Joe Hirsch reveals why we all struggle with feedback and shares how we can get better at giving and receiving it.
- The small shift that improves our relationship with feedback
- Why to ditch the feedback sandwich and embrace the W.R.A.P.
- What to do when you’re not getting the feedback you need
Dr. Joe Hirsch helps leaders apply behavioral science to improve the way they listen, lead and learn. He’s a TEDx and international keynote speaker and the author of The Feedback Fix, which has been praised by Fortune 500 executives, NFL coaches and educational reformers for its forward-looking view of human performance. Joe’s work and research has been featured in Harvard Business Review, CNBC, Forbes, Inc., The Wall Street Journal and other major outlets. He’s helped more than 10,000 people across three continents communicate with impact and hosts the popular podcast, I Wish They Knew.
- Book: The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future, and Lead the Way to Change
- Website: JoeHirsch.me
- LinkedIn: Joe Hirsch
- YouTube: Joe Hirsch
- Twitter: @joeahirsch
- Podcast: I Wish They Knew
- Study: “Crossing the line: What constitutes torture?” by Loran F. Nordgren, Mary-Hunter Morris McDonnell, and George Loewenstein (Full text)
- Book: Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations by Rich Karlgaard and Michael Malone
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Joe, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Hey, Pete. Good to be with you.
I’m excited to dig into your wisdom about feedback. But, first, I want to hear about you and pushups. What’s the story here?
You remind me, I have to go do some. Yes, so I enjoy pushups. I’ve been doing them for like 20 years straight, never missed a day, and I have found that to be a low-impact, high-value exercise. I used to use weights and I found that the weights were cumbersome. I couldn’t travel with them, they took up space in my basement, my kids were competing with me for them, and it never seemed to work.
So, I shifted a while ago, even before like this new phase of my life, and I shifted to pushups and I never looked back. And I feel like it’s a great metaphor for feedback, in general, because the things that we do, the small steps and small shifts that we make, sustained over time, they have such a huge impact. So, all about the pushups, it’s good for you, folks. Go out there and do five while you’re listening to this podcast.
Okay. So, how has it evolved in terms of where did it start and where is it now and what’s the pushup vibe, groove, goal?
So, after about 20 years, I’m up to three pushups.
I’m getting better every day and, yeah, I think it’s a great way to challenge yourself. So, you set a goal for today, you say, “I’m going to 50 pushups today.” Maybe you can do them straight, maybe not, you break them up into short bursts but you start to realize that those small wins begin to happen and you start to incrementally build upon that progress. And I find that very rewarding.
Sometimes you finish a workout, you’re like, “Oh, what did I just do for the last 45 minutes?” or, “Man, I’m sore but I don’t feel like I did anything.” With pushups you really feel like you’re making gains and you can really track that progress. So, I like the workout.
All right, cool. Well, we’re going to talk about feedback and your book The Feedback Fix. I’d love it if you could just kick us off with kind of a Joe greatest hit. Is there a particularly surprising or fascinating or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about us humans and feedback over the course of your career?
I think that if people start to think about feedback not in terms of fear but joy, they’ll be surprised by the resonance of their message and the impact of their words. I don’t care if you’re a manager, or you’re an individual contributor, or a parent, or a teacher, or a spouse, feedback is hard and it makes the conversations high stakes, and that’s exactly when we need to be high touch.
And by shifting our message and our mindset, and in the process of looking out towards the future that people can still change, rather than looking back at a past they can’t, we can absolutely make a difference in the tone and the trajectory of these super important conversations.
Okay. You said joy. Intriguing. I guess we’re going to go into a lot of detail about some feedback things. But any quick perspective on how do we get more joy on the receiving end of feedback? Is there a mindset that is optimal for us?
It’s to look at feedback not so much as a gift, which you hear a lot from people and it’s not wrong. It’s not bad advice but I tend to think of it more in terms of a deposit. Because a gift, you can return. The gift doesn’t have to be something you like. It’s more about what the other person thinks you might need. But when it’s a deposit, that’s when we can start to separate that truth signal from the noise and we can start to build interests on that deposit and take it somewhere if we make the right moves and have the right mindset.
That’s cool. So, it’s a deposit, sort of like, “Okay, I can do something with this. I can invest it. I can get rid of the illicit drug money component of the deposit.” Really stretching this metaphor, Joe.
Yeah, it’s not a drug drop. It’s a deposit. And, ultimately, that’s the thing about feedback. We don’t choose the feedback we get but we absolutely choose where it goes. And I think that’s why deposits make so much sense to people because when they think about feedback as a fear-inducing experience, and I’ve literally asked this question, Pete, to thousands of people across the world, leaders at every level, across industries, “How do you feel when you get feedback?” These are the leaders, “How does it feel?”
And then I asked them a simple follow-up, “How did it feel the moment just before you got that feedback, when you knew it was coming?” And the answers are almost universally, “Well, I felt cautious. I felt uncertain. I felt uncomfortable. I felt in pain,” and that’s because, for a lot of people, we approach these conversations with a focus on deficits and not strengths, with a focus on the unchangeable past and not the unfolding future. And we, ultimately, look at feedback as a sledgehammer to hit people over the head with rather than a shoehorn to sort of open up possibilities and potential.
