- What is corrective feedback?
- Who should give corrective feedback?
- When should you give corrective feedback?
- What are some methods of feedback?
- How do you give corrective feedback?
- How can corrective feedback help an advocacy campaign?
Giving and receiving feedback is part of life. Sometimes the feedback you give or get is neither useful, nor meant to be. ("You're a jerk!" comes to mind, for instance.) Other feedback, however, is a sincere attempt to help the recipient improve his performance, behavior, understanding, relationships, or interpersonal skills. This is corrective feedback, and all of us need it from time to time.
In community advocacy, both advocates and their targets need corrective feedback. Individual advocates and advocacy organizations need to know how they and their efforts and messages are perceived by and affecting both the targets and beneficiaries of their work. The targets of advocacy - legislators and other policy makers, agencies that deliver services, interest groups, the general public - need to understand both the perception and the real results of their actions, or inaction, on people who are affected by the advocates' issue. In this section, we'll discuss feedback in general, and look at how to provide corrective feedback in productive and effective ways.
What is corrective feedback?
Corrective feedback is information provided to an individual or group about how her or its behavior, actions, style, strategies, etc. are perceived by and affecting others. It is meant to lead to positive change, and, in the case of community advocacy, to more effective advocacy or public policy.
To have any real power, corrective feedback must be delivered in such a way and by such a person that it will be attended to, rather than simply arousing defensiveness, denial, or anger. That means that the ideal provider of feedback is someone the recipient trusts and respects, and that the provider conveys the feedback as sensitively as possible.
"Feedback" is not the same as criticism, constructive or otherwise. It is meant, rather, to be a reflection of what has been put out by the person or group receiving it. Since other people aren't mirrors, however, that reflection is really their perception of what the feedback recipient intended or did.
It's important for the recipient to know whether the perception and her intention are the same. If not, she may be putting out messages - either in words or actions - that are unclear, misinterpreted, or in fact very different from what she intends, or thinks she intends. The intent and the perception need, in some way, to be brought together if she is to accomplish her purpose, whether that's to change social policy or to cement a personal relationship.
Feedback in general may have a number of possible purposes:
- To help individuals in their personal development
- To improve relationships between and among individuals and groups
- To improve communication between and among individuals and groups
- To help individuals or groups improve their performance
- To improve the climate within an organization
- To increase the effectiveness of an activity or initiative
Who should provide corrective feedback?
Who should provide feedback depends, to a large extent, upon where that feedback is directed. If its recipient is an individual advocate or advocacy organization, then appropriate providers of feedback would include anyone who has an interest in the success of the advocacy or anyone at whom the advocacy is aimed. These can include:
- Others who work with the same or a similar target population
- Interested community members
- Beneficiaries of the campaign
- The general public
- Policy makers
- All of the above (see 360-degree feedback below)
If the corrective feedback is directed at the targets of advocacy, it should be provided, to the extent possible, by those directly affected by the issue or by advocates who actually have the knowledge and understanding of the issue that allows them to speak for those affected. It can be relatively easy to gather people in support of a cause, but unless they have a very clear understanding of what they're advocating, it's unlikely that they can either provide useful feedback, or that they will be listened to.
When should you give corrective feedback?
Any time can be a good time for corrective feedback, but there are some situations in which it's particularly appropriate.
When it's requested. The ideal is that an individual or organization asks for feedback, either on a regular basis, or in a particular situation. If the recipient has sincerely requested the feedback, he's much more likely to take it to heart and act on it than if it's offered out of the blue.
As an advocate, you'd do well to build a feedback loop - a mechanism for getting feedback on what you're doing - into any activity or initiative. It will make your organization as well as your advocacy campaign more effective, and having a formal structure for feedback will make it easier to accept.
One example of a feedback loop would be an evaluation of the week's accomplishments - or of the meeting itself - at weekly staff meetings. Here, people can get feedback on what they've done, and help on doing it better or on going in a slightly different direction.
Sometimes, objects of advocacy build in feedback to their projects or campaigns as well. Government agencies or private corporations subject to government regulations usually have to hold public hearings about projects that will affect the public environmentally, economically, or in any other significant way. These hearings are opportunities for providing corrective feedback.
At the beginning of an advocacy campaign, especially in the planning stage. The more quickly feedback can point out potential mistakes or inappropriate messages, the less chance there is of the campaign being damaged by them.
When the preliminary effects of the campaign can begin to be analyzed. If there are areas of the campaign that don't seem to be working well, corrective feedback could help to put them back on track by identifying the problem.
