Podcast: Give Better Feedback
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Careers Nov 9, 2017

Pod­cast: Give Bet­ter Feedback

An expert on mar­riage and a for­mer exec­u­tive offer advice on giv­ing and receiv­ing con­struc­tive criticism.

A woman gives a man feedback

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on insights from

Ellen Taaffe

Eli J Finkel

Listening: Give Better Feedback

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For most of us, both giv­ing and receiv­ing feed­back can be dif­fi­cult. We often strug­gle to avoid the for­mu­la­ic feed­back sand­wich,” where we couch our crit­i­cisms between lay­ers of praise. And as impor­tant as feed­back is to our career tra­jec­to­ries, accept­ing feed­back with­out get­ting defen­sive is no easy task.

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In this episode of the Kel­logg Insight pod­cast, Ellen Taaffe, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of lead­er­ship at the Kel­logg School, offers lessons from her decades with com­pa­nies from Pep­si­Co to Whirlpool about the most effec­tive ways to give and receive feed­back, as well as what to do if you are not get­ting any feed­back at all.

Then psy­chol­o­gist and Kel­logg pro­fes­sor Eli Finkel, author of the book The All-or-Noth­ing Mar­riage: How the Best Mar­riages Work, describes the ways we can improve com­mu­ni­ca­tion and feed­back in our careers and our relationships.

Pod­cast Tran­script

Jes­si­ca LOVE: Receiv­ing feed­back in the work­place is not easy. 

You real­ly do want to improve your­self, so you try to keep an open mind. But it’s hard to be open-mind­ed about how you are falling short. 

And giv­ing feed­back? Prob­a­bly even hard­er. You hope your team will tru­ly absorb your con­struc­tive crit­i­cism. But can you deliv­er it with­out dam­ag­ing egos, or hav­ing every­one get defen­sive and stop listening? 

A lot of us have come to rely on the feed­back sand­wich”: First you say some­thing pos­i­tive. Then some­thing neg­a­tive. Then some­thing pos­i­tive again. The idea is that by care­ful­ly spread­ing your crit­i­cism between two fluffy lay­ers of praise, the whole thing will be eas­i­er to swallow. 

Ellen Taaffe has seen the feed­back sand­wich served over and over. But in her 30-plus years with com­pa­nies such as Pep­si­Co, Roy­al Caribbean, and Whirlpool, it’s nev­er struck her as par­tic­u­lar­ly appetizing. 

Ellen TAAFFE: I would cau­tion peo­ple to be care­ful of using a for­mu­la to give feed­back. It becomes real­ly bla­tant and obvi­ous, and peo­ple become wait­ing for that struc­ture, and it’s not real­ly authen­tic and real. 

LOVE: No mat­ter how astute your com­ments are, a well-worn deliv­ery method will make that feed­back ring hol­low — like you’re more con­cerned with stick­ing to the script than with actu­al­ly help­ing some­one improve. 

But at the same time, few of us are com­fort­able lay­ing out the pre­cise ways our col­leagues are or aren’t mea­sur­ing up. 

Small won­der that many of us dodge these obsta­cles by avoid­ing feed­back alto­geth­er. But that means depriv­ing our­selves and our col­leagues of a pow­er­ful mech­a­nism for growth. 

TAAFFE: In the work envi­ron­ment, we have a duty to give and get feed­back. It’s your duty as a man­ag­er, but also if you’re man­ag­ing your career, you want to get feed­back. It’s the only way to get bet­ter and to get to what you want. 

LOVE: Wel­come to the Kel­logg Insight pod­cast. I’m your host, Jes­si­ca Love. 

Today we’re going to hear from pro­duc­er Fred Schmalz. He talks with Pro­fes­sor Ellen Taaffe about the most effec­tive ways of giv­ing and receiv­ing feed­back, as well as what to do if you’re not get­ting any feed­back at all. We will also talk to a pro­fes­sor with a won­der­ful new book about mar­riage — because tough, high-stakes con­ver­sa­tions aren’t just reserved for the office. 

Stay with us. 

[music inter­lude]

Fred SCHMALZ: After decades in the cor­po­rate world, Ellen Taaffe is now a clin­i­cal assis­tant pro­fes­sor of lead­er­ship and direc­tor of women’s lead­er­ship pro­gram­ming at the Kel­logg School. She rec­og­nizes that a lot of us are pret­ty reluc­tant to give feed­back, par­tic­u­lar­ly neg­a­tive feedback. 

TAAFFE: I believe that most peo­ple are afraid to give feed­back because they don’t want to come off as mean. They don’t want to be dis­liked, and they cer­tain­ly don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. 

I’ve had to get ready for the tough con­ver­sa­tion of giv­ing feed­back, and I knew that this was going to be real­ly dif­fi­cult to receive. Some­times I’ve even start­ed a con­ver­sa­tion with, This is going to be a tough conversation.” 

