Last December, we started a post here about giving and receiving feedback with the words “I’m not a sociologist, nor even a psychologist, but I do sometimes wonder if human beings have an innate problem with two-way communication.”  I don’t know if Evan Davis was reading (ironically, he hosted a BBC programme we mentioned in the earlier post), but a BBC programme shown last night – The Day the Immigrants Left (available till 3 March on iPlayer, so click quickly) – made us wonder. Although it wasn’t the biggest thing that it made us wonder about. We had thought that giving feedback in a constructive, sensitive and timely fashion was an issue for line managers: we hadn’t realised that carpenters had a problem with it too.

Picking up on the changing immigration patterns of the last couple of years (as our recent in-flux of plumbers, painters and heating engineers fled in search of the comparatively god-paved streets of Gdansk and Vilnius), the company gave some of the unemployed of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, an opportunity to compare their performance with those of the immigrant workers who they have been ready to label as ‘stealing their jobs’. We’re not about to get into the tangled murk that is the issue of immigration (we suggest you watch the programme, which – as might be expected from Davis – was well crafted and intelligent, and mostly chose appropriate tools with which to crack any nuts it identified): even our comparatively lengthy blog posts simply don’t allow the space. What the programme did provide was a fascinating example of the problems of workplace feedback.

Given the opportunity to demonstrate the prowess of the Great British Chippy (as opposed to the Great British Chippie), we were introduced to Dean. Pausing to gloss over his assumption that Lithuania – his supervisor’s home country – was in the third world rather than the EU, Dean seemed to have a few problems with receiving constructive guidance. The comment that he should use screws rather than a nail gun to improve the durability of his plasterboard work was timely (tick), constructively (tick) and delivered unthreateningly (tick). Dean’s “interaction with his feedback provider” was certainly instantaneous (half a tick) …

The eye-opener was his opinion that feedback was a process that should consist of talking about him behind his back when he’d left, and that giving comments face-to-face was in some way rude. Programme editing, especially an hour-long single programme covering several people and a viper’s nest of topics, can simplify or omit with even the best of intentions, of course: by the end of the experiment, Dean had generated sufficient regard for his work that he was kept on for two week’s additional work to complete the job in hand. (And the BBC Website has a very favourable comment on his handiwork in response to one of the articles about the programme: we should be clear that we are not in any way intended to single him out: even if we were, feedback should, of course, rise above the purely personal and should always strive to avoid being hurtful.)

Dean’s not the only ‘service provider’ most of us – and I’m no exception – will have come across who took umbrage at having his performance questioned or his approach brought under scrutiny. (I’ve recently experienced the joys of a taxi driver who had a better idea of where I lived than I did, a window cleaner who seemed to think leaving the corners dirty was ‘a la mode’ this season, and a delivery company I’ve already ranted about, to list – if not actually ‘name and shame’ – but three.)

What I struggled with was how a valuable lesson – ie if you tried this approach and took these comments on board, we’d give you more work and you’d better off and helping your self-esteem – was interpreted as somehow offensive. I appreciate that unemployment does precious little for anyone’s self-regard, and those whose pride has taken a hammering (no pun intended) might feel defensive in the face of comment, but an approach to constructive feedback that seemed to suggest that the ‘stick my fingers in my ears and sing loudly’ approach was the best way was beyond me. Even if you’re half a mile away, engaged in something constructive (brushing up on European geography, perhaps), you can’t learn from a conversation that you’re not taking part in.

For any of us, no matter how elevated or humble, feedback is a chance to learn and to discover – to engage in dialogue that helps us find a better way forward for ourselves, to make sure we understand a situation that we may have wrongly or incompletely grasped, and to improve a working relationship (both with our supervisors and with the tools of our chosen trade). While ‘screw this’ was simultaneously the right and the wrong answer in this particular instance, the lesson for those of us on the receiving end in the feedback process is to maximise the potential opportunities of the situation. As Oscar Wilde once quipped, there is only one thing worse than being talked about …

For those on the giving end, there is perhaps a slightly different lesson. Some people will take feedback badly (an issue we touched on in a previous article, discussing the characteristics of the highly creative), and – as our earlier post pointed out – feedback is a loop process. Adjust the tone and message to the situation and it has a better chance of getting through: feedback is about listening as well as talking.

But perhaps there’s a higher level of message here, and one that most companies should make sure they hear: employees should know that feedback is a continuous, on-going element of performance management and improvement. Its purpose is not to demonstrate the status of the line manager, their superior ‘power’ or knowledge: even when dealing with carpenters, a hammer isn’t the only tool. (Any line manager with this approach to feedback frankly deserves to receive some of their own.) Feedback that is not constructive and sensitive isn’t doing its job – which is to lead to a better situation and a better performance. The better an organisation can communicate the intentions of its feedback process and its place in its performance management culture, the better the chance that the process will deliver its intended result. Handled poorly, feedback can put up firmer, more durable walls that even the world’s finest carpenter …

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl