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April 1, 2022

Therese Huston on Giving Better Feedback

Many leaders dread giving feedback, but frequent praise and advice can help you keep your best teachers.
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Therese Huston is a cognitive scientist at Seattle University. In her talks and in her latest book, Let's Talk: Make Effective Feedback Your Superpower (Portfolio, 2021), she blends rigorous research with eye-opening stories to help leaders say what needs to be said and, even more important, say it in a way that can be heard. Huston has given more than 225 keynotes, talks, and workshops, including presentations for Microsoft, Amazon, the Cleveland Clinic, and Harvard Business School. She gave her first TEDx talk on what smart groups do differently, and her work has been featured in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Oprah's O Magazine, Forbes, Time Magazine, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and The Los Angeles Times.
Why is giving feedback so hard for many leaders?
I've been researching for many years why it's so hard to give feedback, and I've discovered a few reasons for this. One, it feels personal for most of us. If you are the principal of your school, chances are you hired that teacher, you know some of their challenges, and you don't want to hurt the relationship or demotivate them, so that can be part of the challenge.
Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor (St. Martin's Press, 2019), talks about how we are taught from a very young age that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. And voila, now as a leader, it's your job to say it! Giving feedback goes against the polite etiquette upbringing that most of us, especially in the U.S., have had.
Two, it can be an identity issue for the giver. You think of yourself as a caring principal who doesn't say things people don't want to hear. It can be a real challenge to go against your perception of yourself as a nice person. However, if you care about that teacher, the thing you need to do is give them feedback so they can improve. Think about if you were doing something that was holding you back in your career, and someone saw it and they didn't say anything. You'd wonder, "Why didn't you tell me?" So, it is caring to give feedback. If you see someone doing something that is getting in their own way, the thing to do is to speak up.
The third reason I think giving feedback is hard is that many of us haven't been trained formally in it. We feel unprepared for what might come up, worried about what to do if the person reacts badly. I went through a year-long program in organizational leadership at Oxford University recently, and never once did we talk about giving feedback, so I know it's overlooked even in the best of programs. In the Harvard Business Review article "Why Do So Many Managers Avoid Giving Praise?," researchers found that in the corporate world, 21 percent of managers say they just avoid the hard conversations altogether. If one in five superintendents aren't having those conversations, that's a large group of teachers that aren't getting the feedback they need to grow.
What's also interesting is that there is a common misconception that feedback is most stressful for the person who is receiving it. But when scientists have surveyed people, they've found that givers of feedback tend to feel more stressed than those receiving it. It truly is something that most of us dread, and I really want to change that. We all deserve great feedback, but we don't all receive great feedback.
In your book, you break down three types of feedback: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. What are the differences between them, and how can leaders know when to give what type?
Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen discuss these three types in their book Thanks for the Feedback (Viking, 2014). Most of us have heard that there are positive and negative feedback types, so these three categories are a bit more refined. Appreciation, the first kind, is positive feedback. It's telling the person what you like about their work, the positive impact they are having, what you want them to do more of. The second type, coaching, is advice. It's things they could be doing differently, ways to adapt, or discussing a strength and ways to make it even better. It doesn't have to be negative. Finally, evaluation is letting someone know where they stand. Are they on track to getting a promotion this year? Are they where you'd expect someone to be after their first year of teaching 4th graders?
You shouldn't be giving all these types equally. Leaders should mostly be giving appreciation, giving people lots of praise and noticing what they like about their work. Say, "Here's what makes your classroom shine, here's what parents appreciate about you." Find that strength and tell them.

If you want to hold on to your teachers, you need to be praising them.