And when we start to make that small shift, whether that’s on the receiving end or as feedback-givers on the delivery side, that’s the moment when we can start to make a world of difference in the tone, in the trajectory, and, ultimately, in the impact.
Oh, Joe, you’re of master distinction. I love this already. A sledgehammer, no, no. A shoehorn, and the past versus the future. Like, these are the sorts of things that make people go, “Oh, okay.” Tweak, tweak, tweak, tweak. And when you add them up, it’s very actionable and doable and potent, so I dig it. So, tell us then, in your dreamworld, what’s really possible with feedback? Like, what should feedback accomplish and do for us as professionals in the world?
So, in The Feedback Fix I explore feedback through the lens of something called feed forward, a term that was first introduced by Marshall Goldsmith. He gave it sort of common currency. It goes even further back before Marshall to some researchers back in the 1960s. But feed forward, a concept that was originally intended to help people elicit quick feedback in almost like a speed-dating format, that’s how Marshall uses it.
And I began to wonder, like, “Could this possibly have a strong research undercurrent to it? Is there something more to this than just a neat way to grab some quick insights on my current performance with total strangers?” And as I begin to unpack the research in preparation for writing The Feedback Fix, it became clear that, in fact, there was.
And when you start to peel this back a little bit, you begin to notice some trends, that when we start to make these small shifts in the way we look at ourselves as leaders and how we operate, that the moment we start to approach with more inquiry and more curiosity and act more like learn-it-alls than know-it-alls, that’s the moment when we give permission for others to do the same.
And we start to shift these dynamics from power to partnership. And, ultimately, that’s what feed forward is. It’s a strength-centered forward-looking view at who people are becoming, not just who they are. And it’s the moment when leaders start to operationalize this mindset of, “I’m going to be more of a listener and a learner, not a teller and a seller.”
That’s when they start to unlock these great insights that they don’t always have, and give permission to the person on the other side of that conversation to continue to be a partner in that process. In a perfect world, we would do a lot more listening and learning and a lot less telling and selling.
Okay. So, that really unlocks what we can become, and that’s beautiful. So, let’s get into it then. You say right now, in contrast, traditional feedback is, you say, broken. Could you give us the rundown on what’s not working when it comes to feedback in this day and age, 2022? I’m thinking United States-centric, although we have listeners around the world. Hello, guys and gals. What’s not working right now in professional settings feedback?
So, you really have three problems with traditional feedback, which happens infrequently which focuses on a past that people can’t change, and, ultimately, it’s preoccupied with weaknesses rather than strengths. So, the first is bias. There’s some really interesting research out there that shows that when I give you feedback, let’s say you’re my employee, Pete, and I’m talking to you about something that just happened at work. The feedback that I give you is filtered through the important priorities and principles that I have and not focused on the things that matter to you.
So, when I give you feedback about your performance, I’m actually speaking more towards my priorities and principles. It says more about me than it does about you. It’s called the idiosyncratic rater effect. And there’s other cognitive mind traps that slip into this process, focusing on people’s past and holding them to it. Recency effect, the most recent thing that happens takes centerstage.
Or, sort of the opposite of that, spillover, where we chain people to their past performance. We don’t ever let them get out of their past mistakes or missteps. Or pillow or horns, looking at people as either all good or all bad, and filtering that way. So, you have big problems with bias, and that’s even before you get into other biases about people’s backgrounds and who they are and their life experiences they bring, and it’s a messy, messy picture.
The other problem is blindness. And, especially today, we’re talking now in March of 2022, today, work is more complex and less visible than ever before. And that’s one of the great upheavals of the pandemic is people started to leave their offices and go work from home. Work became less visible but it also became more interconnected.
And as work became harder to track, because more people, more hands touching projects, and at the same time became less visible because it’s happening away from the view of managers a lot of the time, so it’s very difficult for managers to have all the insights and all the answers that they might have once had.
It’s like if you go to your favorite pizza joint and you order a pineapple pepper pizza, don’t knock that until you take a try, by the way. It’s quite awesome. So, like, who’s responsible for that awesome pizza? Is it the chef who came up with the recipe? Is it the guy in the back cutting all the vegetables to perfection? Is it the farmer who sourced the vegetables or the pineapples? Is it the delivery man who brought it all together? So, who’s responsible for success?
And that’s the question that managers are really focusing on today, “Who’s responsible for success? I can’t see it, therefore, I can’t track it. And, as a result, I don’t know it.” So, blindness is a big problem for people. And then you have memory. Even if we had all the pieces in front of us, we can’t necessarily remember it. And memory researchers talk about this thing called the forgetting curve, and it sounds exactly as it described. There’s a sudden and steep loss of information just as soon as you begin to learn it. And researchers point that loss somewhere between 30% and 50%.
Like, minutes after you tell me something.
