Good communication is the lubricant for any successful project. More than most, project professionals understand this, simply because they are the main point of contact – not just among team members, direct reports, specialists and experts, but also for stakeholders and those invested in the project.
Project professionals must simultaneously be able to convey the big picture while ensuring the devil is in the detail, all of which relies on well-honed communication skills. Giving feedback is one crucial area where these skills come into play – but if you think you’ve got it sussed, think again.
The initial point made in Let's Talk: Make Effective Feedback Your Superpower, by Therese Huston, may seem trite: feedback is a two-way conversation. In most cases, however, what we believe to be effective feedback boils down to ‘I tell, you listen’. This is simple yet ineffective, says Huston, a social scientist who studies feedback.
Let’s Talk is the culmination of interviews with 60 employees, from entry-level workers to CEOs, about feedback moments they have relished and those they haven’t. Through her research, Huston came across some common themes.
Among respondents, the majority (53 per cent) felt their feedback experience would have been improved if their hard work had been acknowledged, while a roughly a third (29 per cent) wished the feedback-giver had listened to them.
We all want our efforts to be recognised by our managers and we all want the opportunity to provide our side of the story. Furthermore, perceptions of feedback really do matter. Employees who believe their managers give good feedback do more creative work and feel more loyalty and less desire to leave an employer.
Distinguishing differences in feedback
Let’s Talk explains that the essence of good feedback – two-way communication – relies on distinguishing between three categories: appreciation, coaching and evaluation.
Appreciation communicates the value you give to the work and the person doing it and is important with new staff or when existing employees, even with decades of experience, take on a new task. Coaching helps people learn, adapt and improve, while evaluation is about letting someone know where they stand relative to expectations.
A good tip is to ask what type of feedback someone is seeking. Someone may not want to be told how great they are if they are really looking for tangible ways to improve.
For those of us who have been working for two or more decades, it can seem like millennials (born 1980–1990) seek a lot more feedback than we have been contented with. That’s fine, because studies bear out that millennials appreciate more frequent feedback. Generation Z (born 1996 onwards), meanwhile, are looking for coaching and mentoring.
The importance of validation
Our most underrated tool is the ability to listen. A valuable way of showing you are listening is by validating someone, writes Huston. That doesn’t mean agreeing with, or repeating, what they say, but beginning responses with ‘I can see why…’ or ‘I can understand why …’.
Research has been carried out into how validation affects people’s reactions to stressful situations. In a classic experimental set-up, participants were asked to complete complex maths problems in their heads within a time limit – a situation designed to stress them, as evidenced by increased heart rates and perspiration.
Participants were asked researchers how they were feeling, and the response in most cases was ‘frustrated’. Some were assigned researchers who responded with phrases like: ‘Your feelings make sense. You are not alone.’ Others were assigned researchers who invalidated their reaction with responses like: ‘You’re overreacting.’
Those who were on the receiving end of invalidating responses registered faster heart rates and perspired more than those who received validating responses, who in some cases recorded slower heart rates, showing that validating responses can neutralise stressful experiences.
The value of praise
Praise motivates. Let’s Talk advises using ‘we strengths’, which elevate the team, and ‘me strengths’, which elevate the individual. According to Huston, more is more when it comes to praise. If people are labouring through a task, don’t leave praise until it is completed, since recognition often precedes excellent work.
So, what to do about employees, reports or team members whose behaviour is repeatedly problematic, without risking labelling the person and not the behaviour?
“Strong statements are fine but strong character judgements are not,” writes Huston.
It is about encouraging a growth mindset, which requires the feedback recipient being able to see how they can change. For example, no one is intrinsically bad at giving presentations, but in certain cases they need to be able to acquire the skills required to give good presentations. The benefits of encouraging a growth mindset are greatest among the lowest performers, writes Huston.
Overall, for anyone who wants to get the best out of their team and understand how to motivate people, Let's Talk is critical reading.
Let's Talk: Make Effective Feedback Your Superpower by Therese Huston is published by Penguin.