SCHMALZ: She also advis­es know­ing exact­ly what the oth­er person’s career goals are. That way, when you tell peo­ple why their per­for­mance isn’t mea­sur­ing up, you can frame it as help­ing them under­stand what they need to do in order to get where they want to go. 

It helps, too, to tie the feed­back you’re giv­ing to your organization’s larg­er goals. That encour­ages the lis­ten­er to hear it as objec­tive infor­ma­tion, rather than as a per­son­al attack. 

TAAFFE: The more you can explain objec­tive­ly what was hap­pen­ing and why it mat­ters for the individual’s devel­op­ment, for their career, for the busi­ness, the bet­ter off you are and they are in being able to under­stand it and to act upon the feedback. 

SCHMALZ: The peo­ple get­ting feed­back are also more like­ly to accept it as fair and action­able if they know exact­ly what your expec­ta­tions are — and that every­one in that role is being judged by the same standard. 

TAAFFE: When you’re man­ag­ing a team, and team mem­bers are in sim­i­lar posi­tions or have sim­i­lar respon­si­bil­i­ties, you want to be clear on expec­ta­tions and your cri­te­ria and apply equal­ly across. Peo­ple want to be treat­ed objec­tive­ly. If you oper­ate that way, you become a respect­ed leader and man­ag­er of oth­ers. And then there’s no sur­pris­es, which is what we all want. 

SCHMALZ: One way to both soft­en the emo­tion­al impact of neg­a­tive feed­back and make it more help­ful is to remem­ber that people’s weak­ness­es are often the flip side of their strengths. 

For exam­ple, the exec­u­tive who some­times makes deci­sions a lit­tle too rash­ly is prob­a­bly the same one who’s great at tak­ing action when nec­es­sary. The employ­ee who doesn’t speak up enough in meet­ings is often the same per­son who’s real­ly good at sup­port­ing the oth­er mem­bers of his team and let­ting them shine. 

So when oppor­tu­ni­ties for improve­ment are framed in the con­text of someone’s strengths, feed­back becomes a devel­op­men­tal tool, not a mark­er of defi­cien­cy. The mes­sage goes from, Fix your flaws,” to Keep play­ing to your strengths while you neu­tral­ize your weaknesses.” 

TAAFFE: For me, the best feed­back that I got was feed­back that I received over time as I was mov­ing up in the orga­ni­za­tion. It was com­mu­ni­cat­ed to me in a way that com­bined the strengths I had with the under­ly­ing flip-side of that. For exam­ple, I have the per­son­al­i­ty that is calm in the storm. I’m real­ly good in a trou­bled sit­u­a­tion. I can stay cool in it. I can lead oth­ers out of that, but my range of excitabil­i­ty or that kind of thing is lim­it­ed. I got feed­back that, You real­ly need to ele­vate your ener­gy and stand-up lead­er­ship skills,” which was real­ly fair feed­back. I’d get all the pos­i­tives of this: strate­gic, vision­ary, calm in the storm, wise, thought­ful. But, boy, did I need to learn how to ele­vate my style and my ener­gy if I was sud­den­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ing to a thou­sand peo­ple in the sales meeting. 

It was deliv­ered to me in this way that I felt like my boss was root­ing for me; real­ly helped me with how do I remain authen­tic to myself but rec­og­nize I’m in a sit­u­a­tion where I’ve real­ly got to step it up with the sales team. 

SCHMALZ: Anoth­er pow­er­ful tool for deliv­er­ing feed­back: video. 

Taaffe remem­bers par­tic­i­pat­ing in a pro­fes­sion­al-devel­op­ment nego­ti­a­tion exer­cise that was video­taped. See­ing her actions on film after­wards was eye-opening. 

TAAFFE: I was in a train­ing ses­sion where they put us in a sim­u­lat­ed sit­u­a­tion where I was along with a part­ner, nego­ti­at­ing a deal with a group of peo­ple. It was all on video. 

It was one of those crush­ing things to see your­self on video. It was a bit of, I’ll take my toys and go home,” which would not have been a good long-term rela­tion­ship builder with peo­ple you have to work with. 

SCHMALZ: For those on the oth­er side of this equa­tion — peo­ple gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in receiv­ing feed­back, whether it’s good or bad — it’s impor­tant to note that you don’t need to wait for a train­ing ses­sion. The next time a video con­fer­ence call is record­ed, watch it after­wards. Observe your­self in action. 

And if you’re look­ing for feed­back that’s a lit­tle more direct? Just ask for some. Then ask again. 

TAAFFE: It’s incum­bent upon you to make sure you’re ask­ing those ques­tions of your man­ag­er or your men­tor or your team­mates so that you’re get­ting that feed­back, and you’re also com­mu­ni­cat­ing that you real­ly want feed­back, you want to keep get­ting bet­ter, and you’re open to it. 