When the actions of advocates or of a target of advocacy have had, or are about to have, unintended consequences. Unintended consequences aren't always visible. Corrective feedback can point them out and help make clear what steps to take to prevent or eliminate them.
A well-meant policy that has had clear unintended consequences, for instance, is that of the de-institutionalization of U.S. mental patients. The policy was intended to remove people from dehumanizing and, in some cases, brutal situations in state mental hospitals, and succeeded in that. Too often, however, former patients have ended up homeless, because the advocates and policy makers who formulated de-institutionalization laws and regulations made some incorrect assumptions about how patients would get care and where they would live when they left the mental health facility.
There were some who foresaw these consequences, but they weren't able to give feedback to de-institutionalization advocates and policy makers in such a way that it could be heard and attended to. They were branded as short-sighted, anti-human, or fascist, and the substance of their feedback was lost in the ideology of the moment. If they had been able to couch their feedback as having the patients' best interests at heart (which may, in fact, have been impossible in the politics of the time), the situation might have turned out differently.
When there's a danger of the campaign's or the advocate's alienating potential allies or the public. Corrective feedback can identify attitudes, language, or other elements that could offend or put off important segments of the community.
When damage has already been done. Corrective feedback can help to explain what happened and either repair the damage or - if that's impossible - at least keep it from recurring.
When you're monitoring or evaluating a campaign or specific actions, strategies, tactics, or phases of it.
What are some methods of feedback?
Feedback obviously can take many forms. It can be directed from individual to individual, or flow between and among individuals and groups. It can be formal or informal, mutual or one-way, written or verbal, personal or impersonal, requested or unsolicited, embraced or unwelcome. We'll examine some of the more common forms here, and concentrate on one in particular - 360-degree feedback - because we believe it can be particularly useful in the context of advocacy.
Although feedback, as we discussed earlier, is different from criticism - both more and less subjective, in that it is based on the provider's perception of reality, rather than his opinion - it nonetheless often feels like criticism, or even like an attack, to the recipient. One dimension of the forms of feedback below is the extent to which they tend to make the recipient - whether an individual or a group - feel defensive, and therefore less likely to take the feedback seriously and act on it.
An individual delivering feedback to another, face-to -face, is probably the most common form, and also the one most commonly abused or mishandled. Its great disadvantage is that, no matter how sincere the intent of the provider, it's easy for the recipient to feel personally attacked. This is compounded when the provider is a supervisor or other person with some power over the recipient. For this reason, any provider of one-on-one feedback has to be aware of the possible and actual reactions of the recipient, and to be careful to deliver feedback sensitively.
In this situation,individuals in a group provide feedback to the group and/or to one or more individuals within the group. If the feedback is directed to the performance of the group, it can be particularly effective, with one person's ideas stimulating others', and with everyone focused on improving the group's or their own performance or functioning. If the group's focus is on one individual, however, it can seem extremely threatening.
This might take place between two groups or organizations that are working together and having some difficulty doing so, or between two groups both working with the same population or toward the same goals. Although less common, it might also take place between opposing groups that agree to meet to try to work out differences. The feedback may go in one direction or both.
The feedback might be directed at particular individuals or at the group as a whole. All or several members of each group might be involved, or only one representative of each. In the latter case, both giving and receiving the feedback is somewhat eased by the fact that the provider is representing a number of people, and therefore not setting herself up as the direct target of whatever defensiveness or anger her feedback engenders. The recipient, on the other hand, is not himself the only object of the feedback, and might for that reason be less likely to be defensive or angry about it.
In this situation, an individual or group serves, by request, as a formal or informal consultant to another (usually to a group, but occasionally to an individual). The advantage here is that, since the feedback was requested, there's a better chance that the recipient will listen to it. The disadvantage is that the recipient has no obligation or compelling reason to listen to it, as she might if the community, armed with torches and pitchforks, were beating down the door.
Another possible type of feedback is impersonal - in writing or by e-mail, anonymously, in the media, etc. As feedback, this is generally much less useful than one of the other forms discussed here, because it lacks the immediacy of being presented directly by the provider, with the opportunity to explain or enlarge on it so that it's clearly understood. Impersonal feedback generally feels much more like a personal attack, and is therefore less likely to be effective.
360-degree feedback is so called because it involves feedback from every direction: supervisors, peers, subordinates, the community, etc. The idea is that people with different relationships to the recipient may see her in different ways, and it's only by looking at all those ways that she can get an accurate picture of how she's perceived and of what effects her actions actually have.
