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Making Sense of Feedback

In many of our learning and development activities in organisations today we can be inundated with large amounts of "developmental data" - often this does not help us to improve our self awareness or develop better skills and stronger capabilities.

Much of this data is in the form of ‘feedback’ from work colleagues (peers, subordinates, bosses etc) and is intended to indicate to us how we are experienced, received or required to act. Quite frequently we find ourselves unable or unwilling to learn and respond effectively to such feedback. Feeling ill-equipped to make adjustments we may experience feedback as challenging, difficult, or threatening and consequently, deliberately or surreptitiously, we reject and ignore it.

As a consultant and coach I spend much time giving and receiving feedback and helping others to do the same in service of their own or their organisation’s development. In doing this I have found that there are three typical challenges people face when dealing with feedback:

  1. the absence of (high-quality) incisive, frank, useful and actionable feedback
  2. an inability to connect with or effectively to direct and channel feedback (both ways) in a timely and appropriate way
  3. an inability to ‘hear’ or ‘receive’ certain types of feedback

Much attention has been given to the skills and mechanics of helping people get better at giving and receiving feedback. Unfortunately for many managers and leaders often the greatest difficulty they have is making sense of feedback, rather than merely giving and receiving it. What should they do when the messages appear not to be relevant to the context? What if the messages create paradoxes, dilemmas, or contradictions? What do they do if they disagree or even agree but are then puzzled about what do about it all?

Peter’s Experience

Take Peter’s experience for example. As part of a 360 feedback exercise Peter receives an 80 page report crammed with tables, graphs and diagrams full of data. The data comes from people within and outside the business whom have shared their perspectives about what he does and how well he does it. On the face of it the report is a high quality piece of feedback on some key topics that Peter himself feels are important – the feedback should be an incredibly valuable resource.

However, having spent a couple of hours going through the report, Peter is overwhelmed by the variety and complexity of the different perspectives. There isn’t a single statement or comment in the report that Peter would disagree with, but none of it really gives the whole picture. It doesn’t really connect with how he feels about the people involved in the feedback, the opportunities for improvement he is already aware of, and the constraints and contradictions that he is already battling with.

Furthermore there is very little in the report that connects with his values, or the challenges he is having in his personal life away from work. Peter is pleased that he has received such voluminous feedback, but is struggling to make sense of it. Faced with this contradiction and dilemma, he comes to his next coaching session wondering what on earth he should do.

Of the many challenges, Peter finds it particularly difficult to:

  1. relate to and interpret aspects of the feedback
  2. resolve contradictions embedded in the feedback
  3. have confidence (trust) the motivations underlying the feedback
  4. accept particular feedback sources as having a full grasp of his reality.

Many of us will empathise with Peter’s situation. More often than not feedback exercises of this nature take place as part of specific developmental programs for managers and leaders aimed at achieving particular organisational objectives. Personal developmental and quirky individual perspectives, however meaningful to the individual are often not part of the actual design of such programs.

As coaches our role is to work with clients to help them make sense of the feedback inspite of the built in biases they or their feedback givers inevitably have. Typically this involves the following considerations:

  1. starting with where the client is rather than where the data wants to take them
  2. noticing specifically what the feedback is saying - are if there are any patterns that are significant and meaningful to them
  3. noticing what resonates and sits comfortably and what feels problematic or difficult and why
  4. inviting the client to consider what matters most to them as well as what feels less important
  5. exploring what aspects out of the client’s sphere of awareness, but are important nevertheless given what else the client wants or needs to be effective
  6. identifying the qualities or behaviour the client needs to have more of in order to connect and work better with the situation(s) faced
  7. having put all of that together, establishing what should be done first to start to make the shift that the client wants to achieve
  8. Taking steps through reconnecting with the Feedback givers, to acknowledge what they are doing next in response to feedback received and to be explicit about the next steps

By approaching feedback in this way and focusing on making sense of feedback rather than simply the giving and receiving it, it allows us as clients to own and shape the developmental activities we commit ourselves to. As coaches it provides the opportunity to bring feedback to life and connect it with the realities of why they face in their day to day working and personal lives