On giving effective feedback

We’re in the midst of performance review season at work and giving actionable, insightful feedback has been on my mind lately. Two observations:

Make sure everyone is in agreement on the metrics that matter.

My coworker in the office across from mine keeps a well-stocked candy bowl on her desk, which ensures a fairly reliable uptick in visitors around mid-afternoon. The other day I overheard this exchange:

Hungry 1: “Gee, how many chocolates did you take there?”

Hungry 2, glancing down at his full fist: “I’d say about 5 minutes worth.”

While it’s obvious our diets shouldn’t be based on how quickly we can pack food away, the same goal (manage my sweet tooth) can mean very different things to different people (number of chocolates eaten vs. how long it takes to eat said chocolates). Giving actionable feedback requires clarity and alignment on the metrics that determine success.

If you’re an education company and one of your goals is to improve the quality of your online courses, should you measure student satisfaction scores, referral rates, or the number of people who enroll in another class?

If you want to become a better cook, does success mean you’re able to create healthy, everyday meals for yourself, or that you’re able to throw dinner parties for friends?

The metric you focus on not only determines how you work towards your goal, but the type of feedback that will help get you there.

Often, the most insightful feedback identifies a pattern of behavior.

I’ve been taking swing classes for a few months now and am at the (not at all advanced) stage where small mistakes in the fundamental shapes add up quickly.

The last couple of classes have been particularly hard for me; as soon as I made one adjustment something else would be off. I struggled to keep up until one partner leaned in after a song and said, “You’re anticipating a lot. You have to trust me to lead.”

Lightbulb.

Many of my seemingly discrete mistakes—not leaning forward enough, failing to square my hips, moving too quickly out of a turn—were symptoms of a larger problem.

That one insightful observation helped me connect the dots in a way that lots of tactical feedback never could. More importantly, it gave me a lens through which to evaluate future mistakes.

It’s worth noting that the person who picked up on this tendency was a drop-in to class that day, and not a regular. Fresh perspectives are often helpful in spotting a problem’s root cause that those closer to the issue might miss.

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