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One of the questions on the growth mindset quiz that we use to help our clients (and ourselves) assess our growth mindset is this:

“I appreciate when instructors and coaches give me feedback about my performance.”

You know how you’re supposed to answer that question, right?  Of course, you do.  You know that you’re supposed to say that you appreciate the feedback you get from instructors and coaches.  But think about the last time your boss, your teacher or a coach said to you, “well that’s a good start, but here are some things to work on.”  Maybe you weren’t overjoyed.  Maybe you felt some resentment. If you did, it’s a normal, human reaction.

Most of us, at least at one level, would rather hear, “that presentation is outstanding.”  Or, “what an incredible idea you came up with.”  Or, “that’s really exceptional work.”

It’s great to hear that kind of feedback. It makes us feel good.  But what if that presentation wasn’t really outstanding?  What if that idea wasn’t really incredible.  What if the work wasn’t really exceptional?  What if there was room for improvement?

Feedback is an essential part of learning and improvement.  We can’t get better at what we do without feedback. A growth mindset is about learning and growing and recognizing that feedback is essential.

But here’s one thing about feedback.  Not all feedback is created equal. So here are some things I have learned about feedback (both giving and receiving) that I can recommend.

  1. First, consider who is providing the feedback. We should always want feedback from people we respect and who are accomplished and knowledgeable about whatever the subject is. When I get feedback from an expert, it opens my eyes to things I was not in a position to see for myself.  I want to understand that feedback since my ultimate goal is to be so good at that thing that I could provide myself with the same feedback that the expert gives me. On the other hand, when I get feedback from someone whose knowledge and experience are limited, I appreciate the time they took and I consider their perspective (after all, even with my greater experience, I could have missed something). But it doesn’t go to the top of my list of priorities.

When giving feedback, consider your relationship to the person you are providing feedback to.  If you are their teacher, their coach or their boss, feedback is built into the role.  If the relationship is something else, though, think carefully about how your phrase the feedback, at least if you want it to be taken seriously.

  1. What the intention is. The sole purpose of feedback from an expert (instructor, coach, etc.) should be learning.  If the feedback is meant to undermine confidence, to make someone look bad in front of others, or to self-aggrandize, it’s not feedback.  It’s unfair, it’s venom or it’s narcissistic.  It can be hard to discern the intention of someone’s feedback when we’re young, but we can get better at it with experience. But even if you doubt the genuine intention of feedback, recognize that someone did take the time to provide it, and that the quality of being open to feedback is highly prized. When I’m this type of situation, I find that a comment like, “thanks for sharing your perspective; I’ll give that some thought,” strikes a good balance.

When providing feedback, examine your own intention. If you wouldn’t provide the feedback anonymously and in private to the person – that is completely without another agenda than helping them learn and improve – don’t do it.  Pure and simple, leave it alone.

  1. The clarity, specificity and utility of the feedback. I recently received some feedback on a document that said, “this is grammatically and structurally incorrect.”  Good feedback is actionable.  And actionable feedback has to be specific. I am generally considered to have a strong command of English grammar.  But even if I didn’t, and perhaps especially if I didn’t, telling me that something I created is grammatically incorrect is not clear, it’s not specific, and therefore, not actionable. Based on every principle and rule of grammar with which I am acquainted, the document looked fine to me. Please, oh, please, if you think there is a grammar error, point it out to me and be specific.  I will be very grateful.

Providing specific, useful and actionable feedback is not always easy, but it is a vital skill to develop. And I need to confess that this has not always been one of my strengths. Today, the feedback I get from students and colleagues is how specific and helpful my feedback is. So clearly this is a skill we can learn and bet better at. One of the comments I used to use in reviewing and grading a business case analysis for the MBA students was to write the work “Huh?” next to a sentence of a paragraph I didn’t understand.  I learned (through indirect feedback by the way) that that didn’t really help my students. And interestingly the reason was that it led them to question my intention.  The fact is, it was difficult to be clear and specific and actionable when really I had no idea what they were trying to say.  But I adapted my approach, and now will say something more like, “I’m not clear on what you are saying here; I can read it a number of different ways. And then often, I’ll list the different ways I could interpret it. If you’d like to discuss to clarify the ideas, I am available.”  It’s actually what I meant by “huh?” but it certainly didn’t play the same way.

Recently, my feedback was solicited and I think the situation illustrates the three points. My nephew, working on college applications, asked for feedback on an essay.  Actually, his mother was the one who brought it up, so I first did everything I could to assure that he was really open to the feedback and would benefit from it.  He passed that test – and in fact, this is a young man who despite (or perhaps because of!) his extremely high achievement academically has a strong growth mindset, some of which I attribute to his affinity for science.

I didn’t nitpick or try to edit his essay. What I did was

  • start with summarizing what I thought he was trying to get across, based on what I had read. That allowed him to “correct me” and recognize where some of his essay might not have been clear.
  • Point out that he used several metaphors in the essay. Independently, they were effective, but they didn’t fit together – overall there wasn’t coherence among them. I knew that he would get what I was talking about (always know your audience!) and that it would get him to think through his message.
  • I pointed out a couple of “gaps” that I could see – opportunities, really, to really “land” his message with specifics and examples.

So, how does this stack up against the three points?

First, the feedback was solicited, meaning that my nephew considered me (which I also know from my many wonderful interactions with him over the years) someone with some expertise that he didn’t have.

Second, the intention was absolutely to be supportive and helpful and to help him enhance his own self-critical skills.

Third, the feedback was specific and actionable.  My nephew asked some questions and I could clarify.  When he “got it” and said so, great.  I didn’t keep on trying to drive home a point already made.

I’m sure I didn’t get it all right (some of the science was beyond me), but I do think the feedback, given with expertise and the right intent, and at the right level of specificity, resulted in learning. My learning as well as my nephew’s. That’s the thing.  When we approach feedback from the perspective or learning and with a growth mindset, the paradigm is that both the learner and the provider of feedback can learn to do their jobs better.

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