Better Working Through Psychology
It’s no secret that I love my occupation as an Industrial/Organizational psychologist. As I mentioned in an earlier Alumni Perspective the field of I/O psychology offers an array of career options (such as consulting, internal corporate roles, and academia) and specialty areas – ranging from identifying the right person for a job, to helping groups and teams work together more effectively, to helping prepare leaders for the challenges ahead of them, among many others.
One of my favorite topics from my work and research as an I/O psychologist is feedback. It sounds like such a basic concept, but there are many critical nuances in the way that feedback is given that will determine whether or not people actually do anything with it… or even believe it.
Feedback is one of the most valuable resources available to us when it comes to learning, developing, and improving our performance. Feedback tells you what you are doing well, and also helps you to identify what you need to improve in order to achieve your goals or get back on track. However, most people don’t give feedback the right way, which leads most of us to feel avoidant, defensive, or to discount the feedback that we receive from others. Do you want to give feedback that actually matters? Effective feedback should be:
Timely. Feedback should be given as soon as possible after an event occurs. However, you should also be mindful of the circumstances: always aim to give feedback in private, even if it means you have to wait a little longer. Giving feedback in public – particularly if it’s negative feedback – can make the recipient very uncomfortable and even embarrassed.
Specific. The more specific feedback is, the easier it is for someone to take action. We operate at a very basic, behavioral level, but often feedback is too general and doesn’t correspond to specific actions or behaviors. If you really want someone to be able to change his/her behavior, pinpoint the specific behavior (and the situation in which it occurs) to the greatest extent possible.
Focused on the behavior, not the person. Feedback should always focus on actions or behaviors, not the character or personality of the person to whom you are giving feedback. The best way to make someone defensive or quick to ignore your feedback is to criticize him/her as a person. This even applies to positive feedback – recent research has demonstrated that when children are praised for their abilities rather than their hard work, they are less inclined to persist in the face of failure later.
Process-oriented, not just outcome-oriented. Feedback is most valuable when it can be used to quickly course-correct behavior. Giving someone an overall evaluation of their performance or behavior after the fact provides very little opportunity to actually act on that feedback, change behavior, and learn. Whenever possible, provide feedback to people while they are working on or working toward something, so that they can make the necessary changes as they progress toward their goals.
While everyone likes receiving praise and positive feedback, bear in mind that negative feedback provides significantly more useful information. Sure, positive feedback makes you feel good, but negative feedback tells you what you need to do to get better and get closer to achieving your goals.
Lastly, if you want to be a better feedback recipient, be sure to give yourself enough time to sufficiently process feedback you receive. Particularly when receiving negative feedback, it’s easy to have a fast emotional reaction and disregard feedback that you don’t like or that makes you feel bad. Next time that happens, give yourself some time to get past the initial emotional reaction and consider whether or not there are some valid points in the feedback. You want to have better performance, right? Negative feedback is the one thing that will tell you the “distance” between where you are and where you want to be. Just keep in mind that emotional reactions are virtually instant, whereas more objective processing and “sense-making” take longer.
We all have goals that we want to achieve in both work and life (even if you don’t deliberately set goals, you are probably still working toward SOMETHING in your life!), and feedback is a critical source of data to let us know how we’re progressing toward those goals. How can you help others pursue their goals and have better self-awareness through useful, constructive feedback?
Brodie completed her PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology in 2010 at The University of Akron, under the supervision of Dr. Paul Levy (’84; ‘15P). She currently works as a consultant with PDRI in Arlington, VA. Prior to joining PDRI Brodie worked in Global Leadership Development at Procter & Gamble and spent a year at W&L as a visiting faculty member in the psychology department. Brodie recently completed her term as President of the W&L Alumni Board of Directors.
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