something out of any feedback, no matter how badly it is given, and whether I have asked for it or not.

Even if it’s not a well cooked meal, it has nuggets of learning to chew on.

So don’t push the feedback away. Receive all feedback with grace, and do the following:

A)     Listen and attempt to understand what people are telling you.

B)      Evaluate the views that people have shared and seek to analyse why people might have these views.

C)      Seek further clarification if necessary.

D)     Consider your own behaviour in terms of how it has contributed to the views and opinions expressed by others.

E)      Decide which aspects of the feedback you can work with.

F)      Develop a meaningful development plan that will help to build on your existing strengths whilst addressing areas that may be causing concern in yourself and in others.

G)     Thank them for the feedback and ask them to help you.

Telling someone they did a great job can be as hard for us as telling them they did a poor job. This is sometimes due to the way they respond; sometimes due to the way we think they might respond; and sometimes due to the fact that we don’t really think it’s our place to do so.

We all have a right to give people feedback, but that right needs to be earned. We have to demonstrate that:

  1. Our intention is to feed

  2. Our feedback is freely given

  3. We welcome their feedback to us

  4. Our tips are generous!

If we can all get this right, we will begin to find our places of work more fulfilling and more enriching.

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