Recently I went to a conference in which the keynote speaker talked at length about the importance of feedback. It is, he said, the great illuminator: a success to receive unwarranted feedback and act on it, but an even greater sign of courage and drive to actively seek it out from friends, family and coworkers.
As I listened I nodded along in agreement. To be honest, I was thinking about my husband’s new facial hair. For several weeks I had been dropping hints like Do you need new batteries for your shaver? and So you’re really set on growing that beard, then…?. I had been wondering how readily he would accept my pretty crushing feedback on it, however well it was worded. Now I had the backing I needed. This well-respected speaker had just given me a host of reasons why my husband needed to heed my advice and a quick Google search supplied me with a handful of snappy quotations which I could always bring out if necessary. My favourite of these was leadership guru Ken Blanchard’s statement Feedback is the breakfast of champions. I was pretty sure my husband wanted to be a champion, so he was going to have to get rid of that beard.
All of a sudden, I found myself thinking of school. The speaker challenged us to start asking those around us this question:
If you were me, what would you do differently?
I thought about going into work on Monday and asking the kids this question or actually just asking them for any kind of feedback at all. I was attending the conference with a fellow teacher and we quietly amused ourselves for the next ten minutes or so making a list of the sort of feedback we could expect to get:
- This lesson is [expletive], Miss.
- Why do we need to know this?
- Can we go on the laptops?
- You never let us go on the laptops.
- [Other teacher] lets us go on the laptops…
And so on.
If you are a teacher you will know that I am sort of joking and sort of not! But jokes and half-jokes apart, it got me thinking about how I view feedback at work. In my profession I am constantly being judged: book scrutinies, drop-ins, informal chats, the unexpected arrival of a senior teacher (or even the Head!), performance reviews, data analysis, pupil voice and of course, the dreaded hour-long observation. It can be exhausting. And it can be incredibly demoralizing too, especially if you feel like the goalposts are always being changed. It’s not hard to understand why so many teachers fear observations and why for some, feedback has become the new F word. Even outside of the teaching profession I’m sure that many people can relate to that sense of fear you feel when you are being judged by somebody else and the consequent desire to avoid those kinds of situations as much as possible.
But it shouldn’t be like this. Why do we cringe when somebody asks us to watch us teach, sing, present new business ideas or show off some other kind of talent? We avoid it even though it is probably the most powerful tool we have available to us – and most of the time, it doesn’t even cost anything! As difficult as it can be to receive feedback I am learning to love it (sort of) not because I am a masochist but because it makes me better. I have decided that I am willing to put up with how it might make me feel as long as that feedback is going to help me make positive changes in my professional and personal life. We have to value an area of our lives enough to go through a bit of pain and discomfort to make it great. So now, believe it or not, I sort-of enjoy observations.
Here’s three things I am trying to do in order to get the best out of my feedback:
- Ask the right questions.
Feedback isn’t really that useful unless it’s specific. If I ask my husband what he thinks about me he will hopefully say he loves me and that, most of the time, he thinks I am pretty great. If I ask what he doesn’t like about me he might say I am sometimes annoying. But pretty great or annoying don’t help me make any changes. I need specific answers so I need to ask specific questions. Why do you think I’m usually great? What do I do that you find annoying? And so on. If he then lets me know that my constant nagging about his beard is getting on his nerves I have something specific about my behaviour that I can change. I can blog about it instead.
- Have the right goals.
Education expert John Hattie says that the most constructive feedback is related to clear goals. He actually conducted a study in which he found that pupils whose teachers gave them feedback relating to personal targets made noticeably more progress than their peers. You need to decide on clear success criteria. What does a great teacher look like? What kind of parent do you want to be? How will you know if you are headed in the right direction with your business? And so on.
- Celebrate what you are doing right.
Make sure you don’t get so caught up on the things you need to change that you can’t see how great you are doing in so many areas. You are doing a great job and you deserve to feel good about it! It’s when you are feeling demoralized that you need to focus on positive feedback more than ever. I know a lot of teachers who keep a collection of thank you cards, notes and even good pieces of work that they have accumulated over the years and dip back into whenever they need some encouragement. I have a letter that a particularly challenging pupil wrote to me that always makes me smile and remember that there is value in what I do.
So, what are your thoughts about feedback? Do you have any tips to share? How has acting (or not) on feedback affected your professional or personal life? I’d love to hear about it so please leave me a comment below!
P.S. I have a feedback success story of my own. You’ve guessed it – the beard is no more.