How to Frame Negative Feedback as Forward-Facing Guidance

post by Liron · 2020-02-09T02:47:37.230Z · score: 45 (17 votes) · LW · GW · 7 comments

Contents

  The Forward-Facing Frame
None
7 comments

Your employee Fred always talks too much during your weekly staff meetings. It's been an ongoing issue. Everyone on your team is annoyed, and so are you. At this point, you have no choice but to give Fred some... negative feedback.

You sit down at your computer and start drafting what you're going to say to Fred:

Listen Fred, we think you're talking too much in our staff meetings and it's lowering the quality of the discussion. Can you try to talk a little less and let other people talk more?

But wait... let's be tactful here. Your goal is to optimize how you criticize Fred to maximize expected positive behavioral change. In that sense, your rough draft isn't super tactful yet.

I challenge you to try this now as a 5-minute exercise: What communication technique would you apply here? What exact words would you say to Fred?

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The "shit sandwich" technique comes to mind, i.e. sandwiching your negative-feedback turd inside two slices of positive feedback. But let's use a much better technique: framing negative feedback as guidance. Here's how I'd do that:

Fred,
I think you have some room for improvement in the way you present ideas at our staff meetings. Sometimes I notice that you're making a valid point, which is a great contribution, but it doesn't get fully appreciated by the rest of the team. I want to share some techniques with you that I've seen our senior staff use to be perceived well in meetings.
For example, today when you brought up how our flux capacitors don't last long enough, no one really engaged with that topic. And that was probably frustrating for you, right? If you could tweak your communication style to easily get everyone to appreciate your ideas, that would be great for you and the team.
My advice on how to do this is basically to limit the number of points you bring into each staff meeting. And whenever you're going to say your point, try to first make other people feel like you've heard their point. Right now it feels like you're making a lot of different points and you're not acknowledging other people's points enough, so your points aren't getting fully appreciated. Do you agree with my perception?

A lot of what I've done here is explained in other books and articles: I follow the CORE structure (context, observation, result, expectation) explained here. The "observation" component of CORE is a specificity power [LW · GW]. Framing negative feedback as guidance is Step 3 of this blog post.

There's just one part of my technique that I haven't seen explained anywhere else: How to frame negative feedback as guidance. The aforementioned blog post only says to "engage in a way that shows vulnerability and understanding" in order to show that "the feedback is meant to help, not harm". Ok, but how do you operationalize that into a deterministic procedure for writing a paragraph of f̶e̶e̶d̶b̶a̶c̶k̶ guidance?

The Forward-Facing Frame

I use a simple but powerful technique to reduce the question of "how to frame feedback as guidance" into a rule for crafting sentences of language. I call it the forward-facing frame technique.

Imagine you're in a room with someone who smells terrible. You could tell them directly to their face, "P U, you stink!" This feedback won't come across as "guidance" because it only describes their current state of smelling bad, not the target state of smelling good. I would call this a backward-facing framing of the situation.

In contrast, here's what a forward-facing frame would look like: You walk over to them, put your arm around their shoulder, and then as both of you gaze out the bay window unto the flower garden, you say:

I know you have the potential to smell a lot better than you do right now. You could eventually smell as pleasant as those fresh flowers out in the garden. But even just smelling like the rest of this house would be a big improvement. I generally expect everyone to smell at least as good as the rest of the house. Do you think that's a fair assessment and a worthwhile goal for you?

When you're thinking about how to tell Fred that he's talking too much in staff meetings, start by asking yourself what it would look like if Fred were exceptionally awesome at that instead of deficient. This helps you visualize a complete forward-to-backward axis. Then you can frame your message to Fred in terms of moving forward on the spectrum toward awesomeness.

I didn't just imagine Fred not talking too much, I imagined Fred employing a more developed toolkit of communication skills that would get his points across in a way that his team members appreciate. Then I made each of my sentences "face forward" toward that desirable state. My feedback was thereby framed as guidance.

So next time you're giving someone negative feedback, why not frame it as forward-facing guidance? Just scan your first draft, look for anything backward-facing, and turn it around to face forward.

7 comments

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comment by mr-hire · 2020-02-09T23:24:31.863Z · score: 11 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm glad to see others thinking about this.

I haven't looked at the literature in a few years, but when I last looked into this one of the surprising things I found was that any attempt by a manager or leader to "lessen the blow" by taking the sting out of a mistake usually leads to less likelihood of change in the future.

This includes "shit sandwich" style techniques, as well reframing mistakes as an opportunity for growth, which is a very similar technique to the "future facing reframe" here.

Instead the technique that I started to use was to separate in time pointing out problems and brainstorming solutions. For instance employee reviews were in two sections. First we would go over their performance in one session, then give them time to process that and get over their defensiveness. Then a few days later we would have a session where we talked about their goals and plans for the upcoming quarter.

comment by Liron · 2020-02-10T06:53:14.545Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a great point and I think I should preface the advice in the post with a condition.

