October 9, 2012
People get feedback all the time. The kids on your Little League team get it. So do your direct reports, we hope. This means that they probably practice “taking” feedback quite a bit — they learn to get better at nodding with eye contact, making their tone free of defensiveness, and taking notes, even. Recipients may signal that they take feedback seriously, that they value it, but this does not necessarily mean that they use feedback. Nor does it make them better at employing feedback over time. In fact, the opposite may happen. People may practice ways of taking feedback that help them avoid doing anything about it.
The three of us have done this ourselves. We might make a show of busily writing down feedback a colleague gives us. The response shows that we appreciate it. There is earnest nodding, but in fact we may already know we will ignore the advice once we leave the room. Or we may intend to use it but end up losing sight of it amidst the wreckage of our tasks list. Or perhaps we try it briefly and tell ourselves we have made enough progress, or that the feedback wouldn’t really work.
These responses are common: people rarely practice using feedback. Really it’s just as likely that people get better over time at ignoring or deflecting it since that’s what they often practice doing: “Well, I can’t really do that.” “Oh, thanks, but I’ve tried that.” “Thanks, that’s really helpful.” (No action follows.)
Using feedback well is something that responds to practice. People get better at it by doing it. They learn how to adapt someone else’s advice so it fits their own style, for example; or how to focus on two or three key ideas at a time, or to take the risk of trying something that at first will be quite hard.
Getting good at using feedback — being coachable — is a skill with far-reaching implications. When people use feedback and improve, and see themselves improve at things, they come to believe in practice and in using feedback. And they’re more likely to remain on an upward developmental curve for another reason. As Joshua Foer describes in his study of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein, people often arrive at an “OK Plateau,” a point at which they stop improving at something despite the fact that they continue to do it regularly. “The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing,” he notes, “to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.” The process of intentionally implementing feedback is likely to keep people in a practice state of increased consciousness and thus steeper improvement.
Research continually finds that teachers don’t like their professional development very much and don’t think that it helps. The causation runs both ways: training doesn’t help because people don’t trust it, and people don’t trust it because it doesn’t help them very much. If you train people successfully and they feel themselves getting better, however, it’s much more likely they will trust and commit to it.
One of the keys to getting people to use feedback is building a culture of tacit accountability — one where participants are expected and incentivized to use the feedback they’re given. If you’ve just given a member of your staff feedback, don’t ask her what she thought of it and whether it was helpful; ask her how it worked when she tried it, or how many times she tried it, or to publicly commit to a time and place when she’ll try it. We took on this challenge in our own workshops recently. Typically, participants might do a role play where they are asked to “teach” a simulated lesson to a group of their peers sitting around a table and playing the role of “students.” The teachers would attempt to use a technique on which we had trained them, in just a two- or three-minute lesson. At the end of their two or three minutes they would get feedback from their peers on how they did.
As we did these activities, we realized we needed to do multiple rounds of practice, to let people practice, struggle, get feedback, and then try again. But even after we did that, people often seemed unaware of how useful feedback from group members could be. They would struggle. Their peers would offer insight — often small, actionable things they could do to make their implementation miles better. And the “teachers” would smile and nod, and that’s it. Just as often the valuable insight would drift off into the ether.
Over time we realized we needed to appoint participants to a second role, a “coach,” whose job was to watch for one “positive,” something the teacher had done well that she should try to do more of — and one “delta,” something that could have been better or something different the teacher could have tried. We stopped the activity two minutes into the role play, and the teacher received her feedback; she could ask clarifying questions only briefly to make sure she understood, and then she would start over going back to the beginning and attempting to use the feedback right away.
One benefit of this structure was its implicit accountability: it was hard for teachers to ignore the feedback. For one thing, it was public. Six or seven people had heard them get it; they were explicitly asked to try it just a minute later. It would be egregious not to try it at all. Another benefit was that after the feedback, the role play went back to the beginning — it was a replay of the same situation, not a continuation of the role play in which the requisite situation may not have occurred. This made the opportunity to use the feedback a reliable event. A third benefit was that the coach got to see right away if his or her feedback was effective — and this was important too since we were training instructional leaders whose job was to give effective feedback.