It’s wild. It’s crazy. So, like, if you learn something on a Monday and then you try to implement it on a Tuesday, you’re already wondering, “Well, what was the password?” or, “What was the website I was supposed to go to?” or, “What was the new policy that my managers just told me about?” and we don’t remember it.
And that memory loss steadies and slows but becomes steeper over the course of a week so that by the time a week goes by, we have forgotten almost 90% of information, which is astounding. So, if you think about the fact that most companies are on a performance management cycle that is either annual, which is – oh, God – like why, or quarterly, which is still not great, the problem is one of memory.
The manager and the employee acting like forensic psychologists or archeologists trying to recreate a past that neither one can truly remember, so you’ve got bias, you’ve got blindness, you’ve got memory, and all these factors combine to produce a picture that isn’t pretty, so it’s no wonder that when you ask the question, “Can I give you some feedback?” We have a physiological response to that question. Our hands become clammy, our knees buckle, we feel like less of ourselves, and that’s why traditional feedback is failing and that’s why feed forward is succeeding.
Okay. So, that makes sense right then and there. Like, even before we talk about how you say it, like just the content in and of itself is going to be inaccurate and incomplete. So, it’s almost like roll the dice. It’s like, “Let’s just see what’s going to happen,” and that naturally makes us pretty uncomfortable, like a huge dose of uncertainty and it’s personal, “Joe, I’m going to tell you something about you. It’s going to have some implications about your future and your prospects. I don’t know what it is and it may or may not, but likely will not be accurate.”
Right. And that’s why we have such an instinctual resistance to this. We look at feedback, as you said, as a judgment and it’s not just about our work, it’s about ourselves. We also don’t take it very seriously because we don’t think it’s accurate. And that’s why if managers were to approach the conversation with greater humility and greater curiosity to act, as I call them, as mirror holders instead of window gazers, as people whose job it is to simply enlarge and expand the view of another person rather than to tell and sell the other person on what they think has happened, then we’re going to have a different conversation.
So, it really starts with this mindset, as you said, even before you get to the message. The way we think about this has to really change.
Okay. So, then how does one be more of a mirror holder?
So, it does start with that shift in thinking about, “What is my role here? If the manager says my job is to solve a problem, my job is to force a change,” then you’re going to be frustrated because, as we said, you don’t have all the answers, and even the data you have may not be good. So, instead of trying to tell and sell, ask the other person for their perspective, and this is where approaching with that learn-it-all mindset, a sense of curiosity and wonder can be super helpful. So, that’s the first step is to start to approach more as a partner and less as a power broker.
Once you do that, though, the message really has to shift from, “I’m trying to fix you” to “I’m trying to frame the problem or frame the issue.” And when we start to act as framers and not fixers, that’s a resonant message for people because rather than tell them what to do, we’re trying to unlock an insight that they already have and hold. And in The Feedback Fix and the work I do with organizations, it becomes very clear that you don’t need to overhaul your whole system. With small shifts and how we shape these conversations, we can actually have a dramatic impact.
And it really starts with operating with a simple belief that, “My job is not to force a change but rather to provoke an insight, and use the person on the other side of this conversation. You have answers that I may not have. You have insights that I may not possess. And if I can do a little more to engage you as a partner, to have more of a dialogue rather than a judgment, and to focus on the things that are really important to you and the moments when you were successful and to build on that, then we can start to have a conversation which is focused more on truth, it’s focused on clear goals, we talk to people as humans, we don’t focus on them as numbers, and, ultimately, we make them feel like more of themselves and not less.”
Well, Joe, this is beautiful. I think I’ve got a nice picture for the mindset, the vibe, the feel, the attitude to how we’re kind of centered and pointing at this thing. So, now, I’m curious, in practice, let’s say I love it, I want to feed forward, what are my action steps? What do I go do?
So, one tool that I love sharing with clients is something called a feed forward wrap.
Okay, like a hip. Are we literally talking about rhyming lyrics?
No, this is not Tupac. This is all different. Did I just go to Tupac? Well, I really just dated myself.
It’s okay. If you watched the halftime show this year, everyone kind of traveled back in time a little bit at the Super Bowl. So, this is a wrap, as in like the sandwich, or more appropriately the opposite of that praise sandwich, which, oh, God, we have given so many times and probably we’d just like to do without a little bit more.
So, the big problem with the praise sandwich is that it tends to be very meandering, it doesn’t really address the issue, it kind of dodges and disguises information, and we hope that people can kind of decipher our intentions somehow by sandwiching what we want to say in between two pieces of praise to kind of trick them and distract them from what we’re actually trying to get across.
And, look, I have no problem with praise. The issue is the sandwich. Research shows that when you sandwich feedback like this, it ends up going nowhere because people can’t follow your message. They tend to think of the person giving it to them as less reliable or trustworthy because we begin to wonder, like, “Well, if there’s an issue, just tell me, man. What’s going on?” And, ultimately, we don’t know where to go with that feedback.