If clear expectations have been set, e.g. needing to show up to work on time every day, then it’s optimal to have the employee represent in their mind that they have performed below standard. But when there’s any gray area about whether or not they’re meeting a standard, as is often the case for creative/knowledge workers, and your goal is to make them perform to their potential, then the forward-facing frame seems like a better technique rather than giving them a kind of negative assessment that they’re not expecting.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-02-10T17:52:46.168Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
when there’s any gray area about whether or not they’re meeting a standard, as is often the case for creative/knowledge workers, and your goal is to make them perform to their potential, then the forward-facing frame seems like a better technique rather than giving them a kind of negative assessment that they’re not expecting.

This seems like a plausible heuristic, as long as you're ok with your suggestions not being taken. Especially if you're a value driven company, and you've given lots of examples about following the company values, you should be able to clearly show how any given behavior that's hurting the company is counter to its' values. In my case, the heuristic I use isn't about if standards have been set before hand, but about how "optional" the change is.

For instance if Fred hears:

I think you have some room for improvement in the way you present ideas at our staff meetings. Sometimes I notice that you're making a valid point, which is a great contribution, but it doesn't get fully appreciated by the rest of the team. I want to share some techniques with you that I've seen our senior staff use to be perceived well in meetings."

Now it's about Fred. Fred gets to decide if he has any problems not feeling fully appreciated. Then he gets to weigh that against whatever he's getting from talking a lot (feeling important, never having to hold back anything etc), and even if it comes out on top, he then has to try to actually do an intervention to change the behavior, which is a MASSIVE amount of work, and probably won't come out on top if the only benefit is getting to make less points in the meeting that are heard slightly more.

However if I say to Fred:

Fred, we've gotten some complaints that you're talking too much at meetings and its' disrupting the flow of the meeting.
For example, today when you brought up how our flux capacitors don't last long enough. I imagine you were probably feeling frustrated that the issue hadn't been dealt with, and needed to voice it somewhere.
And, the issue with our flux capacitors had nothing to do with the meeting issue of our quarterly revenue, and caused us to go 15 minutes over and miss significant time.
I want you to know that I find you a valuable employee, and think we can work through this issue together. I'd love you to take the next few days to think about a plan for addressing this behavior, then we'll get together Thursday and put one together. I have several other examples written down here if you'd like a better understanding of the behavior.

In this scenario, it's not about Fred, it's about the company. I'm not telling Fred he has an "opportunity", there's no calculus he can do, and there's no option of not doing it. There's no weird moment where I'm telling Fred something is for his benefit that's clearly not worth the cost/benefit analysis, and Fred is much more likely to change.

comment by Liron · 2020-02-10T18:47:47.713Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ya this is a good example of how to communicate to Fred without a forward-facing frame.

This probably makes Fred think "I'm doing something wrong in meetings and I better fall in line", i.e. go from "bad" to "acceptable".

The forward-facing frame is for when you'd rather have Fred's mental model be to take the next step in the path toward "very good". Once you've established that forward-to-backward spectrum, it's then ok to also emphasize how his current position is bad.

I wouldn't start the feedback by saying there have been complaints about Fred. I'd only say that part after establishing a forward-facing frame, or not at all.

And to build on my heuristic from the previous comment: if Fred's whole job is a very structured one where "acceptable" and "very good" are basically the same state, that's when the forward-facing frame is least needed.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-02-10T20:16:00.318Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ok, in that case I think we have slightly different models here. I think the forward facing frame first is useful again only if I'm ok with the change not happening.

Definitely a hard lesson for me as I'm very growth oriented and hate making people feel bad. My default is to go towards the forward facing/ growth opportunity frame but after experimenting with results of the research found it to be less effective.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-02-10T22:19:41.232Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
When you're thinking about how to tell Fred that he's talking too much in staff meetings, start by asking yourself what it would look like if Fred were exceptionally awesome at that instead of deficient. This helps you visualize a complete forward-to-backward axis. Then you can frame your message to Fred in terms of moving forward on the spectrum toward awesomeness.

This somewhat reminds me of the approach used in e.g. solution-focused brief therapy, which starts by getting the client to describe what would look like a better state to them, and then proceeds to figure out steps that would lead there:

In a specific situation, the counselor may ask,
"If you woke up tomorrow, and a miracle happened so that you no longer easily lost your temper, what would you see differently?" "What would the first signs be that the miracle occurred?"
The client, in this example, (a child) may respond by saying,
"I would not get upset when somebody calls me names."
The counselor wants the client to develop positive goals, or what they will do—rather than what they will not do—to better ensure success. So, the counselor may ask the client, "What will you be doing instead when someone calls you names?"

And:

"Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?"
The therapist stays with the question even if the client describes an "impossible" solution, such as a deceased person being alive, and acknowledges that wish and then asks "how would that make a difference in your life?"  Then as the client describes that he/she might feel as if they have their companion back again, the therapist asks "how would that make a difference?"  With that, the client may say, "I would have someone to confide in and support me."  From there, the therapist would ask the client to think of others in the client's life who could begin to be a confidant in a very small manner.
comment by Robert Miles (robert-miles) · 2020-02-18T16:58:19.686Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Level 2 is to automatically apply this technique to negative feedback directed at you.