The Ebb & Flow of Feedback
By: Marc Woods

We spoke to Paralympic Gold medallist and cancer survivor, Marc Woods, about the role that feedback has played in his life and his achievements. Marc is an author and motivational speaker and we think you'll be really interested in how his own practices and beliefs can be adopted in the workplace.

I was once discussing the merits of feedback with a senior director of a very large retailer when he proudly told me that; “On Fridays, between 11.30 and 12.30, I walk around and do positive feedback.” When I had recovered the ability to speak I asked him a couple of questions:

“How authentic do you think that feels for your team? What does the feedback look and feel like during the rest of the week? Do you think you are creating a culture where feedback is welcomed and acted upon?”

You don’t need to know the detail of the dejected answers he gave but they can be condensed to:
“Not very.” “Not very pleasant.” “Not very likely.”

Of course his organisation isn’t unusual in not having a healthy feedback culture. It is always going to be a thorny subject when it isn’t clear whether the feedback is being given because it helps the individual receiving,or whether it is more about the person delivering it showing themselves to be a good manager.

Personally, during my time in competitive swimming I developed a thirst for feedback, which remains to this day. Without receiving feedback from my swimming coaches over the years, I would have never achieved my potential. I now spend my time trying to encourage my clients to do the same and it is a far more difficult proposition.

I’ve found there are three crucial indicators as to whether a feedback culture is going to get off the ground. Is it timely, is it consistent and is it constant.

By 'timely' I mean is the feedback being given soon enough; so that the individual receiving it can remember exactly what it refers to. Being consistent should be obvious. It doesn’t matter if you manage employees, kids or a dog, the messages you are giving within your feedback have to be consistent. If not how can you expect their response and behaviour to be consistent. However, it is my third indicator that most people struggle with. By 'constant' I mean a situation where both good and bad feedback ebbs and flows between people. Where a relationship is developed which enables both parties to give and receive feedback whenever it is relevant and that this feedback is both positive and constructive or ‘negative’.

As an athlete I received a constant flow of feedback informing me what I needed to start, stop or continue. This enabled me to become the best athlete I could be.

In a business scenario people need to know when they should do things differently, but also when they have done things well. As I said to our friend the retailer by simply saying “I saw what you did there that was great” in a timely and authentic way – this opens the door for the more difficult conversations you are likely to have when you need to see behaviour change.

Unfortunately though we don’t all have enlightened line mangers or coaches, so it is also important to ask for feedback. I always ask people attending my presentations what they enjoyed the most and which parts
they felt were the most useful. I also make a point of asking which bits they didn’t find useful.

Ask open questions wherever possible. Closed questions will receive closed responses. Whenever possible, encourage people to provide you with detail about how your performance and actions can be improved. Determine what works well so that you can repeat it where appropriate.

Asking people about areas where they thought you performed well helps to reinforce the positives. Sometimes you may think that something hasn’t worked but your client, colleague or boss may disagree. They might be right.

• Ask what improvements can be made in a performance or action. Encourage people to find fault in what you do. Understand that they may deliver their feedback in an insensitive way, but still follow the rules for receiving feedback.

• Take it or leave it.

Once you have listened to everything and clarified it, decide whether you are going to act on it. This decision may be based upon a range of factors, including the actual advice itself as well as the credibility of the person delivering the advice. Sometimes you will receive conflicting feedback. Two weeks before the Athens Paralympics, two different coaches gave me conflicting feedback on my race dive. After clarifying, and on careful reflection, I discarded one lot of feedback. Not only was one of the coaches less experienced, he was also unable to see the dive clearly in the position he was in.

I’ll leave you with one final thought on the perils of not properly embracing the world of feedback. I once attended a training course for people that wanted to improve their public speaking skills. Each participant chose a topic and then made a five-minute presentation on it.

Following the presentation, they received feedback from the other delegates. What ensued was an uncomfortable session where the delegates were reluctant to give feedback and the presenter unwilling to receive it. Most delegates, in an attempt not to offend, gave bland, vaguely positive feedback that failed to provide any real indication of the presenter’s abilities or where they could improve. On the rare occasion that someone tried to give constructive criticism, the presenter would instantly justify his or her actions. As a result, each person left the course believing that their presentation skills were excellent, only to suffer later when faced with the harsh realities of speaking in public.

Marc’s book ‘Personal Best’ shares his lessons to help you achieve your true potential. A remarkable story of dealing with and overcoming difficult life challenges on the way to achieving success. Marc is truly engaging guest speaker and one we’d highly recommend. To purchase his book or to invite him to your next conference to speak, click here.

Categories: Thought Leadership