So, the wrap, as in, “Let’s go get a fajita wrap,” yeah. Anyone hungry? Actually, this reminds me, I need to go eat something. So, when we think about feedback wraps, we’re talking to people more candidly, more caringly, and more collaboratively. And wrap stands for what and where, reason, affect, and prompt. What and where, reason, affect, and prompt.
And when you start to break feedback down this way, then you start to give people more clarity and control over the process, you engage them more collaboratively, you yield higher levels of commitment, and, ultimately, you get impact because you’ve got clarity. So, it’s a super effective tool that anyone can do and it helps you shift the dynamics from the past to the future, and from power to partnership.
Well, that’s very clever, moving away from the sandwich and toward a wrap. It might be a lower carb as well.
Lower carb and high protein. Yeah, definitely.
So, could you give us some examples walking us through the what and where, the reason, the affect, and the prompt?
Yeah. So, let’s say I have a tendency to talk over people in meetings and you, as my manager, Pete, have noticed this and you got to bring it to my attention right away because other people on the team, they’re commenting on you offline, and they’re saying, “Joe won’t shut up. I mean, literally, in every meeting, the guy is cutting me off and can’t get my ideas out there.”
So, you pull me aside, and you say, “Joe, could we talk? I want to talk to you about something that happened in the meeting yesterday. A couple people felt like you had cut in when they were sharing their idea for how to engage this client.” So, that’s the what and the where. Now, why is that important? Because if you just say to me, “Joe, can I give you some feedback?” in this vague amorphous way, then my mind starts racing and bracing.
And when you look at brain scans of people who are asked that question, “Can I give you some feedback?” It’s amazing what the brain shows. There’s a spike in cortisol, the stress-inducing hormone, that literally depletes us. We become less creative. We experience a reduction in our executive functioning. We feel like less of ourselves. So, that’s why feedback feels so crappy because we are operating in a suboptimal way.
And so, by giving it a destination, a zip code, I suppose, of what’s happening and where it’s happening, you don’t eliminate the fear factor but you mitigate the fear factor. And so now, I know, “Okay, you want to talk about the meeting. It was yesterday. Here’s what happened and it’s not about my numbers. It’s not about my breath. It’s not about the shirt that I’m wearing. And it’s not about my lack of Zoom etiquette. You just want to talk about something that happened in the meeting yesterday when I cut in. Great.”
You then say, “Okay. Joe, look, the reason I want to tell you about this is because Paige and Sam, they felt really bad when you kind of cut in. And I know that something that you would never intentionally try to do, and I know how important our team dynamics are. You’ve been there a while, you’ve obviously demonstrated commitment to our goals and our values as a company, and I just wanted to bring this to your attention because it hurt them.”
And so, there’s two reasons, Pete, why we want to give the reason. Even if we’re talking to adults who are fully formed and we assume are aware of everything. The first is that people aren’t as aware as we think they are. There’s some great research out there on self-awareness that 90% of us have only 10% self-awareness, which is an astounding gap in perception and reality, and that’s why we have to tell people about this because they might not even be aware of how they’re showing up in the moment.
The other reason you want to give the reason is because of our innate need for certainty. So, I was on a plane recently going to a client event. We’re back on planes now, post-COVID, that’s kind of cool, but everyone was still a little bit anxious. And so, we got on the plane and we did the pre-flight stuff and everyone’s buckled up ready to go, and then nothing.
Like, we were just on the tarmac. We weren’t moving and people were getting fidgety and nervous and they started to look at their watches, and they’re like, “What’s happening?” and there’s no announcement, and everyone was beginning to worry, “What’s happening? What’s going on?” until the pilot finally got on and said, “So, we’re actually just, you know, we experienced a small mechanical issue. One of the members of the crew are coming to check it out. It’s a small warning signal that went on. We’re just looking into that before we take off.”
And so, now I’m thinking, “Oh, a warning signal, a warning light. Great. That’s why we’re here. It’s not because there’s bad weather forecasted, or not because a member of the crew got sick, or someone’s experiencing a medical emergency. It’s just a warning light.” And then you’re like, “Oh, a warning light. Well, maybe that’s a bad thing, but at least I know. At least I know what it is.” And so, certainty and self-awareness, we got to give the reason.
Yeah, and I guess it’s sort of like in that situation, your fears about what could be were brought into a narrow scope in terms of, “The reason I share this, Joe, is because this is one of many signs that I need to fire you.” So, it’s just like, “Oh, okay.” It helps contextualize in terms of, “The reason I share this is because you care about our team and our values and people are feeling good and having a good vibe, and I want to help you accomplish that,” as opposed to, “And the reason I’m sharing this is because, as you know, layoffs are coming and this quadruples the odds that you’re going to be out of here.”
I might not add that part but I love everything you said at first.
I guess what I’m saying is some people freak out, I think, because we talked about certainty and how spooky it is because it can be anything, “Can I give you some feedback?” It can be anything from “You’re fired” to “You’re the new CEO.” And so, when you give that reason, it situates us quite nicely in terms of, “Okay, this is really what’s at stake here.” It might be big, it might be small but at least I know.