[music inter­lude]

LOVE: When it comes to mas­ter­ing the art and sci­ence of work­place feed­back, insights can come from unex­pect­ed places. Like … marriage. 

In his new book, The All-or-Noth­ing Mar­riage: How the Best Mar­riages Work, author Eli Finkel explores the mul­ti­ple demands of the mod­ern mar­riage. Finkel, a psy­chol­o­gist and a Kel­logg pro­fes­sor who stud­ies the dynam­ics of rela­tion­ships, draws impor­tant par­al­lels between all or noth­ing” mar­riages and our careers. 

Much of the advice Finkel has for improv­ing mar­i­tal con­ver­sa­tions applies equal­ly well to encour­ag­ing health­i­er and more pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions at work. 

So let’s start by under­stand­ing a fun­da­men­tal shift that has hap­pened to the insti­tu­tion of mar­riage over time. 

Eli FINKEL: So in 2017, we’ve arrived at a place where the best mar­riages today are bet­ter than the best mar­riages that we’ve seen in the past. Where­as at the same time, the aver­age mar­riage is actu­al­ly get­ting a bit worse. 

The major change that has led to this diver­gence is that our expec­ta­tions of mar­riage have changed. So we no longer look to our mar­riage to help us with basic sur­vival. I mean before indus­tri­al­iza­tion, the idea of mar­ry­ing for love and per­son­al ful­fill­ment would have seemed sil­ly. We pre­fer to love our spouse but that wasn’t the point of mar­riage, right? The point of the mar­riage was lit­er­al­ly food pro­duc­tion, cloth­ing, shelter. 

LOVE: But these days we do expect love and respect from our spouse. And many of us have also come to expect some­thing else — some­thing that can be real­ly chal­leng­ing for a spouse to deliv­er: per­son­al growth. 

FINKEL: You’ll hear things for the first time like, he’s a won­der­ful man, I love him and respect him, but I just feel like I’m stag­nant in the mar­riage and I’m not going to tol­er­ate that for the next 30 years. 

This is what’s led to the all-or-noth­ing sta­tus of mar­riage today. Specif­i­cal­ly, mar­riages that would have been ful­fill­ing in 1950 are not ful­fill­ing today. They fall short of our high­er-lev­el expec­ta­tions. While at the same time, those high­er-lev­el expec­ta­tions, when we ful­fill them, are pro­found­ly ful­fill­ing and in a way that would have been out of reach in an era when we weren’t even try­ing to ful­fill those things. 

LOVE: In ask­ing a lot of our spous­es, we some­times ask for things that are not mutu­al­ly compatible. 

FINKEL: So one of the things that we ask our spouse to do, for exam­ple, is to make us feel loved and safe. 

So we do like that type of nur­tur­ing. Not every­body likes it the same way, but to some degree all of us want to feel that our spouse has this uncon­di­tion­al affec­tion for who we are and is proud of us, while at the same time, we also look to our spouse as a source of moti­va­tion to improve our­selves, to make our­selves a bet­ter ver­sion of our­selves, to become more authen­tic, to approach our ide­al self rather than stay with our actu­al self, to become better. 

LOVE: The trick with giv­ing feed­back that both nur­tures us and push­es us to improve is that those two things can seem at odds with one anoth­er. Like say­ing: You’re great. Now change.” 

[music inter­lude]

You may be think­ing that this dynam­ic doesn’t sound that dif­fer­ent from the often-tricky bal­ance that col­leagues have to strike. After all, they too want to be sup­port­ive while bring­ing out the very best in each oth­er. And all this is hap­pen­ing at a time when many peo­ple don’t view them­selves as work­ing a job” so much as build­ing a career.” 

FINKEL: So it used to be, I mean go back a hun­dred years and think about peo­ple work­ing in a mine or on an assem­bly line or what­ev­er. It used to be that sort of a mediocre thing that paid the bills was OK. We were hap­py with that. It was fine. 

By and large we want­ed a job that paid the bills. And for more and more of us today a job like that isn’t suf­fi­cient. We’re quite demand­ing of our jobs and our careers. Not every­body, but cer­tain­ly many more of us than in the past, and I think that too has dri­ven us into an all-or-noth­ing job, an all-or-noth­ing career sort of sit­u­a­tion where a job that would have been total­ly ful­fill­ing in 1940 is falling short of our expec­ta­tions today that this is going to pro­vide an envi­ron­ment for per­son­al growth and a sense of vital­i­ty and mean­ing and purpose. 

At the same time, the unwill­ing­ness to set­tle for a job like that makes us push for the sort of job that actu­al­ly can achieve those lev­els of mean­ing and pur­pose and self-expres­sion. And so the lucky among us — not the major­i­ty, but the lucky among us — are able to build a career and find a job that is ful­fill­ing in a way that was out of reach in ear­li­er eras of employment. 

