Learning the Science and Art of Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback doesn’t come naturally to me, and I’m on a journey of sorts with it. Like many, I appreciate receiving direct feedback as long as it’s delivered in a helpful way, but I tend to dread giving feedback to others. For years, I was a subscriber to the “sandwich” method of providing feedback: couching constructive feedback between two layers of thick praise, often causing the constructive part to get lost in the mix.

But early in my tenure at CEP, I realized that this was something I needed to change. One of the things we emphasize most at CEP is our culture of both giving and receiving feedback that is honest, direct, and constructive. After all, we exist to help provide funders with candid and actionable feedback and insights to improve their work, so being able to walk the talk ourselves is vital to our mission.

I distinctly recall my pleasant surprise at my first few CEP staff meetings, during which staff members posed thoughtful questions and suggestions to the president and senior leadership, which led to noticeable improvements in the way we do our work. Some of my most helpful interactions with my CEP colleagues have been when seeking feedback on upcoming presentations and high-stakes meetings. Being able to practice in front of them and also have opportunities to help others tweak and refine their work has made a tremendous difference in my own development.

I’ve also benefited from the practice of giving and receiving feedback in one-on-one settings over the years, which has changed the way I work and manage others for the better. My colleagues and I are genuinely invested in each other’s success, and it’s one of the most helpful and enjoyable things about working at CEP.

These are some of the reasons why I’ve been enjoying the book, Thanks for the Feedback: the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, by Doug Stone and Sheila Heen, lecturers at Harvard Law School. CEP staff were assigned to read portions of the book prior to our recent all-staff retreat. As I’ve dug into the book, I’ve discovered so many applications to both my work life and personal life — and to the world of foundation grantmaking. I hope to share some of these takeaways over the course of several blog posts.

When Feedback Triggers Us

Stone and Heen make the point that all barriers to effectively giving or receiving feedback fall into three categories:

  • Truth triggers: The feedback is perceived as untrue, unfair, or unhelpful.
  • Relationship triggers: “I can’t hear this from you, of all people.”
  • Identity triggers: The feedback threatens our sense of self and destabilizes us.

The authors provide specific frameworks for thinking about how to counter each of these triggers, the most helpful, in my opinion, being the identification of “switchtracking” — a situation in which someone receiving feedback responds to an underlying relationship issue instead of the specific instance of feedback at hand. My observation is that this accounts for a huge number of interpersonal conflicts we face in both our work and personal lives.

In the context of foundation-grantee relationships, it’s easy to imagine switchtracking in a purely hypothetical scenario such as this:

Funder: We have decided to discontinue funding in this programmatic area, as our strategy has changed.

Nonprofit: Is it something we’ve done? Are we falling short in some way?

In this case, there’s two conversations that need to happen — one on the strategy change and another on the grantee’s performance. Identifying that switchtracking is happening is more than half the battle. The next step is to then separate the tracks by “signposting,” or calling out two different tracks whenever possible. I found this conversation guide from the book to be helpful:

“I see two related but separate topics for us to discuss. They are both important. Let’s discuss each topic fully but separately.”

This sounds simple, but it’s easier said than done. My key takeaway: all of this takes practice!

More on Feedback to Come

Thinking more critically about giving and receiving feedback well is something that we can all benefit from, whether it’s in the context of our homes, our offices, or the foundation field. If you’re interested in learning more about this, I highly recommend taking a look at Thanks for the Feedback.

Doug Stone will also be a plenary speaker at CEP’s 2017 conference, Leading Effective Foundations, which will take place in Boston from April 4-6th, 2017. We’re thrilled to have him on the program. Save the date on your calendars now, and sign up for our email alert to receive notification about when registration will open this fall!

Grace Nicolette is vice president, programming and external relations, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @GraceNicolette.