We found that people were stunned by how well tiny adjustments worked and how significant the effect could be. The coach would tell them to flash a smile when they asked the question; to put their arms behind their back. Whether they at first agreed with the feedback or not, they tried it, and often, against their initial instincts, the feedback proved effective. The results were immediately apparent. By being nudged to use the feedback, they came to believe in it and that small changes could indeed make a very big difference.
We added this wrinkle to almost every role play we do. It became a purpose in itself: to socialize people to use feedback, to practice using feedback and let people see themselves succeeding at change. Practicing using feedback before they’ve had a chance to rationalize it away can produce a demonstrably different result — and make people believe in their own power to shape their world.
Since reengineering our training sessions so that teachers would practice using feedback, we’ve found ourselves applying the insight we’ve gained in other settings. One in particular is applicable to almost any organization: preparing a manager for an especially critical or difficult conversation. This is one of the most potentially effective — but generally untapped — applications of practice in the business world. It is a classic example of a case where organizations don’t think that practice applies to them, as Chip and Dan Heath observe in their outstanding book Switch: “Business people think . . . [y]ou plan and then you execute. There’s no ‘learning stage’ or ‘practice stage’ in the middle. From the business perspective, practice looks like poor execution.”
Consider a manager, David, who has to have a critical conversation with an employee, Susan, who is talented and smart but sloppy on details and who tends to hear feedback as advice (Here’s something you might consider trying) rather than guidance (As your manager I am asking [or telling] you to do it this way). Not only has this led to mistakes and poor performance, but it has increased the level of tension between Susan and David. He’s frustrated with her and inclined not to renew her contract. He’s planned a meeting to communicate the extent of his concerns to her and to explain — again, in his mind, but for the last time — exactly what the problem is. To prepare, David schedules a meeting with his boss, Laura, in which they’ll practice the meeting and role-play. During these role plays, feedback is a constant. Let’s say David begins by summarizing the points he wants to make. “Great,” Laura might say, “I like points two and three especially, but point one is a bit indirect. Why don’t you roll through your intro points and imagine I’m Susan. Try to lay it on the line from the outset. We owe her that.” Let’s assume here that David does a quick rehearsal and that he sounds too blunt.
Susan might stop him. “What if you tried something like: ‘I have to tell you that I need for you to make decisive progress at changing some things or this will be our last meeting before we start talking about a transition out of the organization. I’m sorry to tell you that, because I believe so much in what you could bring to the team, but we are at that point.” David would not say, “Thanks, good suggestion,” and keep going with the review of his plan for the meeting. He would go back to the top and try again using Laura’s suggestions. He would force himself to practice using the feedback.
As David rolls through his intro a second time, he doesn’t like what he hears. He sounds too sticky sweet, not like himself, and therefore not really honest. He stops himself, pauses, and looks at Laura. He says, “Let me try that again. I just have to say it like me.” And back to the top he goes. Interestingly, David has here internalized the process of using feedback. The interruption and the feedback are his own — a self-correction. He has learned, through practice, to make a habit out of stopping and applying feedback right away.
The value here is not just for David but for Laura as well. Managers and coaches often “fly blind”; that is, they give the best advice they have, but they really have no idea whether it has helped. One of the key benefits of quick, public use of feedback is that it lets managers and coaches reliably see their own feedback at work. Coaches then learn which feedback — and method of delivering feedback — works best.
One last benefit of causing people to practice using feedback: it is a team-building exercise. After all, David’s meeting with Susan became a shared project for him and Laura. As his boss, she became deeply vested in its success and became a stakeholder in the ideas he used to shape it. This, over time, has a positive cultural effect on an organization. Giving feedback to one another and getting better together makes improvement a team sport, builds trust, and unlocks the knowledge often buried in an organization’s people.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, Katie Yezzi. Copyright © 2012 by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi.