giving feedback to – or doing feedback with?

Is your feedback missing the mark? I was awarded a certificate for giving feedback about 18 months ago and it’s fair to say I’m very proud of the recognition (I do wish it came with a Bendy Bully though). I’m pleased to be recognised in this way, because giving feedback that helps people develop is a core competency of being a coach (it’s right here woven through three areas of our competency framework), and being a good coach is something I’ve been striving for in my professonal life. I entirely cribbed my feedback skills from my tutor on my Coaching and Mentoring MAEd – the superbly skilled Rose Schofield, the grand master of feedback.

Part of my learning with Rose over the years was to understand why her feedback motivated people so much — and how was it done. Rose’s feedback to me made me listen, evaluate, self-critique and improve my work, all without her having to tell me what could be better. She insinuated to me that academic improvement of my thinking, and writing, was possible. She did this by asking me questions, that I myself wanted to know the answer to.

I run some workshops for supervisors that cover using mentoring and coaching techniques as part of supervision and research leadership. One practice discussion I always like to let run, and let people explore, is how to give feedback that PhD researchers will actually hear, analyse, and respond to.

Giving feedback that acknowledges areas for improvement, and that doesn’t cause someone to feel ashamed, close down, clam up, be upset, cause defensiveness or lead to an argument is difficult. This is because it’s dependent on more than the structure or mechanism of the giving of the feedback — the relationship matters — both your relationship with the recipient, and their relationship to the work you are critiquing.

There is general awareness now, of the fact that feedback that goes ‘good bit, bad bit, good bit’ (I’ll tactfully refer to it as the poop sandwich) isn’t effective as people (a) know what you’re doing (b) dismiss the positive bits and feel defensive about the negative bits and (c) hate it when you are disingenuous and add in positive ’filler’ to cushion things. So it’s not ‘balance’ that makes feed back effective — what is it?

Below are some ideas/concepts on feedback for you to think about. This isn’t a ‘how to’ model and not all ideas will be relevant to every situation. All that’s required is for you to think about these ideas, think about your feedback, and notice where these suggestions would and wouldn’t work for you.

Thinking from a coaching perspective, our goal is to make the feedback about the recipient, not about us. We, in coaching mode, strive to:

Understand that relationship/rapport/alliance matters. Most of us are more inclined to hear a difficult truth from a good friend or colleague we feel has got our back, than from someone we already feel tense around. Play the ‘long game’ of feedback — does it matter more to ‘be right, right now’ or to build a productive partnership that will weather difficulties?

Ask don’t tell. Before giving your opinion, why not ask your researcher how things went/how things are going, and what they think? e.g. “Well done on getting [X] done/drafted, how did it go? Are you happy with it? Did you find it straightforward? Was there anything more taxing/complicated you had to deal with? Is there anything further you’d like to improve about it? Do you have any questions about it?

Let go of values-based judgements. If a researcher’s work has typos or mistakes or is otherwise not up to your own standard, it’s not that likely mistakes were made in order to directly offend you, or as a mark of disrespect. It may be though, that it’s a further irritant in a relationship that’s already not working well. If you’re angry, what are you angry about? Who are you angry with? Did you communicate the standards you expect?

Reject passive aggressive responses e.g. ‘hinting’. Coaching is built on candid conversations. Say what you mean and mean what you say — take a look here at how to spot passive aggressive behaviour. If you need to practice at this, imagine your response will be public.

Be culturally aware. Especially if you are working with people from different cultures and nationalities. This guide (taken from this article) has an application broader than EU translation, and works both ways too.

Check your power privilege. What might seem flippant, harmless or even funny between peers, may come across as threatening to people who we are supervising/managing, especially if they feel a bit overwhelmed or intimidated by us or are a bit insecure about what they’re getting feedback on.

Know what workplace bullying looks like. Keep an eye on yourself and others around you. Although I know I don’t need to preach to readers of this blog about not using bullying as a feedback technique, it is common in the academic workplace. There are those who feel they can get away with writing off the bullying behaviour as ‘just academic criticism’. Students and staff alike tell stories of having observed bullying at work. Check what bullying at work looks like — have you seen any of these? — I  have definitely seen most of them. Rudeness isn’t just unpleasant in itself, it affects motivation, engagement, and health, and ultimately leads to isolation, low productivity, and delay for your researchers.

Be specific about what you want to see. Have a little LOL at this comedic example. And if you find you’re doing feedback like this, why not just do it better? Define what ‘good’ looks like through your feedback on the elements and style of academic writing.

Criticise with kindness. “let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” – Arthur Martine. Follow rules 1, 2, and 3 of intelligent critical commentary before offering your rebuttal.

Use higher logical forms of disagreement. If you want to disagree, no problem. Just keep it about the subject of the disagreement, and keep away from the base of this hierarchy. Don’t troll your colleagues.

Using ‘AND’ instead of ‘BUT’. You can easily negate goodwill by adding a ‘but’ after a positive statement. Try using ‘and’ instead. You’re doing a great job already, and remember that ‘however’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘but’.

Using ‘WHAT’ instead of ‘WHY’. Asking ‘why’ can provoke a defensiveness and make people feel the need to justify themselves. e.g.: “Why wasn’t that done?” or, better, “What prevented you from getting that done?” If we can get to the ‘what’ we can plan around the ‘what’ and solve the problem.

Don’t shirk the difficult conversation. Things don’t get better on their own. Whatever difficult thing you want to say to your researcher(s), planning your conversation will help clarify your thoughts and your approach.  A ‘difficult conversation’ planner I made for supervisors is available here.

Author: predoctorbility

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.