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Feedback: The Perfect Gift

Ask yourself....What’s the best feedback gift you’ve ever received?  How has feedback benefited you in your work?  Why is it difficult to give – or to receive – the gift of feedback? (U.S. Air National Guard Graphic by Senior Master Sgt. Mary-Dale Amison)

Ask yourself....What’s the best feedback gift you’ve ever received? How has feedback benefited you in your work? Why is it difficult to give – or to receive – the gift of feedback? (U.S. Air National Guard Graphic by Senior Master Sgt. Mary-Dale Amison)

WHITEMAN AFB, Mo. -- It's the most wonderful time of the year - a time to run around stores late into the night, looking for the perfect gifts to give to family, friends and even co-workers.  Workplace holiday gifts can be the most problematic - there are all those government ethics rules, hierarchy sensitivities and office politics to consider.  How do you decide the perfect gift for an office colleague?

Though it's somewhat of a management and leadership trope, for colleagues, arguably the best gift you can give - for the holidays or anytime - is the gift of feedback.  Maybe they'd rather have a coffee shop gift card or, "hint, hint," maybe a promotion.  But feedback truly is the "bestest" gift you can give them, ever.  Here's why:

· Like Clark Griswold's 1-year membership in the Jelly-of-the-Month Club Christmas bonus, good feedback "truly is the gift that keeps giving."  To validate this point, just think back to valued feedback that you got years ago that you still use today.  I recall a senior leader applauding the quality of my work on a project, but advising me that getting it to her the night before it was needed didn't give her enough time to review it and make use of it the next day.  The lesson - that 90 percent quality early is better than 110 percent quality late - has served me well in the intervening years.

· Feedback enhances performance, and that's great fun!  Of course feedback can be positive - praise is great fun to give and to receive, and when given it can reinforce desired performance and behaviors.  But often feedback needs to address a need, and as such, at first it's going to be like getting socks and underwear from one's parents.  But once they try it on and wear it, it's going to feel like a superhero-costume Underoos or like those awesome Spring Shoes they've always wanted - it's going to enhance their performance and agility and speed in the workplace like nothing else.  That's a lot of fun, for the entire workplace family!

· If done, right, it's a perfect fit.  Feedback is like a new sweater - it's got to be just right for the person getting it - not too big, not too small, not too heavy nor too light, not scratchy and in the right colors and pattern for the recipient.  And what's perfect for Susie won't at all work for Bobby.  Feedback is not a one-size-fits-all gift, and if attention to detail and tailoring to the exact specifications of the recipient are missed, it makes for a disappointed, confused and frustrated receiver.  Although you can't really use a gift receipt to return feedback, if it's a good fit for the recipient, they won't want to.

· The packaging that feedback comes in matters almost as much as the gift itself.  Some people wrap their gifts in the Sunday Comics papers.  Similarly, some managers try to use humor to soften the blow of difficult counsel.  But such feedback is a serious gift and shouldn't be delivered with jokes, but rather with sober seriousness.  Alternatively, don't be the one that takes a gift and puts it in three different increasingly larger boxes to trick the recipient into thinking he's getting something different.  Don't play games or beat around the bush with your delivery - just give it to them.  A nice, attractive paper with a simple bow to adorn it is best, meaning: keep your delivery simple, straight-forward and pleasant.

· Give the gift on time.  I'm that guy that misses the U.S. Postal Service mailing deadlines; you'll get your Christmas cards and packages from me in mid-January.  I'm just not that organized.  But for feedback to be useful to the recipient, you have to have your thoughts collected, and you have to deliver it in the appropriate season.  Cheeseballs and feedback are great when fresh, but once you get past the "best if used by" date, neither is any good for anyone.

· Finally, like nothing else, the gift of feedback truly says, "I care."  Surely you've been in a situation where you've wanted to call a colleague or a subordinate on the Clue Phone to give them some much-needed advice.  If it was someone you didn't much care for, you probably took a pass on the opportunity.  Why?  Because there's some risk in giving feedback - risk that it will be rejected, that you'll hurt the person's feelings.  There's a lot of potential workplace drama that comes with those emotions.  So it's just not worth it.  That is, unless you really care about the person.  For the recipient, it's worth keeping this in mind, and a help to receiving the gift with gratitude and in the spirit it was given.  If someone's taking time to speak honestly to you about an area for improvement, embrace the momentary suck and remember that this person is doing it because he or she cares about you.

What's the best feedback gift you've ever received?  How has feedback benefited you in your work?  Why is it difficult to give - or to receive - the gift of feedback?