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Posted May 04, 2011

Spinach in your Teeth Messages: The Art of Giving (and Receiving) Honest Feedback

Most of us hear the word "feedback" and immediately translate it to "criticism." Few of us have an easy time either giving it or receiving it. We know in our heads that we need feedback; our hearts don't want to hear it.

Let's reframe our discussion. Who are the people who tell us, if we're a male, that our zipper's unzipped? If we're a female, that we've got lipstick on our teeth? They are the people who care about us.

I tromped awkwardly through Atlanta in pursuit of an elegantly dressed man, trying to step on the three feet of toilet paper that clung to the back of his shoe. But did I catch him and tell him? No, I'm embarrassed to say. (Nor did I snag the toilet paper!) Would I have told my mother? You betcha. What is the difference? The amount of caring and personal investment. Feedback is a caring gesture.

When giving feedback it is important to establish a nurturing relationship before, during and after you deliver feedback. Otherwise, the recipient feels threatened instead of helped. Key words for these conversations include, "I want to see you succeed, and I see an opportunity for you to strengthen your skills," or, "I want to set you up for success," and "I care about you." Think of the word "coaching" and the subtle difference in investment that it has from the word "feedback."

We have all had experience coaching, especially if we have been involved with sports, children, or trying to help anyone learn a new skill. There is a difference between coaching and evaluating. We coach people to help them achieve their best; they then get good evaluations. It's the difference between tutoring and giving a report card. You are, for many of your employees, the only professional coach they have. Between evaluations, either in monthly meetings or during rounds, coaching is part of your responsibility.

One hard and fast rule as you deliver feedback: avoid the word, "but." We all know the sinking feeling we get when we hear, "That was a great job, but&" As soon as we hear the word "but," we negate the positive beginning of the message. Instead, make your message collaborative: "I want to set you up for success. A development opportunity I see for you is&. How can I help this happen?"

The exception to this is when you are coaching a low performer-someone who has exhibited a pattern of not meeting expectations. Then the message must hinge on 1. the reason the behavior detracts from the mission, and 2. the consequences of repeating it.

How much of the time do you think a NASA spacecraft is ON course? (Keep in mind millions of dollars and engineer geniuses.) Do you think 90%? 75? 50? No, it's usually on course 4% of the time. And what do you think the shuttle pilots are doing the other 96% of the time? They are calling NASA for course correction data. Do you think they are embarrassed, apologize and consider it a personal failure? Do you think they go over and over it with their spouses and friends? That's what feedback is: course correction data. When receiving feedback, you have to evaluate the source and the motive (a caring authority or expert?) but the essential guideline is, "take what you need and leave the rest."

To help minimize surprising or destructive feedback, be proactive. Find out what the standards are. At the end of every monthly meeting, I ask my supervisor, "What can I do to exceed your expectations?" Sometimes his answers cause me to reprioritize. They always help me confirm or correct course. Ask what the expectations are for success. If necessary, confirm them in writing.

The reason this insight is called "spinach in your teeth" is that we always appreciate getting "course correction," even if we initially feel embarrassed or defensive. We would want someone to tell us if we had spinach in our teeth.

The appropriate response to feedback? Thank you. Thank you for caring.

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