And I care enough about you to tell you what that is and I want you to understand where I’m coming from and I want to make my intentions clear. So, that’s good to start but a lot of feedback operates with those two assumptions in mind. Let’s give a location and let’s talk about the context. Where feed forward really starts to show its magic with this wrap approach is in the final two stages – the affect and the prompt.
So, here’s a universal human truth. People can argue with what we say but they’re less likely to challenge how we feel. And so, when I shift the dynamic of the conversation from blame to emotion, or from judgment to description, that is the moment when you feel a little less assaulted by my feedback.
And so, if I were to say, “Look, the reason why I want to have this conversation with you and the reason why it’s important is because I felt badly for Paige and Sam who, in that moment, kind of just…they looked a little defeated and a little frustrated because when you cut in like that, Joe, it was really hard for them to retrack and recoup, and they had a hard time resuming where they were. So, I felt bad in that moment because that’s where they kind of lost their train of thought and the meeting kind of took a dip.”
Now, that’s a different statement than, “You’re rude. You’re a jerk. And you’re insensitive to the needs and feelings of your colleagues.” So, by moving this away from judgment, you-statements, “You didn’t do this,” or, “You did this and you really shouldn’t have,” we move it into I-statements, “I felt bad. I noticed this and I felt bad for these people who were affected by this.” And, again, here’s where we’re really moving it out of the high-stakes context and we’re shifting ground to a place where people can approach more humanly, and they can say, “Oh, I wasn’t even necessarily aware of that. I’m really sorry. Like, that wasn’t my intention.”
And then, finally, you get to the prompt. After all this has happened, you’ve talked about what’s happening, where it’s happening, the reason, the affect and the impact that was brought about, the emotional toll, here’s where feed forward is so powerful, Pete, because this is where we operationalize that mirror-holding that we talked about before, that listening and learning, and we give the control of the conversation to the other person, and we say, “Okay. So, what are your thoughts on where we go from here? What do you think? What do you think we should do?”
And it’s in that moment when people feel like they have the agency and the opportunity to be a partner, that’s when they’re going to do one of two things. They’re either going to say, “I don’t know. I don’t know what you want me to do. I don’t know.” And that’s okay. Some people will say that, and that’s when you can say, “All right. Well, I want you to think about it. I realize right now, it’s maybe a lot, you’re processing, you’re taking it in. Let’s pick this up in a day, or in a few hours, or whatever your cadence is for this.”
But still with the assumption that, “I want to hear from you. I want to know what your thoughts are.” Or, the more likely scenario that I’ve observed and I’ve workshopped this in real time with teams, and I’ve seen this almost all the time, people will have an answer at the ready because we are closest to the problem which means we’re also closest to the solution. And that’s when we can come up with an idea.
And, by the way, the ideas that others will come up with are very close to, if not the same, as the ones we would’ve proposed ourselves, except now they belong to the person who suggested them, which means they own them, which means they’re going to act on them, which means they’re going to feel a greater sense of responsibility towards them. So, we’ve built commitment where there could’ve been concern. We’ve created partnership where there once was power. We’ve created agency where there might’ve just been accountability. And we’ve shifted the whole dynamic from “I know better than you” to “You can do better for yourself. Let me just try to help you.”
Ooh, that’s some good powerful stuff. And so, I’m curious, with the prompt, you said, “What are your thoughts on where we should go from here?” Is the idea that the prompt should nudge in a future-oriented direction as opposed to, “So, what do you think?” or, “Do you think I’m full of malarkey?” Is it that the prompt is a prompt that is forward-pointing, future-pointing?
I think it’s both. You’re making a great point. It’s very nuanced. When you ask that question, you’re really asking for two things, “Do you accept my premise?” and “Do you have ideas?” So, one really neat thing that has happened a lot is when managers ask this question, a lot of times they’ll skip step one, which is, “Does the person accept my premise?” Usually, the person will because it’s presented in a way that is non-judgmental and very descriptive and it’s focused.
But sometimes people do get stuck on that first point, they’re like, “Well, actually, I want to just push back a little on what you just said.” Or, worse, they get their hands crossed, the ears turn red, and the smokes starts to come out of the ears, and they’re like, “Hell, no, I don’t agree with what you just said,” but that’s useful data because, now, you know that there’s something else going on here. It’s not just, “Joe is talking over other people in the meeting,” there’s a fundamental problem that lies beneath the surface that you’ve now uncovered because you’ve given me the opportunity to weigh in.
So, that’s good data, but, yes, it is about looking towards a future action that, ultimately, that person can control and one that they’re going to set on their own terms and timetable, again, with some nudging from you. It doesn’t mean that you, as a manager, now abandon your responsibilities to help move this person or this project forward.
A lot of managers will ask me, “This is nice but aren’t you actually like taking away my power? Aren’t you actually making me weaker?” And I say, “No. No, no, no. If you do this right, you become more powerful because, ultimately, you’re activating the real job of management, of leadership, and that’s to empower other people.” We have the power, as leaders, every day to empower others to find and to feel their best selves.