This method is often used in business as a means of employee or organizational development, but it's equally relevant to non-business situations. We'll examine the standard model of 360-degree feedback, and then discuss how it can be used in advocacy.
The following paragraphs look at how 360-degree feedback is used with an individual recipient. The procedure for organizations is similar, but sources of feedback may include more organizations than individuals, and discussion of the results will probably be internal to the organization, perhaps with the assistance of a hired consultant.
Note that 360-degree feedback is a tool for improvement, not evaluation. 360-degree feedback works best as an aid to the improvement of individual and group performance, rather than as an evaluation tool. The information gained from the process is almost always used to help generate new strategies and strengthen areas of concern, not to judge past performance.
- 360-degree feedback starts with the recipient. She may, with the assistance of a supervisor or other consultant, identify the areas she most wants to know about, and then make up a feedback form concentrating on them. In many cases, however, the organization may have its own form, or may hire a consulting firm - with its own form - to administer the process.
- Next, the recipient may choose her own sources of feedback (ideally a group of 7-10), with at least one each from among:
- Supervisees or subordinates
- Customers (i.e. the target population)
- Others within the organization who don't fall into any of these categories, but who have a working relationship with the recipient
- Each source completes a feedback form. Most standard forms are multiple choice, but often include spaces for comments if sources want to add them.
- Someone - usually either the supervisor or the hired consultant - tabulates the results and puts them in a form that will provide the most useful information to the recipient. (Consulting firms often use computerized forms that produce graphs and other printouts. While these can be useful, they may also tend toward standardized explanations of results that are less helpful than analysis based on actual familiarity with the recipient and her work.)
- After the recipient has seen the feedback results, someone - usually the supervisor or hired consultant - discusses them with her. This discussion has to be conducted sensitively, especially if some or much of the feedback is negative. (In most cases, the feedback itself remains with the recipient, and is not made public in any way unless she chooses to do so.)
- The recipient may choose to confer with her sources about what they meant, how they arrived at their conclusions, what specific behavior of hers gave rise to specific comments, etc. They, on the other hand, may have the option of remaining anonymous, and may only volunteer the broadest interpretations of the feedback data.
The question of anonymity raises an issue that always exists in feedback situations. The recipient is not the only one risking something here, especially if she's a supervisor of many of the feedback sources. If she has in the past shown herself to be insensitive or vindictive, people may be unwilling to give honest feedback for fear of reprisals, or of having to deal with her possibly uncivil reactions. It can be difficult to strike a balance between the recipient getting the feedback she needs in order to change her behavior for the better, and feedback sources being protected from unreasonable reactions.
- The recipient, either alone or with the help of a supervisor or mentor, formulates a plan to address the issues identified by the feedback.
- The supervisor or mentor works with the recipient over time to support and assist her in carrying out the plan for change.
In a community advocacy context, 360-degree feedback would mean an advocacy organization receiving feedback from other organizations and individuals (both those that advocate for the same or similar causes, and those that work with the beneficiaries of advocacy), from the community at large, and from both the beneficiaries and targets of advocacy themselves.
If the feedback is directed at the targets of advocacy, then 360-degree feedback means that they need to get information from as many segments of the community as possible - beneficiaries of advocacy, businesses, agencies, advocates, the community at large, etc. Targets of advocacy need to hear from a broad cross-section of the population about the effects of their actions and policies.
When it's possible to conduct it, 360-degree feedback can be tremendously effective. It can give a nearly complete picture of how well an advocate or advocacy organization is doing his or its job, and of how he or it is perceived by the community. The targets of advocacy are more likely to take feedback seriously if they hear it from a broad range of people and organizations. Perhaps most telling, 360-degree feedback can identify the exact sources of problems with an advocacy campaign, making clear which segments of the community aren't being reached or are being offended, and thereby suggesting ways to improve the situation.
How do you give and accept corrective feedback?
Feedback of different kinds and from different sources all try to convey information to the recipient, but they carry different emotional weights and different (implied or actual) levels of coercion. An employer may give what she sees as supportive feedback to an employee, but often - depending upon their relationship and the character of the organization - there lurks beneath the surface the suggestion that if the employee doesn't shape up, he'll lose his job. A consultant may be hired to provide feedback to an organization or the individuals within it, but unless both the organization and the individuals are committed to taking that feedback seriously, the consultant may as well not have bothered.
Feedback from the community to an organization may be ignored as well. (They don't understand what we're doing; they don't see how much we're helping them; they don't care about the people we serve.) Feedback that comes from a friend may be taken more seriously than feedback from someone with no particular relationship to the recipient, or from someone who's seen as hostile. As both a provider and recipient of feedback, you have to be aware of the relationships involved, and of how they affect you and the other person.
