I am not much in the habit of watching those shows where celebrities are manufactured out of ordinary people, but a few years ago I got hooked on a show called “Any Dream Will Do”, with young men auditioning to star as Joseph in a new Andrew Lloyd Webber production. There were some great performances, but the single moment that has stuck in my mind was an exchange between one performer, Keith Jack, and John Barrowman, who was judging. Barrowman complemented Keith on some aspect of his performance, but they then had the following exchange:
Barrowman: “… however, your diction is appalling”
Jack: “But I’ve been working so hard on it.”
Barrowman: “Maybe, but you didn’t work hard enough”
I still remember this because it is so counter-cultural. All of us in the business of training, educating, managing and coaching are encouraged to build up confidence, to use the “praise sandwich”, to acknowledge efforts. John Barrowman here is not bothering with any of that, just delivering the brutal truth. At the moment, Keith, you are not good enough. However hard you are working, you will not be successful unless you work harder.
This story came to mind because, in preparation for our projects in our studies, we are reflecting on feedback and its uses. Is John setting a good example here of how to give feedback (it worked, by the way, Keith plugged away at his diction, fixed it, was runner-up in the competition and is now a successful actor and singer)?
In my varied career, I have had lots of experience of giving and receiving feedback. I once worked for a company where the annual appraisal process included anonymous, 360 degree feedback from 10-15 colleagues, a mix of peers, those senior to you and junior to you. It meant that we all spent a fair bit of July and August writing reviews of each other – a significant time investment. But it was considered a worthwhile investment to contribute to the development of staff.
Such systems are open to abuse and there were safeguards. Only a handful of people had access to the data about who had written comments (I was a divisional HR manager and I didn’t have access to this). The role of the line manager also became critical – filtering out “outlier” comments and dealing with anything that seemed malicious or unhelpful. But broadly, from my perspective, it worked. Appraisals were often uncomfortable, but I developed over time a very good appreciation of how I was perceived by others in the organisation, which meant that I could start to manage those perceptions. And in that sort of context perceptions are everything.
We also tried to encourage informal feedback, with mixed results. A number of factors must be present for informal feedback to work, most notably trust and respect for the person giving the feedback. I have seen many examples where “giving feedback” was in reality cover for an ego trip or putting someone down gratuitously. But a working relationship where there is enough mutual trust to give honest, balanced feedback is incredibly valuable. I guess if there is a huge amount of respect and credibility involved then, as with the John Barrowman example, that is also very helpful.
In our study context, we will be working on our projects and encouraged to give each other feedback on them. My experience of these situations suggests that people will be much happier to give positive rather than constructive feedback. Can we build up enough trust quickly so that we can critique each other in a respectful but clear way? It will be interesting to find out.