Make feedback constructive to encourage future success

Ireland's rugby team is making its way around Australia during a three-test series, and so am I. That's why I was in Melbourne recently where Barry Corr, the CEO of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce, welcomed me to a corporate lunch before the second match.
The event included a lively panel discussion led by local sports broadcaster and Co Cavan native Catherine Murphy.
She oversaw insights and observations from former Irish rugby team performance analyst Eoin Toolan, who now works for the Melbourne Rebels rugby team, and from former Wallabies hooker Stephen Moore, the nation's most capped player, raised Down Under by Irish parents.

Eoin and Stephen reviewed a series of plays from the first match between Ireland and the Wallabies (during which I probably don't need to remind you rugby fans that, er, Ireland lost) to explain what Ireland could try to do better next time. Catherine asked Stephen to recall what it felt like to go "through review sessions" with analysts when he was a player.
His answer jumped out at me. "It can be embarrassing to be called out before your teammates," he said, "You can break someone's confidence if it's not handled properly."

And that, my dear readers, is precisely the focus of today's column: how to give constructive feedback properly.
As organisation leaders, team members or just plain professional people, we often must give - and receive - feedback. And while we publicly say we welcome it, in reality we probably don't welcome it at all.

That's because when we say we want feedback, most of us are really hoping for reassurance. No one much likes to be told they're wrong or should be doing something in a different way.
Of course, it's important to get information about how you can better perform so as to add more value to your career and your company, but we don't want the information delivered in a negative way - and fear of that scares us. The risk of that negative experience is often associated with feedback. So, here are my top four thoughts on the matter.

1 Public v private

It's no wonder that, as Stephen pointed out, it could be very embarrassing to sit as a team with an analyst - who wasn't on the field - going over each play and calling out players in various forms of judgement. Ouch. It's often said, "praise in public and criticise in private". I think that's right. Sometimes, as in the rugby comparison, an issue covers a number of people - and that may be good reason to deliver critical feedback to a group.

But other than that, I can't think of any situation in which the best scenario is to correct someone in front of their peers. Shining the negative spotlight for all to see will make the issue seem bigger and the person feel smaller. If you're a manager, talking in private will allow the other person to more freely express themselves and open up.

2 Team effort

Rather than one manager presiding over everyone else, a super way to get a group or a team involved is to guide it as a collective effort. In this situation, perhaps as debrief after a project or event has been completed, each person takes a turn in a discussion - not finger-pointing - format. Speak in general terms about approach or lessons learned, but don't single out an individual.

3 Make that sandwich

You've probably already heard about the 'sandwich'. This is simply making sure to surround every piece of meaty criticism between two slices of soft positive observations about the person's work or professional style and effort. An unrelenting stream of negativity is bound to fatigue the receiver and unlikely to get the effect you may be after. So, don't forget to remind the person of their overall value and contribution to the team.

4 Let them talk

Obviously, when providing feedback, it's important to design solutions. But what isn't always obvious is where the solutions should come from.

If you're the manager, you might think you should have all the answers. Maybe, as with a rugby review, you'll announce what kind of actions should be taken next time. However, in most cases, it's better if you ask the other person what they imagine can be done. Rather than describing the situation to them and jumping into what you foresee as the needed change, first ask the person to give their own assessment. Let them do the talking and they're more likely to come up with a better plan than you even had.
Ireland lost in Brisbane and won in Melbourne. By the time this column runs, we'll all know how Ireland ultimately fared through the three-test series against Australia. What lessons can be learned for next time? It's the same delicate question-and-answer cycle we constantly try to incorporate into our communications for business and personal relations.

One of the best phrases I've come across in relation to striking that balance is to
"encourage the future, don't punish the past".

So, here's to your future of more encouraging, and therefore more effective, feedback.


It takes an age to build trust and only a moment to ruin it

Whatever your business, whatever your career, you need a combination of skills, networking and timing. But above everything else, real success depends on trust. And yet...

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that US President Donald Trump has now told a whopping 3,000 documented lies since taking office. And Facebook reluctantly admitted the enormous user data breach from its business with Cambridge Analytica.

And, of course, tragically, here in Ireland, the scandal enveloping the national health service continues to unfold over its decision not to tell women the truth about their Cervical Check smear tests which terminally-ill Vicky Phelan, a former patient, poignantly described as "an appalling breach of trust".

In a world of post-truth, fake news, alternative facts, data breaches, Russian bots and trolls, we are living in a crisis of trust.

Sure, elected officials may be voted out. An unseemly company may fold, as with Cambridge Analytica. Or top leaders of organisations may step down - as in the case of HSE's now-former director Tony O'Brien.

Yet, what happens when a new leader steps in, and processes remain the same? What if the shuttered company rebrands under a different name, as reports have suggested Cambridge Analytica appears to be doing in the form of Emerdata. What reassurance do customers have?

But first, does trust really matter? Yes, according to a myriad of research and surveys. The Harvard Business Review reports that employees in high-trust companies are more productive and stay with their employees longer. Customers are more loyal. Trust is the basis of any relationship.

So, then, what does it take to establish and maintain trust?