Whether you're addressing a policy maker, a fellow advocate, a colleague or supervisee, or another organization as a whole, there are some general rules for providing feedback so that it will be heard. Even if you follow these rules, however, it's important to be aware of how you couch your feedback and the impact it will have.
Make your feedback formative, rather than summative. Formative feedback aims toward helping the recipient improve his effectiveness. Summative feedback sums up the recipient, making a judgment about his competence or personal worth. Thus, providing formative feedback means:
- Feedback should focus on developing skills and strengthening areas that need improvement, rather than criticizing or judging the recipient for inadequacy.
- The provider should suggest some possible alternatives to what the recipient has been doing.
- Feedback should help the recipient set reasonable goals for changing and improving performance or behavior.
- Start with the positive. Emphasize what really went well, and praise what the individual or group is doing right.
- See if the recipient is aware of the issues or concerns that the feedback addresses before stating them directly. If it comes from the recipient himself, he's much less likely to be defensive, and apt to be more constructive and creative in discussing alternatives.
- Don't look for expressions of guilt or responsibility, but rather for changes that will improve the effectiveness of an individual's or organization's efforts.
- Especially if you're dealing with the opposition, or with the targets of advocacy, assume - or, better yet, identify and describe - common ground and your common interest in making things better.
Focus on the specific issue, and don't point fingers. Identify the issue or problem as clearly and specifically as possible. Once you've done that, stick to exploring it. The question is not "Who's to blame?" but "How do we make this work as well as possible?"
Be honest. Providing formative feedback, being supportive, and not blaming don't mean not being honest. To the contrary, they require honesty, or the feedback will be useless.
- Deal directly with the real problem or issue. Identify it clearly. If you know, explain how it became a problem, and help the recipient work out strategies for fixing it now and preventing its recurrence in the future.
- If the issue is a personal one, identify it clearly and help the recipient understand how to address it.
Doing this well calls for a certain amount of sensitivity and the use of "I-statements." Again, don't point fingers looking for blame: instead, use statements that talk about the effect of the other person's behavior or actions on you or those who've talked to you.
Finger-pointing means saying "You're a jerk because you do X." An I-statement starts with "I": "I feel attacked when you do X." The difference is that the second statement focuses only on your response to the other's actions, not his character or intent, and leaves room for him to explain that he doesn't mean to cause that reaction. Then you can discuss how alternative behavior can change the situation.
Listen to the recipient's reaction to your feedback. This is part of being supportive, but it's also part of the basic feedback process. You may learn something important about why a particular situation arose, or why things were done in a certain way. You may find that changing the situation is more complex than you expected, or that it needs to be done in a way different from what you assumed.
At the same time, although it's important to be understanding about the recipient's reaction, you need to stay firm and focussed on the issue. The issue is real, and you have to deal with it, or it's going to be a bigger problem in the future.
Help to formulate a plan to address the issues your feedback raised, and offer assistance to carry it out. This is equally true whether you're providing feedback to an individual advocate, to a staff member in your organization, to an organization as a whole, or to the target(s) of advocacy. Corrective feedback is useless unless it actually helps to correct a problem. The best way to assure that there's a good solution is to be part of it yourself.
In many ways, the guidelines for accepting feedback are similar to those for giving it:
- Try to listen objectively to what the provider has to say. The first step is simply to hear what's being offered. To the extent that you can, try to control your emotional reaction and your defensiveness, and simply hear the statement.
- Be honest with yourself. This is also at least partially a matter of putting your emotional response aside. Does the feedback address something actual? If you truly believe the provider is mistaken, is that at least partially your doing? What are the advantages of acting or not acting on this feedback? The disadvantages?
- If you truly believe the provider's impression is mistaken, discuss it with her. Find out what caused her to think or feel the way she did. Even if her impression is mistaken, it's important that she, and perhaps others, have that impression, and it may need to be corrected. On the other hand, she may know things you don't, or you may simply not be facing reality... and may need to.
- Discuss with the provider ways to address the issues raised. Work out a plan that speaks to the difficulties she and others have had with your plans, actions, behavior, etc. Then ask for help in implementing that plan.
- Thank the provider. True corrective feedback is meant to be helpful, not critical. Most of the time, the provider is actually doing you a favor, and it may have entailed a certain amount of courage on her part. Her feedback may help to extract you from a difficult situation, or head off a disaster. She deserves your gratitude.