And when we start to do that, Pete, with these small shifts and how we shape the conversation, how we allow it to be received more impactfully, we’re increasing our power because we’re sharing it. And that’s the fundamental assumption here that we become more powerful and more impactful, we have more influence as managers when we help others become better practitioners, better contributors, better members of our organization, and that’s the real secret. By giving that control to others, it’s not what we give up. It’s what we give that really matters.
And I’m thinking here, when it comes to the prompt, and they might say, “Oh, I think that’s ridiculous,” and then, you do, you learn some things, you’re like, “Well, Paige has been running her mouth about this ridiculous idea that derails us every meeting and it’s wasting our time,” blah, blah, blah. Okay. Well, now, you’re right. You’ve learned something that, “I didn’t know you felt that way about Paige.”
Well, then there’s something to respond to, it’s like, “Hey, you know what, and now that you mentioned it, Paige really does do that all the time.” It’s like maybe there’s another conversation that needs to be had, or it can be like, “Whoa, this person is so kind of, I don’t know, self-absorbed or focused on the wrong stuff to really…this how this person sees the world. Wow, we’re going to have to do some more work to,” I guess I don’t want to fix people, right? We talked about that earlier. But we have to do some more work to get an understanding of where we need to move forward optimally here given that’s where they’re coming from.
And, really, the job of leaders is to unlock those insights for people. And feed forward is one tool in a leader’s toolkit that allows him or her to set those conditions for positive and lasting change. And one of the things that’s been gratifying to see is that this works regardless of one’s experience levels as a leader, background or training. It works in every industry, and I’ve spoken to, I think, just about every single one, that people can do this with just a few tweaks in how they approach these conversations.
It’s not an overhaul of the system. It’s about making small incrementally positive changes in the way we look at people and performance so that we’re, ultimately, doing the real work of leading others, and that’s to lead them closer to who they actually are and can still become.
And I suppose we can do this wrap thing not just when we’re “correcting” something but also when we notice something that was awesome, it’s like, “Hey, I noticed in this document, in the questions you prepared for Joe, my Joe interview, that it was very thorough in terms of sub-bullets there, and I bring this up because I love it so much I want to see that every time if possible because it’s filled me with delight knowing that I am not going to look like a fool in having this conversation. I was very well prepared.”
“And so, I’m just curious, what did you think about? Did you do anything different when you were preparing this? Or, is there any way we might be able to go forward so this happens every time?” In all that, we’re saying, “I like the thing you did. Let’s have more of that.” And you could use the same wrap format just fine.
A hundred percent. In fact, there’s a variation of that that I’ve helped leaders use in these formal conversations they’re having around existing cadence of performance management on a quarterly or annual basis. And one of the things that they’ll do is they’ll open the conversation by saying, “Tell me about a time when you felt like you were just at your best, whether it’s over the last quarter or the last project, or even the last year, and you start with strengths.”
And, again, that’s what feed forward is about. It’s about activating people’s best selves, not dwelling on their worst selves, and people will say, “Well, actually, my numbers were great but you know what really was wonderful for me the last quarter? I felt like, as we shifted to a work-from-home environment, I was able to really be connected in a different and more substantial way to my colleagues. It was weird. We weren’t together but I felt more connected to them. I guess we just felt like we were in each other’s lives. And that sense of being right up close and personal to people just made me feel more close to them, and that was a big high for me over the last three months.”
Now, that’s not something you might have expected to hear as the leader but now it’s intel that you have. So, you start with that strength and say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that was so amazing for you. Like, what did you learn in that process?” You start to uncover the conditions or the factors that played a role in that. And as people start to lay the groundwork and talk about that trek towards the summit of their success, that’s the moment when it becomes clear to you but also to them who and what made this possible.
And that activates a sense of collective success, which researchers have shown is a much more powerful driver of scalable success than simply just focusing on individual achievement. So, that when I realize that I did something well or I achieved something great, and it’s with the support of Paige over there, and Sam over there, or Pete over here, and you as my leader, that’s the moment I become encouraged, empowered, and excited about doing this again because I’ve got the support of others, and that’s what leads to the scalable success.
I’ve done it before, I have people by my side who are ready to help me do it again, and now you’ve prompted me by talking about those conditions and then talking about the coordinates of where I can go from here, and you’ve said, “All right, where do you go from this? This is amazing. This is awesome. How can we build upon that? And tell me what your ideas for continuing this and scaling that.” And, again, you’re leaving it with me. You’re leaving the conversation with me for me to suggest the next move.
And rather than just dump and run, I sit and I strategize with you. We talk about it. It’s a dialogue. We’re having a person-to-person conversation. Feed forward is now a more human enterprise and it allows everyone to feel like they’re actually able to be actively involved in their own story of success. And that agency is what makes people feel so empowered, so committed, and so excited to make these positive changes.
Yeah, that’s beautiful. Well, tell us then, if we’re not the manager but the individual contributor, or even if you are leading people but you want your boss to share some of this good stuff that you’re not getting, how do you recommend we encourage and ask for useful feedback or feed forward so we continue learning, growing, and becoming all we could be?
