I have spent more nearly 40 years giving feedback and encouraging others to do so in a range of professional, personal and ministerial contexts. These have included being a personnel professional in an FMCG multi-national, being an ordained leader working with lay and ordained colleagues, and in the context of theological education. As a result I have two convictions about feedback:
1. Most people find it very hard to give and receive feedback in a positive, valuable and formative way. The idea of both giving and receiving feedback fills people with dread, and poorly given feedback can leave deep wounds which last for years and can destroy trust, friendship and working relationships.
2. Giving and receiving feedback is an essential professional, managerial and ministerial skill which can often unlock significant areas of growth and development. Without it we trip over our own flaws, risk damaging others and can hit an unnecessary ceiling in our own competence and effectiveness.
Feedback is a very powerful thing, not least because it helps us develop that vital element of maturity, ‘to see ourselves as others see us.’ For anyone in a public role this is vital. After all, how others see you is…how others see you! And feedback is potentially happening all the time. As I frequently commented to those in ministry training: just because people are not talking to you, it does not mean they are not talking about you! We are constantly being judged, evaluated and assessed. If we are able to access, in a positive and useful way, some of that evaluation, it could really help us to grow. And if our goal is to serve others, shouldn’t we want to do that as best we can?
So how is structured feedback done well? Here are my eight top tips.
1. Give notice
When you need to give some feedback, either as a regular thing or just as a one-off, always give notice to the other person. ‘Let’s fix a time to review how that went.’ There are two main reasons for this, one to do with you, and one to do with the other person. In relation to you, the person giving feedback, it is vital that the goal of the feedback is the growth and development of the other person, and is seen to be this, and is not a pressure valve to allow you to vent your frustration. For the other person, receiving feedback could be emotionally demanding, especially if he or she is not used to this. Giving notice allows the recipient to be prepared to receive your comments—and perhaps even to review what happened themselves first.
If you are the recipient, and someone tries to give you unplanned feedback, a good response is: ‘Thanks for telling me that. I wonder if we could arrange a time for a proper conversation about it?’
2. Choose a good time
A follow-on from the first point is to then find a good time to give the feedback. The most important thing it not to give feedback on the day of the event in question, particularly if this relates to public ministry. For example, preaching is demanding enough emotionally without having to face immediate evaluation as well. And those feeding back need to reflect on their experience as well. Things can look quite different after a day or two of reflection on the event, as the trivial things subside and what was important stands out; I have been struck by how my observations about a sermon, for example, are slightly different when I watch or listen again a few days later with the preacher. Make sure you allow enough time for a good conversation as well, and be clear how long the feedback session will last (which is a good policy for any meeting).
A good time for feedback will usually be in a context one-to-one, unless you have reached the point in your team where feedback is something natural to all your working relations. A good rule of thumb here is ‘Praise in public; criticise in private.’
3. Shape your feedback
In the past I have been taught to start with the good, what went well, or strengths, and then move on to the negative, to things that need attention and development. The problem with this shape, if used regularly, is that the person on the receiving end is listening to the good stuff, but inside is just bracing themselves to be hit with the bad! A better shape is to either mix it up, or go ‘good—bad—good’ so that you finish on a positive note.
Even better is to make the event a genuine conversation. I will often now start conversations by asking the recipient to assess what went well and what needs development. If feedback is not genuinely owned, it will not have its effect. And there are often opportunities to say ‘No, actually, that was better than you thought’ or ‘That thing you thought was a problem really isn’t.’ It is nice to be able to tell people things are not as bad as they supposed!
4. Give reasons why
Feedback needs to have external references points in two directions.
First, comments need to draw on evidence from the event so the basis of comments is clear. Secondly, the reason for change needs to have a clear external rationale (‘If you do it this way, it means that people can…’). This prevents the feedback simply being a vehicle for your own opinions and prejudices; it needs to genuinely lead to more effective performance, and the person receiving comments needs to see how the comments will genuinely be of help to them. And if this is a ministry context, then the main goal must surely be serving the people you are ministering to, so that adds overall motivation.
5. Suggest a plan of action
Evidence-based feedback with a good rationale should then lead to a plan of action. This does not need to be complicated, but it does mean that there should be a clear way to allow the person receiving feedback to actually address the issue at hand. And it also anticipates the problem of feedback: ‘I realise that needs to change—but how am I going to go about it?’ I find this especially so in relation to preaching; a key objective must be to offer alternative strategies, so that the preacher actually has some (perhaps rhetorical) tools that they can make use of.
6. Focus on strengths as well as weaknesses
There is a real danger in giving feedback that the process only focusses on weaknesses rather than strengths. I suppose the reason why it happens is that it is easier to spot mistakes than it is to recognise how strengths might develop further. But if this happens, then it can be demoralising for the receiver; the repeated agenda is to focus on the things that are not going well, rather than the things that are. So it is also worth exploring how things that are strengths already can become points of excellence within the ministry or performance.
After all, none of us is every going to be great at everything. We can relieve the pressure on ourselves and others if, at the right moment, we say ‘This is always going to be a weak point for me; I will get it as far as I can, but also focus on other things.’
7. Make it regular
Feedback is most difficult when it happens as a one-off, and the first time of significant feedback is often the most challenging. But the goal for any kind of ministry team should be to make feedback a regular feature of working together. If it is ‘just one of the things we do,’ then it is much less daunting and can become more fruitful—and making it regular removes the emotional pressure as well.
8. Make it symmetrical
If feedback is such a potential powerful tool for personal growth and development, then all should be making use of it. And if it is to avoid becoming an exercise in the use of power, then team leaders need feedback from team members as much as members need feedback from leaders and others. In a healthy ministry team, even the person ‘in charge’ should be ready to receive feedback from others. I have been preaching for 30 years, and taught it for the best part of a decade, but I still ask for feedback on my preaching. I still have room for improvement!
In Romans 16.2, Paul describes Phoebe as someone who has been ‘a prostatis for many, including me.’ Some commentators have argued that this cannot be a term of leadership, since otherwise it would mean that Paul, the great apostle, was in debt to someone from whom he had learnt about leadership. How unthinkable! In fact, I am sure that Paul was willing to learn from others just as much as he was willing to teach others.
Even as I start living my seventh decade (!), I find that I am seeking feedback and comment from others as much as, or perhaps more, than ever. You never stop growing and changing in ministry, and there are always new things to learn. God has not finished with me yet—so I still need good feedback from others. (You can offer some in the comments below.)
When I write on a subject which does not look theological in content, some friends have asked about why there is not a theological rationale. This might be one such post. I think I would offer the following assumptions underpinning my practice here.
First, we are all made in the image of God, and therefore are on a level playing field in the context of ministry (or any other occupation come to that). Therefore there always needs to be mutual respect and mutual accountability.
Secondly, ministry in the New Testament is always plural. Everywhere you look there are partnerships and teams—and so there must also have been sharing of ministry, and the natural implication is that there is learning from one another.
Thirdly, all in ministry of any kind always continue to be disciples, and the word ‘disciple’ means ‘someone who is learning from another’.
Fourth, because of our sin, failure and human finitude, we all start from an imperfect beginning, but are all on a journey to perfection which we will only see fully realised in the New Creation. ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often’ (John Henry Newman).
Finally, I find it striking that the kind of mutual accountability, encouragement and commitment to growth is precisely what we find Paul doing at the end of many of his letters. 1 Thessalonians is a good example:
Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. (1 Thess 5.12–15)
That is theological enough for me!
For an assessment framework that allows for good and all-round feedback on preaching, see the post on What makes a good sermon?