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How can we change the feedback experience? Shift Positive

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

My purpose is to encourage the light within leaders to shine brighter. Yet, for so many of us, the feedback and evaluation process does not encourage us to shine bright. If anything, it dims our light. Usually. I say usually because I’ve finally discovered a completely different feedback experience that encourages one’s light to shine.

My prior experiences with feedback were, in a word, demoralizing.

Take the academic tenure process for instance, perhaps the most comprehensive and pressure filled evaluation in existence. Over the course of a seven year period, a young, starry-eyed, faculty member like me accumulates a dossier full of teaching evaluations, colleague recommendations, grants, publications, presentations, awards, committee service, and more to join the hallowed ranks of “tenured professor”. My complete dossier at the time of tenure completely filled a 4 inch binder, with a separate 1 inch binder providing a 40 page overview and table of contents.

What did I receive back? A single page document with ratings in three areas and a two sentence justification for each rating. Oh… and a concluding sentence that said, “Congratulations! You’ve been awarded tenure.” That’s it. Seven years and two huge binders of sweat and tears invested. One piece of paper in return.

Or take the example of my very first performance evaluation as school leader. Every teacher, key employee, and board member filled out a survey asking about my performance in 20+ areas. (Gathering multi-source feedback from those above, below, and beside a leader is often called 360-degree feedback and is used by the military and 85% of Fortune 500 companies.)

My evaluation was delivered to me publicly at a Board Meeting. The report crushed me. While my ratings were satisfactory to excellent, and despite the fact my contract was renewed, I was devastated by the lengthy anonymous narrative criticism that nitpicked everything I had done that year – a year in which I worked harder, learned more, and achieved more (or so I thought) than ever before. I felt so defeated that I almost resigned on the spot.

Here’s what went wrong with my feedback and evaluation experiences:

  • Demoralizing – Our brains have a negativity bias. No matter how many positive things may be said of us, it’s the biting, negative critique that will lodge itself permanently in our brains. Feedback is often interpreted by our nervous systems as a perceived threat worthy of a full blown stress response. No wonder more than a third of 360 feedback systems lead to a decrease in performance.

  • “Desk drop” – Rarely is there ongoing support, follow up, or interaction after an evaluation. I got what is euphemistically known as a “desk drop” – compiling a report and “dropping it” on a recipient’s desk and abandoning them to figure it out. Yet the one variable identified by the research as most important to sustained leadership improvement is follow up.

  • Not actionable – Most evaluations promise anonymity in order to encourage respondents to be honest and forthcoming. The feedback recipient is left with a bag of vague, non-specific generalizations about their weaknesses and failures. Neither the one pager declaring “Congratulations!” nor the anonymous report is actionable. I didn’t have any idea how to improve.

Almost every professional who’s been working for a while has had a bad experience with feedback. There is so much potential and value possible that we're missing.

The Solution: Shift Positive

I just completed my certification in Shift Positive 360 and I am blown away by how completely opposite the feedback experience can be.

From demoralizing to inspiring – The entire process is grounded in positive psychology, a newer branch of psychology focused on what makes people thrive. It focuses on leveraging a person’s strengths, what’s working, and what to do more of (rather than all the problems and what’s gone wrong). After receiving her Shift Positive 360 report, Diana said, “I read my report before I go to bed or when I’m having a bad day because it makes me feel good.” Seriously. I ripped up that crushing first school leader evaluation, yet my own Shift Positive report lives in my “Feel Good” bucket where I keep my kids’ love notes and 20+ years of thank you notes (the image for this post = my "Feel Good" bucket).

From “desk drop” to allyship – We all operate within an interconnected social system. We don’t change by ourselves. Thus, soliciting input from colleagues in Shift Positive isn’t anonymous information gathering, rather it’s engaging each and every participant into becoming allies for your success. Let that sit for a moment. Imagine if your colleagues above, below, and beside you were all primed to encourage your growth because it truly mattered to them. Imagine if you knew exactly what lens they see you through and what a win for them might look like. Imagine what difference it would make to you if those allies were primed to notice and reinforce the positive changes they see in you. Thus, your colleagues become your allies. Bonus: If a leadership coach is involved in the 360 process, they become a catalyst for change within the entire system.