How can corrective feedback help an advocacy campaign?
In addition to the general reasons above, corrective feedback is particularly important to an advocacy campaign. If it's to be successful, such a campaign has to have a powerful message that speaks to both the emotions and the intellect, that's clearly understood by its targets, and that doesn't scare or otherwise drive potential allies away. Timely and accurate feedback can help both advocates and the objects of advocacy, and can bolster success in several ways.
Feedback can help advocates recognize and acknowledge errors, problems, and issues that could derail the campaign. As painful as it often is to admit that you 're doing something wrong, you can't correct a mistake until you acknowledge it. Corrective feedback can help to identify issues so that they can be dealt with.
Feedback can flag potential errors before they become problems. Sometimes a plan contains elements that would inevitably lead to failure if they're put into place. Corrective feedback from the right sources could help advocates identify and eliminate such elements before they bring disaster.
Feedback can help to avoid alienating potential allies. If an advocate or advocacy effort is seen as elitist, extremist, or out of touch with the mainstream, it can drive away people who would otherwise support the cause. Corrective feedback can alert individuals and groups when they are perceived, or are in danger of being perceived, as unacceptable to some potential allies.
Feedback can help advocates claim the moral high ground. It's difficult to be seen as morally superior if you're perceived as largely engaged in bashing opponents. Having a clear sense of how the world sees their campaign can allow advocates to adjust it to keep the moral advantage.
Targets of Advocacy
Corrective feedback can also be a useful tool when directed at the targets of advocacy. It can be useful to advocates in helping to change or focus the thinking of policy makers and others, of course. But it can also be useful to the targets themselves, in helping them to accomplish their goals, which may include some of the advocates ' goals as well.
Feedback can help the targets of advocacy avoid unintended consequences. Many policies that seem mean-spirited or vindictive are actually meant to benefit the people who are hurt by them. Their originators simply didn't allow for effects that weren't immediately apparent when the policies were formulated. Corrective feedback from advocates or from the community can help policy makers to understand when this is the case, and to change policies in ways that will correct the situation.
Feedback can help the targets of advocacy improve their image with various constituencies. Politicians, agency heads, hospital administrators, corporate CEOs and others responsible for policy or social conditions often seem - and may be - removed and uncaring. By listening to and acting on corrective feedback, the targets of advocacy can show that they are responsive to the needs of the community, and that they care about doing the right thing, thus making accomplishing all their goals easier.
Corrective feedback is information on how the recipient and/or his actions are perceived by the provider or others who have confided in her. It is meant to lead to positive change for the recipient, and, in the context of this chapter, to improve his effectiveness as an advocate.
Advocates and others need to provide and accept corrective feedback in order to deal as objectively as possible with reality. In advocacy particularly, feedback can help to avoid or correct potential or real errors, to avoid alienating potential allies or the community, and to make it possible for advocates to claim the moral high ground. It can also allow targets of advocacy to avoid unintended consequences, and to gain credibility with their constituents and the community.
Corrective feedback can be provided by anyone with an interest in the issue. When providing feedback to targets of advocacy, however, it's important that the providers be people who have some credibility - either long-term, knowledgeable advocates or people directly affected by the issue.
Although important at any time, feedback can be particularly appropriate when it's requested, or when it's necessary to prevent or correct an error in the planning or implementation of an advocacy campaign (or any other initiative). It's especially helpful as a preventative - in the planning stages of an initiative, for instance - but can also serve to minimize the effects of disaster.
Feedback can take several forms: one-to-one, intraorganizational, interorganizational (group-to-group), impersonal, or 360-degree. This last, which is often the ideal, consists of feedback from all directions. In the case of advocacy, this means everyone interested in the initiative, from beneficiaries to colleagues to supervisors to the community at large.
Some general guidelines for giving feedback:
- Make your feedback formative, not summative.
- Be supportive.
- Focus on the issue, not on guilt or blame.
- Be honest.
- Listen to the response of the recipient.
- Help to formulate a plan to deal with the issues you raised, and offer help in carrying it out as well.
Some general guidelines for accepting feedback.
- Listen objectively to what the provider is saying.
- Be honest with yourself.
- If you think the provider's impressions are mistaken, discuss that with her.
- Ask for and use the provider's help to formulate and implement a plan to address the issues her feedback raised.
- Thank the provider.
Follow these guidelines, use 360-degree feedback where possible, and be sensitive to others' feelings and needs whether you're giving or accepting feedback, and it will benefit you and make your work more effective.