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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Don't Be Afraid to Give Direct Feedback

Scott Taylor

Superintendent- Kenilworth Schools; Adjunct- Rutgers University

Until several years ago, I had a hard time confronting my subordinates with direct, straight-up critical feedback. I didn't want the awkwardness I thought would come from telling someone he wasn't doing his job correctly. However, I grew out of this feeling over time and found constructive, professional ways to provide critical feedback.

Starting the Conversation

A New York Times interview with Karen May, Vice President for People Development at Google, got me thinking anew about my period of feedback insecurity. Below is an excerpt from the article:

Q: Many CEOs I've interviewed talk about how hard it is for people to give direct feedback. Have you seen that, too?
A: Absolutely. I would say it happens for a couple of reasons. It's simply harder to give difficult feedback than positive feedback or no feedback. It's harder because it can be an uncomfortable conversation. It creates tension. You might be disappointing somebody or potentially leading them to feel worse about themselves.
Q: If you've identified something that isn't going well, then you're likely to be asked, "How do I fix it?" If you don't know the answer, you might not want to start the conversation. I think that's the primary reason managers don't give feedback. They're willing to give the feedback, but then they won't know how to help fix it, so why start the conversation?
A: As a coach, I was often in the position of giving people feedback they hadn't heard before, after I interviewed a bunch of people they work with. It was always difficult for me, too. Just at a human level, it's difficult to tell somebody that something that isn't working about them. But I came to find that people are incredibly grateful. If I'm not doing well and I don't know it, or I don’t know why, or I can't put my finger on what's not working and no one will tell me, I won't be able to fix it.

And if you give me the information, the moment that the information is being transferred is painful, but then I have the opportunity to change it. I've come to realize that one of the most valuable things I could do for somebody is tell them exactly what nobody else had told them before.

Ask Reflective Questions

There are ways to present critical feedback in a non-threatening manner. I have leveraged reflective questions to engage my faculty in fruitful conversations about performance (particularly during post-observation meetings). For instance, I will pose the following reflective question: "I noticed three out of the 20 students in the class were talking about something unrelated to the lesson. What ways could you have redirected these students back to the lesson?" The more traditional approach to discussing student management could have had me state: "You did not effectively engage three students in the lesson. I would like you to work on managing students so all of them are focused on the task at hand." The reflective question above addressed the same issue but compelled the teacher, in a nonthreatening manner, to think about the issue I had with the lesson.

My reflective questions are loosely based on ideas I borrowed from The Three-Minute Classroom Walk-Through: Changing School Supervisory Practice One Teacher at a Time (Downey, et al., 2004). I start by stating a fact and then pose an open-ended question laced with a targeted message that speaks to the intent of my feedback (my emphasis in the example above was on getting the teacher to have all students focused on the lesson).

There is nothing wrong with intrinsically motivating people to think critically about the performance feedback they are given. Finding creative ways to provide this feedback will embolden leaders to help their subordinates grow through their professional needs, and will encourage these people to use the feedback to excel.

Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Scott Taylor's picture
Scott Taylor
Superintendent- Kenilworth Schools; Adjunct- Rutgers University
Blogger 2014

Good points. Why do we get stuck in this rut of thinking feedback has to be delivered in an uncomfortable, potentially mean manner? It's a shame more people cannot just weave critical feedback into a conversation.

Claudiu Ion's picture
Claudiu Ion
parent of one middle-school students Bucharest Romania

Interesting approach. You gave me some ideas, even I'm on the other side.

Ms. Hester Darcy, MSOD's picture

I don't remember who said it first, but "feedback is often more about the giver than the receiver." I often check myself for my motives before giving feedback, and I try to develop relationships where feedback is continuous and two-way. The more often you ask for and give feedback with someone, the more you each develop it as a skill.

Scott Taylor's picture
Scott Taylor
Superintendent- Kenilworth Schools; Adjunct- Rutgers University
Blogger 2014

The problem I sometimes have is that my subordinates do not want to give me feedback (even anonymous). As one veteran principal recently said, "Scott, I'm from a generation of administrators that did not grow up giving bosses feedback."

Ms. Hester Darcy, MSOD's picture

I like that she/he was able to give you a better understanding of his/her struggle. And I can definitely understand that would make it more challenging. I help care for my 89-year old great aunt and she rarely complains, which makes it difficult to address health issues she might be having. But if she can't tell me if and where she's having pain, I can't help make it better. I wonder if you can re-frame it in a different context for your principal?

Scott Taylor's picture
Scott Taylor
Superintendent- Kenilworth Schools; Adjunct- Rutgers University
Blogger 2014

Good advice/illustration here Hester. I could bring up a similar analogy (doctor/caretaker-patient relationship). I believe I have to continue working on the culture of the district so it can evolve to be in continual-learning-via-self-reflection mode as much as possible!

Derek Pule's picture
Derek Pule
Distance Education Specialist

Most people see it as risk to voice an opinion to a higher authority. It takes raw passion to be able to constantly voice your opinion and that's rare to find in todays world.

Scott Taylor's picture
Scott Taylor
Superintendent- Kenilworth Schools; Adjunct- Rutgers University
Blogger 2014

I agree it takes a different kind of person (one who is confident and self-assured with him/herself) to voice an opinion and one particularly intended for a superior. I do, however, believe it is incumbent upon the leader to promote a culture that is conducive to self-reflection and constructive criticism.

Derek Pule's picture
Derek Pule
Distance Education Specialist

Well, the new style of parenting has designed children to not deal with negative feedback. I think negative feedback is healthy and it makes people emotionally stronger. Negative feedback needs to just be done with the right tact and then you can get more done.

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