I think it starts with becoming a feedback magnet, making sure that you are asking for feedback, but more importantly…
And just like asking feedback, is there some magical way to do that or words or…?
Yeah, I definitely think it starts with knowing what kind of feedback. So, it’s not just, “Can I have feedback?” but knowing the type of feedback that you want. Is it corrective? Do I need guidance from you on how to fix something? Am I doing this right? Is it coaching or developmental in its nature? “I’m having a problem with Paige. Can you give me some advice on how I can navigate that relationship?” Or, sometimes you’re just looking for an atta-boy, like, “Hey, look what I did and I want some praise. And even it is a sandwich, I don’t care.”
So, knowing what kind of feedback you’re after will help the person who’s giving you the feedback know what kind of feedback you want. So, be clear on your expectations and they’ll be clear on what they give you.
I think the other thing is to really be careful about separating the signal from the noise. So, you asked for feedback, and maybe you get the feedback you weren’t expecting. Maybe it’s a little more negative or corrective in nature, and you’re like, “Ooh, that’s a downer. I was coming to Pete for praise and, instead, I got a lecture.” So, what do you do then?
So, that’s the point where you want to put aside the emotion. It’s hard. So, if it can’t happen in the moment, you maybe schedule another time to talk it out, but you say, “Look, I’d like to learn more about this.” Start to ask what I call lightbulb questions, things that give you more insight into what the person was telling you or meaning to tell you when they said it.
So, a good example of a lightbulb question would be like, “How often are you seeing that?” “Have you noticed this before?” “Am I doing this a lot?” Just gather information about that so that the lightbulb starts to go off for you so that you know what’s going on. But then you want to funnel a little bit with these funnel questions. And I love funnel questions because it allows the person who’s giving you the feedback to be more specific about it.
The problem with traditional feedback, we talked about a bunch of issues, but a big issue for a lot of managers is that they either feel it’s an all-or-nothing proposition, “I either have to throw everything at you at once and unleash a torrent of feedback and information or I’m going to be very selective and even a little bit stingy with the feedback that I give you. I don’t want to give too much because I’m worried about rocking the boat or saying something that’s going to upset you.”
So, we have to try to help them size and shape the feedback just right, and that’s where the funnel questions come in. Asking, and this is my favorite one, “Okay, so you’ve kind of told me what’s going on. What’s one thing that I can do to change the situation or to improve, or to get better at this?” Now, by asking that question, “What’s the one thing…?” you’ve made it easier for them to tell you what to do. That takes the chances of them of dumping and running and really reduces that by a major order of magnitude. But, more importantly, it’s given you now just one thing to do.
And we can do one thing. We can act on one suggestion. We can make one shift in how we interact with our colleagues or how we think about our work. And so, asking that funnel question is critical because it allows us to become more aware of what’s happening and what to do with it next. And then, finally, widening that feedback loop, because even when we have clarity, it can still cause a lot of pain. We know what has to be done but we’re still nagged by the problem of, “I don’t like the person who gave me the feedback or trust that person,” and so immediately I’m discounting what that person said.
So, going outside that conversation to a trusted friend, a colleague, a spouse, your mom, whoever it is, is going to help you process this information with more objectivity and less emotion. That’s going to help you separate facts from feelings, tone from truth, and baggage from opportunities, and that’s really where we want to go with that. So, become a feedback magnet and do those things, and it will become a little bit easier to get the feedback you need at a time when you need it.
And I like some of the wordings you’ve provided. I suppose what I think what I often wanted to know in terms of feedback, but I didn’t quite know how to say it without sounding off. I wanted to know, basically, what do I need to do differently to blow your mind and think I am an exceptionally awesome employee who absolutely deserves to be promoted soon? That’s what I wanted to know. But I didn’t know if I could ask it like that.
Okay, Joe, feedback master, how would you recommend I ask a question like that? Basically, I want to know, hey, this show is called How to be Awesome at Your Job. I want to know, from the manager’s perspective and for progression and promotion, how do I become more awesome?
So, the first thing to do is to bring some good data with you to that conversation and to help your manager see from an objective point of view why you feel this conversation should happen in the first place. So, I’m a big fan of collecting small wins, and it’s not an act of self-congratulation. It’s an act of self-preservation. It’s what we need to do to continue to grow and evolve in our work.
So, keep a little list of wins, maybe some email folder, maybe it’s an app you use, but just track your wins whether that’s a work win, or whether that’s relationship win, something you’ve done to contribute to the values of the organization. Keep those because you’ll want to bring that data.
And you’ll say to your manager, “Look, I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been able to work in this organization with the support of wonderful people who’ve allowed me to be successful but I’m really hungry to grow. I have goals for myself and I want to find ways that I can deepen my connections, and increase my contributions, and build on my competencies. And how can I do that? What are your ideas for me?”