From not actionable to actionable – Finally, there’s that whole question about anonymity. The Shift Positive 360 is not confidential or anonymous because only when a leader can clearly see the specific behaviors needed within the relationships where that matters can he or she make lasting change. The General, vague critiques aren’t helpful. Specific, actionable solutions are. The coach is there to help each ally drill past the problems and what’s wrong towards solutions that build on what’s right. The other part of actionability is that most leaders already know what to do, it’s just hard to do it in real life. They’ve read the books, sat through workshops, and had the insights. Yet until they get out of their comfort zone, put those insights into practice, and keep doing it, changes don’t stick. Just consider how many New Years resolutions are made then die by the end of January. That’s why the end result of Shift Positive 360 offers a set of aspirational goals and an actionable plan surrounded by a social system of support – allies and a coach – to help the leader practice, see their successes, learn from mistakes, and thus create deep lasting change.

Whatever feedback or evaluation system you are currently using can benefit from a shift positive. Here’s six tips:

  1. Focus on a person’s strengths, not their weaknesses. Daniel Kirschenbaum took two groups of novices bowling. One group had a coach that pointed out everything they did wrong in comparison to others and encouraged them to stop those behaviors. The other group had a coach that pointed out everything they did right and to do more of that. The strengths-focused evaluation and coaching showed double the improvement than focusing on weaknesses. Everyone has gifts and talents. Focus on those.

  2. Get actionable. Help those offering feedback clearly describe exactly what they want to see and what success would look like in their mind’s eye. Questions framed that way help avoid vague generalities that are not actionable. That's also why confidentiality needs to be set by the wayside when it comes to 360s. Anonymous critiques erode relationships. Constructive, contextualized, transparent feedback delivered with compassion builds relationships and, most importantly, is actionable.

  3. Follow up. Whether it’s a supervisor, coach, or peer, someone should follow up with a person before, during, and long after delivering feedback. Clearly set the stage for the process so the recipient understands the intent and stakes. If you are asking people to invest time and energy into assembling the evaluation/feedback report, then balance that with a similar investment of time and energy helping that individual put insights and learnings from that report into practice. Avoid the "desk drop."

  4. Debrief in private. Worse yet, don’t drop a bomb in the middle of a Board meeting. Do it in private with someone the recipient trusts, and in a way that offers context, compassion, and care.

  5. Enlist social networks as allies for chance. If you want to see something change, shape the social environment to support that change. People who lack sufficient social support “live in a world where hills are steeper, distances greater, precipices deeper, and other kinds of physical challenges more daunting and demanding,” says Simone Schnall and colleagues. Instead, people with a friend beside them, or even after just calling to mind someone supportive will “see challenges in a more moderate way” and “live in a subjectively less demanding and stressful world.”

  6. Savoring. That pernicious negativity bias we all carry as humans causes negative things to disproportionately influence our thinking. Loss and hurt are felt more keenly and persistently than the fleeting gratification of pleasant, joyful things. Thus, savor the good things. Savor the small wins. Savor the positive feedback. Savor the successes. Savor the experiments that work out.

It’s time to shift feedback to something more positive. Shine bright wonderful leaders.

Read More

Learn more about Shift Positive 360 on their website.

Whenever there’s a chance, pause and savor. Write them down. Make a mental note. Pray about it. Start and end every meeting with a moment of gratitude. Whatever works for you.

This article by Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan offers a great overview of why sustained change in a leadership performance requires follow up.

And finally, learn more about Positive Psychology with this very comprehensive review.

Going Further

If you or someone you know would benefit from Shift Positive 360 feedback, or if you’d like to shift your existing feedback process more positive, I’d love to answer any questions and help if I can. Schedule 30 minutes on my calendar! Free. No sales pitch. Just service to spread the word.

Now that I’m certified, my one-on-one six or twelve month leadership coaching packages will include Shift Positive 360 feedback and a VIA Character Strengths Assessment as a standard offering. I have very limited availability to take on new clients so reach out ASAP if you or someone you know is interested in sustained support.

In the next week or two I’ll begin enrolling a new mastermind group and online course! Mastermind members will join a small, authentic community of exceptional visionaries that receive support and collective wisdom to take action on your biggest challenges or wishes. The online course offers short 20 minute lessons weekly to “level up” your leadership. Subscribe to be the first to know when enrollment begins or jump right in schedule a time to chat to see if it’s the right fit.

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