Think you’re doing it right? Extensive and convincing research by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, lecturers at Harvard School of Law and co-founders of Triad Consulting Group, suggests otherwise. Stone and Heen are the authors of a new book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback. Since I had enjoyed and possibly learned from their previous book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, I cranked up the volume when I happened onto an NPR radio interview featuring the duo last week. I ended up sitting in the parking lot to hear just a little more than my drive time allowed. Stone and Heen had a lot to share, including their initial assumption that the need for their consulting services would “top out” once they passed the ranks of middle management. As their client list grew to include the White House and such corporate giants as Honda, they discovered that no one is comfortable on either side of the feedback desk. Everyone can improve.
Stone and Heen contend that feedback is actually comprised of three components: appreciation, evaluation, and coaching. The single biggest mistake that we make is trying to do all three in the same meeting. It simply doesn’t work. And so I began to wonder how their findings apply to the feedback that I give my students.
- Appreciation. We all know how this works. You sit down for your performance review, facing a supervisor who has obviously learned to begin the process with a positive statement. The thought bubble over your head reads, “Yeah, yeah…can we just get on with this and get it over with?” Yet data shows that fully 50% of workers who leave their jobs list lack of appreciation for their work as a primary factor in their exit. Clearly, appreciation needs to be offered consistently, not just at performance evaluation. Because I want my students to continue happily in their jobs, I need to express appreciation for their efforts and encourage them to do the same for one another. Acknowledging improvement on a less-than-perfect assessment goes a long way. Even an in-class break for students to literally pat themselves on the back helps to keep us moving forward. Big improvements merit a private conversation or an email.
2. Evaluation. This element is the one that students expect. When a quiz, exam, or theme is returned, students immediately look for the number at the top. Classroom chatter ensues as they compare scores, slap their foreheads over silly errors, and cheer positive outcomes. There are only so many ways to deliver the good news/bad news. However the evaluation is presented, it automatically speaks so loudly in the recipient’s mind that everything else is drowned out, which brings us to…
3. Coaching. (aka “teaching”). Here’s where I found the greatest need for improvement in the feedback I deliver. I’m already seeing a lot of bang for the buck by tweaking my strategy. Previously, I would notice a mistake made by several students and highlight it with a little reteaching after I handed back papers. No one paid attention. Next, I tried reteaching before I handed back the papers. This had the effect of ratcheting up the anxiety as students wondered “Did I make that error?” So no one paid attention. My new tactic, which seems to be working much better, is to wait a bit—later in the class or even at the next class—and casually mention with a bit of gentle humor that “we need a little work here.” I assure the students that I don’t even remember which of them made the error, but typically the perpetrators laughingly confess.
An example: A surprising number of students misspelled the words “temperature” and/or “protein” on a recent quiz. The day after returning the papers, I added “Spelling Lesson” to our daily housekeeping moments at the beginning of class. The reteaching took less than 30 seconds, several students “fessed up,” and we moved on to the material for the day.
I’m looking forward to reading Stone and Heen’s book. Maybe I’ll be a better recipient of feedback at my next performance review.