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How to give constructive feedback in comms teams

I remember how I felt as an 11 year old with the feedback from my French teacher. Each week we we’d be set a long list of vocabulary to learn. The following day we would be tested, English to French. The pass mark was 75 per cent and, if you failed, you’d be given extra written work to do at home and told to work harder. I was never any good at learning by rote so received negative feedback most weeks.

Did the punishments or disapproving comments help? Not at all: I just found them demoralising. My fiery French teacher’s feedback gave me no practical way to improve, and was based on the misconception that only reason we might fail was if we were being lazy. Funnily enough, people say I have a good memory – it works like a magpie – but back then I needed help on understanding my learning style and how to chunk information.

Ironically, Daniel Goldman, in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, says that a bias towards positivity in feedback is what opens us up to learning. He writes: “A conversation that starts with a person’s dreams and hopes can lead to a learning path yielding that vision”. Conversely, focusing on failings and “all the feelings of guilt, fear, and the like” is counterproductive. “One of the worst versions of this approach,” he says, “occurs when parents punish a child for bad grades until he improves. The anxiety associated with being punished actually hampers the child’s prefrontal cortex while he is trying to concentrate and learn, creating further impediment to improvement”.

Anyway, I got so fed up with failing French tests that I asked another teacher for advice. He recommended that I ask to sit down with my French teacher and discuss in detail how we would get me passing, and commit to doing whatever it took. This worked, and once I had some practical techniques for how to improve, my scores dramatically improved.

Clearly some feedback is more effective than others. Here are five techniques of feedback and alternatives I try to use.

1. Help individuals to grow

Feedback is much more readily accepted if people believe you have their interests at heart. The little secret of how I like to work with my team is that I avoid a transactional view of employment – the notion that people should be happy to work because they are paid.

What does that mean in practice? Well, in addition to delivering better marketing outcomes, my aim is to help individuals in the team grow as professionals. Once you engage with a team member about their career desires and what they want to achieve in life, and you’re helping them get there, feedback is seen more kindly and is easier to accept.

2. Work out when training, not feedback, is what’s needed

In a marketing team, you can hire unqualified marketers but you have to put them on an apprenticeship or training programme. Yet some companies don’t realise they need to do this – and the result is frustration and poor results. Trying to resolve poor performance by feedback, if you’ve shirked the responsibility to train, is unlikely to be successful. That’s because the recipients are lacking the structure of a marketing knowledge base. Feedback might just be seen as someone seemingly arbitrarily interfering with their work.

Tom Peters, in his book The Excellence Dividend, says that training is any organisation’s Success Practice no. 1. “I am utterly dismayed, stunned, even enraged when others don’t see it the way I do,” he says. “What is the very best reason to go bananas over training-training-training? GREED. (It pays off. BIG-TIME.) (And, contrary to conventional ‘wisdom’, damn near immediately.)”

By the way, training is just as important for qualified marketers, too. Daniel Goleman, again in his book Focus, makes the point that “those at the top never stop learning”.

I know some people think that training staff is risky, but I think their argument is nuts. It goes: if we train them, what happens if they leave? We’ll have wasted money. The standard riposte is: if we don’t train them, what if they stay? And then there’s Richard Branson’s line: “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to”. My central view is that if you’re helping people to develop and achieve their aspirations, they will actually be more likely to stay.

3. Make sure negative feedback is not overblown

I can’t actually remember giving negative feedback to any of the current members of my team, but that probably says more about them than me. Advice and help, yes. But, as a general principle, I think it is both kind and reassuring when giving negative feedback to ensure it’s not overblown.

In addition, it’s useful to make sure that, on a regular basis, you’re giving a bit more positive feedback than you might naturally give if weren’t thinking about it. I am a habitual user of hand-written thank you notes.

4. Guide by asking questions and creating consensus on principles

Dale Carnegie, whose book I am well overdue re-reading, put it thus: “Asking questions not only makes an order more palatable; it often stimulates the creativity of the persons whom you ask. People are more likely to accept an order if they have had a part in the decision that caused the order to be issued.” Feedback doesn’t have to involve telling people exactly what to do but can involve asking people questions that help them devise a good answer.

A related point is that if the team has come to a consensus about its principles and core ideas – e.g. we’re going to use data tools to inform which pages to create on our website, and we think Drayton Bird has some interesting advice on how to do copywriting – it enables people to use their own compasses to find a good solutions that the rest of the team will buy into.

5. Ask for feedback from direct reports

As a line manager, there’s a lot to be said for asking team members individually for feedback on what they like and don’t like about how they are managed. In my team, there is a certain culture of equality in which we tend to make decisions by consensus – everyone has the opportunity to input. Asking team members for feedback using open questions, e.g. “What things do you think I could improve on as a manager?”, adds to that equality and enables feedback to be a two-way street.

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