Feedback is a gift

When we ask people in the business world to define performance, we typically get bombarded with the following: KPI’s, goals, results, financials, share value, delivering to target.

When we ask for a little more detail, then we might start getting words and terms that begin to focus more on the process of getting to the outcome, rather than simply the outcome.

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If you focus on the nature of conversations that happen frequently within the business world and the kind of questions that get asked, the not wholly helpful definition of performance is reinforced; regular forecast meetings that focus on where we need to be result wise; regular “performance improvement” conversations that actually mean that someone isn’t delivering their required output; last minute flurries of activity every month or quarter to try to hit the number, rather than a focus on sustained excellence around fundamentals of performance.

So the conclusion here is that if you define performance in a certain way, you’ll get very specific attitudes and behaviours and if you want to excel in your chosen field, you’d better make sure that the definition you have in the first place is as helpful as possible.

Goal setting

Something very similar happens with goal setting. It becomes a one off annual exercise, usually just before the beginning of a new year, with a flurry of focus on where we want to be, but then the goals are not reviewed (though results compared to target are reviewed obsessively).

It’s a bit like preparing and planting out a vegetable patch in the early spring, laying the ground and choosing your plants carefully, but then not having the time or energy to water and maintain what’s growing and all that early work becomes largely wasted.


And then there’s feedback.  Another essential performance word that’s been highjacked by the business world to mean something negative: “they need some feedback” (because they are way out of line). The word exists, but do we get performance value from it by understanding what it is and why it’s useful? And more than that how to use it? Is it used as a word to try and soften a negative message, or instead as a way of gaining knowledge about your performance and those of others, and do you use it to gain knowledge about yours and others results?

Lord Coe, double Olympic gold medalist, world record holder and Chairman of London 2012, once described the attitude to feedback of the elite athlete. He said that if someone else knew something about his performance, that could make him better, and didn’t tell him, and then they were letting him down.

We often describe performance feedback as a gift, and a gift in two ways, as something that you give and something you receive. When giving a gift, the giver would normally take a moment to consider a number of things. The context of the gift (why now?), what gift they want to give and they would choose it to have meaning for the recipient (they’d think about the impact that they want the gift to have). They would think about when (timing) and where (place) they would give their gift, and whether they would do it publicly or in private, and they would consider how it might be received. They might wrap it and present it with care. Similarly the giver of feedback might consider all these things, and choose the words and way in which they give the feedback to consider the person that’s receiving the gift.

With performance feedback, the gift would be about the performance not the person, though it’s given personally.

As a recipient of a gift, the first thing you would say is thank you. Providing you accepted that the gift is given with positive intent, then you would thank the giver for giving it. If the gift was lovely, you would embrace it and take it in (you certainly wouldn’t push it back! How many times does someone pay you a compliment and you reject it!!). If you didn’t like it, you might not say so, but would take it away and put it away (how many times has your performance been constructively criticised and the first thing you’ve said is “thank you”?) Hopefully you wouldn’t judge the gift too harshly there and then, especially if you know it was given with care and you in mind. So put simply, when it comes to performance feedback, considering feedback as a gift can be a really useful tool for becoming the best you can be.

Finally, feedback becomes even more powerful as a performance tool when it’s used with a purpose, i.e. with an impact in mind. Rather than asking for feedback, tell someone what you’d like feedback on and why. “I’d like feedback on xyz.” You can always ask a follow up “Anything else?” If you can own your own feedback, treating it as something you’re responsible for, then it’s not something you get given, it’s something you go and get.