What happens when you provide someone with feedback? Do they welcome your comments? Does it depend on who it is you are providing the feedback to? What exactly do you feedback to them…their behaviour? their actions? their attitude?
Many would agree that a person’s attitude has a real and measurable impact on behaviour. Many managers think that it is the employee’s poor attitude that causes them to produce poor quality work or a good attitude makes a person a better worker.
How would you feel if I told you that it is impossible to observe attitude?
To demonstrate what I mean, lets start with the dictionary definition of ‘observe’.
to see, watch, perceive, or notice. “He observed the passerby in the street.”
to regard with attention, esp. so as to see or learn something. “I want to observe her reaction to the judge’s question.”
to watch, view, or note for a scientific. official, or other special purpose. “To observe an eclipse.”
So how do we observe an attitude? For example, someone enters a room in a raging temper, obviously incredibly upset and fuming about something that has happened. Did I observe the raging temper? Some of you might be saying ‘yes’, but what did I actually observe? I saw the person enter the room, their face was contorted, they had tight closed fists held stiffly at their sides. They were walking briskly and were mumbling about something I couldn’t quite make out.
I inferred from my observations that they were in a raging temper. Inference? Let’s check the definition.
to derive by reasoning; conclude or judge from premises or evidence. “They inferred form his cool tone of voice”
to guess; speculate; surmise
to hint; imply,suggest
That inference, the conclusion about the meaning of the observations, says as much about me the observer as it does about the person under observation. I cannot prove that the person was in a foul temper, I can only use the specific examples of their behaviour that evidence my conclusions.
So what does this mean? Why is it important to note this differentiation?
Conclusions about attitude or personality are subjective, and people are very easily offended when their attitude or personality is attacked. Focusing on your conclusion or judgement of the behaviour very rarely results in improved performance. In fact, it’s one of the best possible ways to achieve ill feeling.
So what do we do? You think (due to observations of behaviour) that someone has a bad attitude – how are we to let them know (because without feedback we cannot expect an improvement) without including our own perceptions and judgements?
We concentrate on the observable behaviour. OK, an example. You think John has a bad attitude and that it’s affecting the quality of his work. When providing him with feedback, you need to ask yourself which of his behaviours is causing the problems – his lateness and arguing with his colleagues – and let John know about those, don’t mention attitude.
This way, we avoid building barriers to be heard and provide specific information about behaviour that can be improved. John can concentrate on being on time, which is measurable rather than be offended and wondering what exactly a bad attitude means.
Remember, feedback is supposed to be helpful. Determine whether what you want to say will help or not by asking yourself, “Will my comments be specific enough and non-threatening enough to help them improve?”
Distinguish between what you observe and what you infer. This distinction is very important.