I talked with global affairs analyst Michael Bociurkiw, who regularly guides large institutions through emergencies. Notably, he served as a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

"It takes a very long time to develop a brand which people trust. Yet it only takes a moment to bring it down," he said. "If you've made a mistake, own up to it immediately. Even if you don't have all the facts, it is better to sound contrite or empathetic than unapologetic or insensitive. Just ask the CEO of United Airlines if he'd do things differently after the airline took a terrible PR blow when one of its passengers was dragged off one of its oversold flights - all recorded on smartphones and sent around the world on social media and TV screens. Adopt the mentality that the customer always comes first."

The people-first mentality or mindset is the key. This past week, I had the privilege of facilitating a three-day cyber-security conference in London. There, Jyrki Rosenberg of host company F-Secure, a Helsinki-based global privacy company, said: "Being trusted and trustworthy must become the collective mindset of your organisation from top to bottom."

Establishing and nurturing an integrated mindset of trust can be divided in three parts:

1 Ethics

People must believe in you and your organisation's motives. They must be convinced that your intentions are good. That your values are grounded and all actions are guided by a moral compass. You must share your common goals and vision purposefully and thoughtfully with your employees and customers. You walk the talk. When you work in an ethical way, you need to do it consistently, when it's difficult and when no one else is watching.

2 Excellence

It's not enough if we believe your intentions are good, we must also trust that you can deliver. Does your company have the capabilities to provide the proper service, product or solution? This is all about having the abilities to achieve what you say you can do.

3 Empathy

This is the willingness, desire and passion to truly try to understand the customers, the people you claim to serve. Whoever they are. As real human beings with hopes, dreams and fears. This is done by creating opportunities for genuine dialogues. Have conversations. Find ways to engage and ask for feedback. Listen. Then act accordingly.

Trust can only be fully demonstrated through the tests of time. And speaking of time, if you lose trust, experts agree that it can be recovered. But it takes time. How much of it depends on the level of severity of the breach and the efforts taken to address the mistake.

Bociurkiw cites the way Starbucks management handled the wave of bad PR from last month's arrest of two African-American men in one of its stores in Philadelphia.

The men had sat at a table without buying anything, saying they were waiting for friends. The manager called police and the arrests sparked protests.

"Starbucks' CEO took action immediately, saying their removal was unjustified and this is not the way they treat customers," said Bociurkiw. He paid a visit to Philadelphia and announced the very bold decision to close more than 8,000 of its US stores on May 29 for racial-bias training for all its staff, using credible, outside sources to conduct those trainings. And just last week, Starbucks' chairman Howard Schultz said all are welcome to use its store washrooms, even if they haven't bought anything. A great customer-first move!"

For trust to be built or rebuilt, actions always will speak louder than words.


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Just the other day I happened to wake up early. That is unusual for an engineering student. After a long time I could witness the sunrise. I could feel the sun rays falling on my body. Usual morning is followed by hustle to make it to college on time. This morning was just another morning yet seemed different.

Witnessing calm and quiet atmosphere, clear and fresh air seemed like a miracle to me. I wanted this time to last longer since I was not sure if I would be able to witness it again, knowing my habit of succumbing to schedule. There was this unusual serenity that comforted my mind. It dawned on me, how distant I had been from nature. Standing near the compound’s gate, feeling the moistness that the air carried, I thought about my life so far.

This is what has happened to us. We want the things we have been doing forcefully to fail. And then maybe people around us would let us try something else or our dreams. We are accustomed to live by everyone else’s definition of success. We punish people for the things they are passionate about, just because we were unable to do the same at some point in our life.

I was good at academics, so decisions of my life had been pretty simple and straight. Being pretty confident I would make it to the best junior college of my town in the first round itself, never made me consider any other option. I loved psychology since childhood, but engineering was the safest option. Being born in a middle class family, thinking of risking your career to make it to medical field was not sane. I grew up hearing ‘Only doctor’s children can afford that field’ and finally ended up believing it. No one around me believed in taking risks. Everyone worshiped security. I grew up doing the same.

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‘Being in the top will only grant you a good life’ has been the mantra of my life. But at times, I wish I was an average student. I wish decisions would have not been so straightforward. Maybe I would have played cricket- the only thing I feel passionate about. Or maybe I would have studied literature (literature drives me crazy). Isn’t that disappointing- me wishing to be bad at academics. It’s like at times I hate myself for the stuff I am good at.

I feel like these concrete buildings have sucked our desires and our dreams. We are so used to comfort that compromise seems like a taboo. We have lost faith in ourselves. If we can make through it right now, we can do the same in the days to come. You only need a desire to survive and nothing more- not money or cars or designer clothes.

Staying locked up in four walls have restricted our thinking. I feel like our limited thinking echoes through this wall. We are so used to schedules and predictable life that we have successfully suppressed our creative side.

When you step out of these four walls on a peaceful morning, you realize how much nature has to offer to you. Its boundless. Your thoughts, worries, deadlines won’t resonate here. Everything will flow away along with the wind. And you will realize every answer you had been looking for, was always known to you.

It would mean a lot to me if you recommend this article and help me improve. I would love to know your thoughts!