Here at CEP, we’re all about feedback and its capacity to inform funders’ decisions about making meaningful changes and improvements to their work. That’s why we analyze feedback data in our research reports and work with funders to help them hear from the candid perspectives of key stakeholders, such as their grantees, staff, and donors, through our assessments.
The substance of feedback is of course vital, but it’s also important to consider the process through which feedback is given and received. To that end, we’ve put together this digest of blog posts on how to think about, give, and receive feedback in ways that are effective, and thus allow the substance to come through in ways that can best inform the positive change we’re all after.
CEP’s Ethan McCoy interviews Doug Stone, lecturer at Harvard Law School and co-author of two New York Times bestsellers, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most and Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. In the interview, Stone shares insights about navigating common pitfalls in how we give and receive feedback, including when it’s difficult and when there’s a power imbalance at play.
One of the most interesting things we observed when we were exploring the topic of feedback is that among those who give and receive it, there’s almost a taboo about discussing the process and challenges of feedback. Taboo is too strong a word, but it’s surprising how few people will sit down with someone they are giving feedback to or receiving it from and discuss their purposes, their tendencies, and the various challenges inherent in the conversation.
CEP Vice President, Programming and External Relations, Grace Nicolette shares her key takeaways from reading Stone and co-author Sheila Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback. Nicolette discusses three different types of feedback that Stone and Heen identify — appreciation, coaching, and evaluation — and why it’s so vital that we avoid conflating the three when giving and receiving feedback.
Since funders and grantees each bring unique roles, perspectives, and resources to bear on their relationship with one another, ensuring that two-way feedback is as unencumbered as possible can only benefit and propel the work forward.
The remedy that Stone and Heen prescribe to these conundrums is both simple and hard: quite simply, we must clearly separate out each strand of feedback and make sure that both parties are on the same page about the goal of the conversation. In practice, this is hard. As givers and receivers of feedback, we often don’t enter these conversations with a clear sense of what we are hoping to achieve.
Nicolette discusses an additional important thread of Stone and Heen’s work: how different triggers influence how we receive and respond to feedback, and what can be done to counter them. Nicolette keys in on the importance of identifying “switchtracking,” a situation in which someone receiving feedback responds to an underlying relationship issue instead of the specific instance of feedback at hand. She envisions how this could play out in a funder-grantee conversation.
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.
In a guest post, consultant Valerie Threlfall shares findings from her report on defining what we actually mean when we talk about perceptual feedback, and why coming to a shared definition is so important for the field.
As the paper states, “We have seen the power that perceptual data can have in challenging assumptions, bringing forward client voice, and helping to improve service provision. When implemented well, perceptual feedback practices and systems can generate powerful complementary performance data and tangible insights that can dramatically improve service delivery and guide organizational focus.”
Our hope is that clearer definitions and a more consistent understanding of what we mean by perceptual feedback will lead to better conversations, implementations, and outcomes.
Megan Campbell and Dennis Whittle of Feedback Labs discuss common threads between five foundations profiled in CEP’s recent publication, Staying Connected: How Five Foundations Understand Those They Seek to Help, and funders in their network that share their feedback practices with one another.
Participants in our network are starting to ask, “How can we listen and learn faster? How can we adapt what we do as we go, rather than merely passing judgment on what we have done in the past? Can we create incentives to adapt based on what we learn along the way, rather than punish staff for ‘messing up’ the original design?” When these questions apply to listening to and learning from beneficiaries of funding, it’s a powerful step in the right direction for turning feedback from a ticked box into meaningful action.
Ethan McCoy is senior writer, development and communications, at CEP.