Lessons from Elite Sport - Why is Feedback Hard and How Asking Questions Can Help

This is part of a series on lessons from Elite Sport. Here are other articles in the series:

Is Your Team Truly Competitive?

Outcome Focus and Emotional Intelligence

Working with managers and executives in many companies and industries in my career I have found a consistent dichotomy between a team member and the person that manages them. Consistently the team member wants more feedback to improve, and consistently the manager finds it difficult to give the feedback supposedly because they do not want to hurt the feelings of the team member. This is a real challenge for managers because feedback is one of the two main definers of who they are as a manager (delegation is the other). Before we look deeper into this issue, lets look and see how coaches in elite sport manage feedback and what could be used by the business leader.

For a coach feedback is the most powerful tool you have in your toolbox and it is used constantly. During practice you are providing feedback to players as they perform tasks you ask them so they can improve. Film review is a critical part of player development and requires strong feedback skills. Finally you will sit with a player one-on-one to provide feedback on their play and what they need to do to make their goals like selection, starting etc.

In all of these situations a truly skilled coach will provide feedback in the most appropriate way based on the context, the experience of the player, player's maturity etc. However there is a starting point for every elite coach and it starts with what the player thinks of the situation. There are really two sorts of feedback in a field-invasion sport like rugby:

  • Technical - giving feedback to the player's technique. The first step would be to ask a question like "where were your hands?" If they do not know, you would have them repeat the activity and focus on their hand position. You do this before you tell them that there is an issue with their hand position.
  • Tactical - giving feedback to the players decision-making. The first step would be to ask them "what did you see?" The goal is to identify what they are paying attention to, because they may have made the right decision based on what they saw. If that is the case you want them to see something different.

What is important about this approach to feedback is that you have to start with what the player knows. Telling them something when they are not aware, or when you do not know why there is an error will not help the player change - and that is the only reason a coach gives feedback.

Lets bring this back to the workplace, and how asking questions during feedback session can help managers overcome their anxiety. There is huge power in asking some questions at the start of the feedback session. Not only do you gain information from your team member on their thinking of what happened, it immediately creates an environment of partnership. Now the intervention is about what they know and what they think should be different next time as opposed to the manager telling them what needs to change.

However the first couple of questions are critical. You should NEVER ask "how is it going?" because it is not focused enough. A good feedback session starts something like this:

  1. Set Context: "I want to talk about your last project and how you did"
  2. Build Confidence: "Tell me what you think went well about the project?
  3. Gain Insight: "Tell me what was challenging?"

In fact the large majority of the time the team member knows when they are not doing well or have made a mistake. You do not need to tell them that. Your job is to coach them to do something different, and as we have learned elite coaches always start feedback with questions.