In common parlance, feedback is any type of information given back to a person – evaluations, opinions, frustrations, complaints, or suggestions. Feedback is anything the giver wants to communicate. But this is a confusing misuse of the term that originally comes from cybernetics (control theory), where it refers to the signal looped back to a controlled system with the intention of steering it in a certain direction.
So, feedback is not what the giver wants to communicate, but what the receiver needs to hear in order to change behavior to achieve an intended result. Feedback is a signal targeted to influence the receiver and trigger particular behavior. Feedback is a steering mechanism.
The Duty of Care Feedback Model illustrates how feedback works and specifies how both the giver and receiver should behave to achieve an effective outcome. Key to the model is the understanding that giving feedback should NOT be about the giver wanting to communicate information to the receiver (“how do I package my criticism?”), but about the giver wanting to influence the receiver (“how do I get the behavior I want?”). Normally a person will be given an assignment as input (also called feedforward), leading to a certain behavior as output, which in the operating context will result in a particular outcome (the dark blue arrows). Information about the behavior and results needs to flow to the feedback giver (gray arrows), who should then avoid communicating a judgment, triggering a defense, but rather needs to think about effective signals to steer the receiver (light blue arrows). The feedback can be confirmative/ corrective (intended to only adjust behavior) or adaptive (also adjusting the assignment).
Both the feedback giver and receiver have a duty of care – they have a responsibility to be attentive to what is needed to achieve a beneficial outcome. For both parties the required mindset and behaviors are summarized with the abbreviation CARE.
As feedback is about influencing, not judging, for feedback givers it is key to get receivers to want to accept the feedback. This can be achieved by sticking to the following four guidelines:
- Feedback should never feel like a complaint or reprimand the giver needs to vent, but rather as a well-intended attempt to assist the receiver.
- Feedback should never leave the receiver wondering what to do but rather suggest tangible behaviors that can directly be put into practice.
- Relevant. Feedback should never consist of general reflections, but rather of pertinent suggestions to the receiver on how the shared goal can be achieved more effectively.
- Empathetic. Feedback should never exude arrogance or contempt towards the receiver but rather understanding, well-willingness and appreciation.
At the same time, if the feedback giver is seeking to help with care, the feedback receiver needs to open up to being helped. This can be achieved by sticking to the following guidelines:
- Feedback shouldn’t be approached defensively, but requires the receiver to exhibit a growth mindset, with a high level of open-mindedness to potentially useful inputs.
- Feedback shouldn’t be seen as inflicted by the giver but requires the receiver to be openly grateful for the time and energy the giver is willing spend helping.
- Feedback shouldn’t be superficially listened to and then meekly accepted but requires receivers to show the courage to critically examine their own behavior.
- Explorative. Feedback shouldn’t be seen as orders to be blindly implemented but requires the receiver to take ownership of the process of searching for and trying out new behaviors.
- Feedback is about steering people’s behavior. Feedback is the signal given to someone with the intention of redirecting them in a preferred direction. The feedback giver will use information about someone’s current behavior (output) and results (outcome) to determine what type of influence is required to keep them on, or get them back on, track.
- Feedback is NOT about judging people’s behavior. To most people, “giving feedback” is about expressing their opinion about someone else. It is about judging others and telling them what they are doing wrong. But that is assessment, not feedback. Feedback is not about what the observer thinks and feels, but what the person in question needs to change – it is not about sharing critical judgment but sharing help and suggestions.
- There are three types of feedback. When the feedback giver senses the receiver is on track, confirmative feedback can be given (“keep up the good work”), while corrective feedback will be needed when off track (“do a bit more of that”). Where the initial assignment was unclear or unrealistic adaptive feedback will be needed (“change goals”).
- Effective feedback requires the giver’s care. Instead of being self-involved and judging, feedback givers need to be empathetic towards receivers and constructively suggest improvement or sustaining actions that are immediately relevant and applicable.
- Effective feedback requires the receiver’s care. Instead of being closed and defensive, feedback receivers need to appreciate the constructive help, curiously listening to and reflecting on the suggestions, while showing a willingness to explore new behaviors.