LOVE: It’s impor­tant not to take the par­al­lels too far. There are plen­ty of rea­sons why peo­ple may be feel­ing less ful­filled by their work than they used to feel, and plen­ty of dif­fer­ences between mar­riages and careers. 

But mar­riages and careers can both feel like places where the stakes are high, which means that deliv­er­ing feed­back can be incred­i­bly loaded. 

Finkel offers guid­ance about how to have pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions in high-stakes sit­u­a­tions. And some of this advice could prove help­ful the next time you have to give feed­back to a colleague. 

FINKEL: One thing that all of us have to remem­ber when we’re giv­ing feed­back is that peo­ple will receive the feed­back on mul­ti­ple lev­els. So we are prob­a­bly focus­ing on the con­tent that we’re con­vey­ing that says, You need to do bet­ter about X,” for exam­ple, but the per­son receiv­ing the feed­back often does hear that, but much more loud­ly hears things like, You don’t val­ue me,” or Who are you to judge me?” 

LOVE: So when you’re deliv­er­ing feed­back — whether it’s to your spouse about the dish­es pil­ing up in the sink or to your employ­ee about an over­due report — be aware that what you’re say­ing and what the oth­er per­son is hear­ing may not be the same thing. 

It also helps to have what Finkel describes as a growth mind­set” about the rela­tion­ship — so that you look at con­flict sit­u­a­tions as oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn about your­self and your col­league, rather than as a lit­mus test of your compatibility. 

FINKEL: I don’t want to give the mis­im­pres­sion that it’s easy. You just sort of snap your fin­gers and devel­op a new phi­los­o­phy of how rela­tion­ships work. But I would urge every­one to con­sid­er, what if you spent five min­utes a week think­ing of ways that yes, there is such a thing as com­pat­i­bil­i­ty. I’m not going to deny that. But are there ways I can make the rela­tion­ship a lit­tle stronger? Are there ways we can learn a lit­tle bit more about each oth­er? Are there ways that fight­ing allows us to have the sort of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that makes us under­stand each oth­er a lit­tle bit bet­ter? And the answer to all of those ques­tions is yes. And then the addi­tion­al ques­tion is can we tilt our­selves a lit­tle more in the growth direc­tion? And for most of us, the answer to that one also will be yes. 

LOVE: It’s also incum­bent on us not to get defen­sive when we’re on the receiv­ing end of feed­back, no mat­ter how unwar­rant­ed what we’re hear­ing may seem in that moment. It’s one thing to get neg­a­tive feed­back about our per­for­mance at work. It’s anoth­er thing to react in a way that shows we can’t han­dle the truth. 

FINKEL: And it may be that the feed­back isn’t total­ly accu­rate, isn’t total­ly fair. It’s one person’s per­cep­tion. Fair enough. But in the moment at least, behave like an adult and take the feed­back stand­ing up. You’re a big boy or a big girl. And get­ting defen­sive in the moment is almost uni­form­ly going to be counterproductive. 

LOVE: That doesn’t mean that you have to swal­low every unfair crit­i­cism that comes along, of course. It sim­ply means that respond­ing to neg­a­tive feed­back in a reac­tive, rather than a proac­tive, way is not in your best inter­est. This is one instance in which hold­ing your tongue may be a smart strategy. 

FINKEL: It may well be that you have com­pelling coun­ter­ar­gu­ments and that you real­ly feel like they’re impor­tant to share with your super­vi­sor on why you have a per­cep­tion that the feed­back wasn’t well placed. But the time to give that rebut­tal is not sit­ting there in the room when you’re first receiv­ing the feed­back. Process it. Think care­ful­ly about it. Try to see the valid­i­ty in the feed­back, because more often than not there will be some valid­i­ty, and if you have some­thing you want to say in response, take some time and word it in a polite, respect­ful way, but not right then. 

[music Inter­lude]

LOVE: This pro­gram was pro­duced by Jes­si­ca Love, Fred Schmalz, Emi­ly Stone, and Michael Spikes. It was writ­ten by Anne Ford. 

Spe­cial thanks to our guests Ellen Taaffe and Eli Finkel. 

You can stream or down­load our month­ly pod­cast from iTunes, Google Play, or our web­site, where you can read more about giv­ing and receiv­ing feed­back in the workplace. 

And speak­ing of feed­back — we’d love to hear yours. Please rate our show on the plat­form where you found us — that helps even more peo­ple find us. 

Vis­it us at insight​.kel​logg​.north​west​ern​.edu. We’ll be back next month with anoth­er episode of the Kel­logg Insight podcast. 

Featured Faculty

Ellen Taaffe

Clinical Assistant Professor of Leadership

Eli J Finkel

Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Management & Organizations

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