And your manager will be like, “Wow. First of all, I agree with you, those are great wins,” because you’ve now reminded your manager about those things that he or she may have forgotten. Remember, forgetting curves, so it’s good to bring that back to the surface. So, now that you’ve kind of sort of warmed the conversation with that data, that’s when I think you’ll impress your manager by saying, “Look, I’m all about…I’m all in on the contribution. I’m all in on the development. I want more than anything for you to help me reach that next level of success so I can continue to feel like I’m deepening my contributions to our organization and to our team. So, what are your ideas for that?”
Again, you prompt. Don’t tell your manager, “I want a 5% raise.” Now that may be what you want but don’t tell that to your manager because, you want to know something crazy? What if you just bring this out into the open, leave it with your manager, and your manager is like, “You know, Joe actually did a great job this last quarter. Three other people of our team have recently left. I don’t want to lose him. I’m going to offer him 10%.” Why would you already limit yourself by telling your manager what you want when your manager may come back with an offer that exceeds your expectations?
So, start with the data, frame it in the context of collective success, let the manager know that you’re aligned, you’re all in, you’re committed, you want to grow. This is music to every manager’s ears. Like, what does a manager not want to do? Put out fires, worry about retaining high-performing employees, dealing with office drama. And here’s a person who has demonstrated a record of success, is all about the team, has demonstrated some very clear and measurable indicators of his value. So, now, what can we do as an organization?
Maybe it’s offering Joe opportunities for continuous education. Maybe it’s new project assignments. Maybe it’s leading up another project that we’re going to do soon. And, again, that may not be your 5% but over the long term, that could have a return of 20%, 30%, open up opportunities that advance things you wouldn’t even have foreseen.
So, if you’re the employee, don’t limit yourself with your first thought. Have that in the back of your mind and you can always come back to that as a point of negotiation. But as an anchoring principle, don’t limit your potential or your profitability by telling the manager what you want. Let the manager tell you what he or she is ready to give.
Okay. And, Joe, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I think that every leader listening to this, or every employee, or every parent, every teacher, should realize that they have the power to empower other people. And feedback doesn’t have to be a cause for fear. It really can be a cause for joy when we change the mindset, when we shift the message, when we stop looking back on a past that people can’t change and out towards a future they can.
We deliver the promise of feedback which is to help people become the best versions of themselves, the people they could always become but maybe aren’t yet at. And with the small changes, we give them more power, more possibility, more potential. And we shouldn’t play small with people’s potential.
All right. Now, Joe, could you give us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
So, I should probably have this tattooed somewhere on my body. I quote it all the time. C.S. Lewis said, and it captures everything we talked about today, “You can’t go back and change the beginning but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
So, there’s a management professor at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern by the name of Loran Nordgren, who did some great work on what he calls the Perspective Gap. And what he uncovered with his colleagues is that we tend to underestimate the effect of something on others when we are not going through it ourselves.
So, he brought a bunch of people into a room and have them stick their arms in warm water, and said, “Imagine what it would be like to be in a freezing cold room for five hours. How would it feel?” And they would describe what they thought that intensity of pain might be like, and it was rather low. He brought another group of people in, this time arms soaking in cold water, and said, “What do you think it would be like to be in a freezing cold room?” as they soaked their arms in cold water, and the intensity was greater as you might expect.
But here is what was the surprising part. He then, third group, brought them into the room, had them soak their arms in warm water, take it out, and then describe what it was like. And the intensity of that pain was less than what it was before even for the cold group. Because once we experience something, and then we forget about what that experience is like, we then underestimate the impact of that experience on other people.
And that’s why, when I asked the question, “What’s it like to get feedback?” and they come back with words like caution and anxiety and worry and pain, I then say to them, “Okay. So, how do you think it feels to the other person who’s getting your feedback? Do you think they’re experiencing some of that?” And this Perspective Gap plays an important role in the conversation as we shift our mindset around feedback because it’s not just about approaching with inquiry and humility. It’s also about exercising greater empathy.
And a favorite book?
I love Team Genius by two authors, Rich Karlgaard and Michael Malone. And the book is great because it talks about the power of teams, and how we can’t really do as much on our own as we can with the support of other people. And I love the message they bring.
And a favorite nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?
Yeah, so this actually, somebody tweeted this out the other day, and they attended a talk that I gave. And I never quite know what’s going to land with people so I love Twitter for this. You can see what really resonates. And they said, and I guess I had said this, it makes sense, I say it a lot, “We can’t choose the feedback we get but we always get to choose where it goes.”
And it’s so true. When we give people the opportunity to become agents of change, when we give them the possibility and the power to shape that future that’s still unfolding rather than locking them to a past that they can’t change, that’s the moment when people feel energized, activated, and empowered by our feedback, and it’s more likely it’ll go somewhere, and, ultimately, lead to positive and lasting change.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
So, I would love to connect with folks on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, that’s kind of like where I live online. You can read more about my work and research at JoeHirsch.me. I’d love to catch you as part of our growing international audience of listeners on I Wish They Knew, Big Ideas, Small Conversations. Get that wherever your podcasts are played. And I look forward to helping you find a little more joy in your feedback because we can.
All right. Joe, this has been a treat. I wish you all the joy in your feedback and elsewhere.
Thanks, Pete. It’s been real.