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Therese Huston

If possible, you should give people appreciation at least once a week. It builds trust, so in the future if you have something critical to say to a person, they trust that you've seen what they do well. If you jump right into coaching, the other person thinks, "Have you even seen my good work?" It's very easy to be reluctant to hear someone's criticism if they haven't also noticed what you do well.
Coaching should be the next most frequent. Evaluation should be the least frequent, but it shouldn't be just once a year during a performance review. Most teachers would be happier if they knew more often where they stand. If they are underperforming, they want to find that out sooner so they have a chance to improve. At least give this feedback twice a year, so your teachers get a chance to improve and impress you.
But if school leaders should mostly give positive feedback, shouldn't that be easy to do?
Well, not exactly. Some people think that feedback means critical. In the corporate world, about 30 percent of managers never offer praise. They think their value is to offer coaching and observations around what's not working. Or they think their employees are going to get complacent if they offer too much praise. Other people feel awkward giving praise because of the receiver's reaction. Not everyone is comfortable receiving praise in the moment, and managers can feel that discomfort and don't know what to do with it. The feedback giver thinks, "Maybe I shouldn't be saying this." However, remember that if you want to hold on to your teachers, you need to be praising them—and don't forget about your veteran teachers and superstars. A 2016 Gallup poll revealed that if someone says they haven't received praise in the last seven days, it is twice as likely they'll quit over the course of the next year, so praise is tied to retention.
Also, even if people don't express deep gratitude in the moment, most of us take that comment and go home and tell our family, "Guess what my principal said today?" Even if they don't beam in the moment, they beam later, so know you're doing good in the world.
What do school leaders need to consider when giving feedback to younger teachers?
Regardless of age, for the teachers who are new to your school, you should be leaning heavily on the praise. When someone's new, you need to build trust and express your appreciation with details and authenticity whenever you can.
In terms of age groups, Karie Willyerd points out in Harvard Business Review that Millennials, those born between 1980 and 1995, tend to want feedback more often than the teachers they are replacing. Gen X and Baby Boomers are content with feedback once a quarter, but most Millennials, who make up 70 percent of the workforce, want it at least once a month, some once a week.

It is caring to give feedback. If you see someone doing something that is getting in their own way, the thing to do is to speak up.

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Therese Huston

Gen Z—the youngest teachers—also want more frequent feedback. They prefer once a week. But here's what's interesting about them. Many of them think that Millennials have been coddled and pampered, so they pride themselves on the fact that they want straightforward feedback—they want you to tell it like it is and have direct conversations. In one study, 80 percent of Gen-Z workers felt failure was an opportunity to learn, which was much higher than other generations.
One tip I'd tell school leaders about giving great feedback to younger teachers: A lot of them want to know how their work impacts the world more broadly. They are looking to have a real purpose and impact, so if you can tie your feedback to the larger implications of what these teachers are doing in the classroom—maybe that they are going to be creating kids who will be more successful when they get to high school, or developing students who know science and will help save our planet—they will feel more satisfied in their work. These teachers want to know it's not just about teaching geography, so you can help them see the long-term impact of their jobs.
Are there any phrases educators should avoid when giving feedback?
I have three things you should avoid. The first is questions that begin with "why." It makes people defensive if you ask, "Why did you do that?" They scramble to defend themselves rather than reflect on what they could do differently.
Instead, ask: So what were you hoping for? And once you find out their motivation, you can then say, "Oh, OK. Great. So I'm concerned the actual impact you had was this, so let's brainstorm other ways we can get to this great goal." Give them the benefit of the doubt.
Second, avoid, "Everyone thinks that …." If you're conflict-avoidant, it's easy to use this one because it feels like you've got the support of many other people behind you. But this makes the other person feel like there are rumors about them; it makes them feel most of their colleagues are foes, not friends, and it can make them reluctant to work with others. So even if it's true, don't say that. Instead, be direct and say, "I've got a big concern, and we need to talk about this."
Third, avoid the phrase, "I'm sure you …." Leaders might say, "I'm sure you want people to like you" or "I'm sure you want to get better," because it feels as though they're tapping into someone's motivation. But don't assume motives for the other person because it gives them room to argue with you (even if they're only arguing with you in their head). A much better way to go about this is to say something like, "I'm concerned about ___" and cite specific evidence that you have observed.
How can educators be better receivers of feedback?
This is a really crucial skill, so I'm glad you asked this question. One way to be better at receiving feedback is to assume positive intent. It increases the chances you'll find something of value in what the person says. You should ask yourself, what can I learn from this? It's so easy to dismiss the other person's feedback for various reasons—they are a young teacher, they haven't been at the school very long, they weren't in that meeting—but we need to consider feedback when we get it. Now, I don't mean that every piece of feedback is equally good and valid—you need to filter it. But the problem most of us have is that we filter before we've even heard it, or we hear a little of it and shut down. Try to listen, be curious about the other person's perspective, and then later go through and decide what to act on and what to put aside for now.
Finally, there is new research by Constantinos Coutifaris and Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania that shows that something leaders should be doing to be better receivers of feedback is to share the feedback they've received. In staff meetings, let people know you received a certain piece of feedback, that it was helpful, and give steps you are doing to change what the feedback pointed to. This signals to people that they should give you feedback because you want it and will act on it. Often, we make changes but don't tell people, so they don't notice. It also tells them what kind of feedback is actionable to you, so you are more likely to get that type in the future. Finally, it improves the psychological safety in your school. It lets people know that it's OK to discuss areas where they have room for growth and improvement because you as a school leader are modeling it, and it will make them more open to feedback themselves in the future.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space.

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