The Feedback Paradox

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I often hear educators say that they want feedback. I also hear that when feedback is given, some educators have a hard time being receptive. Both are often true. For example, when conducting a recent study with teachers, results showed an overwhelming majority of teachers sought “critical feedback to inform their practice, not just high fives or kudos.” When presenting the results of the survey to district leaders and administrators, many became frustrated and recounted story after story of how they had been met with defensiveness and hurt feelings when they provided critical feedback.

As I listened, I reflected on a time when I provided feedback that was met with resistance.  I remember feeling similarly to these administrators; I assumed the recipients were just seeking positive comments and didn’t want to grow. Upon further reflection and some critical feedback from a colleague, I was reminded of a valuable lesson — feedback is best received when there is a relationship and when people feel they are valued.

Whether you are a teacher, a coach, or an administrator, your job is to develop the skills, knowledgeshutterstock_429307234, and attitudes of others in a variety of capacities. In education, feedback is a critical part of this work. Central to be being able to provide useful and effective feedback is the ability to develop and sustain relationships. Investing the time and energy to get to know people as individuals, to understand their strengths, goals, and aspirations are critical to helping them grow and develop. The following experts from interviews with three teachers exemplify the impact of relationships on their openness to feedback.

Stephanie’s reflection focused on the challenges she had with one of her mentors coming to observe her, “I figured it out that I don’t have a relationship with this woman and I don’t trust her to come into my room and observe me and really get what is going on because she hasn’t been around.” Stephanie felt vulnerable being observed and receiving feedback from someone who she did not trust nor had her best interests in mind.

Similarly, Jeff desired more consistent communication and feedback from his principal. He explained that he was halfway through the school year and his principle had not shown up at any point that year, “if my principal came in now, it would be the first time I ever saw him in here and if he didn’t like it I would take it personally.”  He did not perceive that his principal cared about him or his development and therefore if he had a critique, Jeff knew he would react defensively.

Maria, on the other hand, had a much different experience. She felt that one of her mentors had taken the time to develop a relationship and as a result, she expressed she had become more receptive to mentoring as the year progressed.  She perceived this mentoring relationship as her best support throughout the year. “He gives me a ton of positive feedback to the point that I am more and more open and honest about what I am doing and seeking feedback. So it has given me the confidence to try new things.”  

shutterstock_302624507These teachers connected their openness to feedback to the relationship with the administrator, mentor, or coach providing feedback. There are great protocols and questioning techniques that allow for rich dialogue and powerful conversations.  These are important to help people move forward, but if you don’t have a relationship, none of it will matter. Mentoring or coaching relationships are built by developing trust and are maintained by consistent interactions and valuable feedback.

Before you offer feedback, consider these three questions from my friend and great leader, Brandon Wiley:

1.) Do you see me?  Have you taken the time to get to know the person as an individual?  Have you shared anything about yourself?  Can you talk to this person about anything but work?

2.) Do you know me? Can you name the strengths of this individual? Do you know what success they have had?  Do you know where they struggle and why?  Do you understand the barriers or challenges this person faces in their role?shutterstock_74444584

3.) Will you grow me? Do you know their personal goals or aspirations?  Have you co-developed goals to work on that you can refer to? How is your feedback connected to who they are and where they want to grow?

We are more willing and able to hear critical feedback when it comes from someone who we perceive cares about us as individuals, sees our strengths, and is ready to invest the time to help us grow. The reality is this takes time. requires people to take and make time to invest in getting to know everyone, but it will make moving forward much easier if you have relationships first.


Katie Martin, PhD
Director of Professional Learning, MTLC
Follow me on Twitter: @katiemtlc

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