A Question of Habits

By Chris Chittenden

"Men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they possess and which they might use under appropriate circumstance."

… William James (1842-1910) US philosopher and psychologist

Here is a question for you. When you give someone feedback, just what do you hope to achieve? Take a minute or two to give this question some thought before you read on.

It seems that giving people feedback, particularly negative feedback, continues to be one of the hardest things to do and even harder to do well. On a personal level, many people shy away from giving feedback and when it is given, it is often done so in an emotive and blunt way born of frustration. Organisations invest heavily in training and coaching on this subject yet there seems to be little headway made in this area. So just what is going on here?

This takes us back to our original question. What does one hope to achieve when giving feedback? I have asked that question of quite a number of people in leadership roles over the past month or so and I have been rather surprised by the responses. These responses tend to fall into two groups. The first group are those who looked at me rather blankly struggling to find an answer. The question seemed to create a breakdown for them as they simply assumed this is what they had to do because they were managers. Giving feedback was part of their job description.

The second group also took some time to collect their thoughts and then came to a generally held view that feedback was given for three basic reasons. Firstly for positive reinforcement, so that people would continue to do something seen as good. Secondly, to motivate people towards a goal. This was generally done by letting people know where they stood in relation to progress towards their goal with a view to encouraging them to achieve that goal. Finally there was the idea of giving feedback to help someone improve their performance.

It is the third response that I want to explore further. More often than not, an improvement in performance speaks to the need to address a consistent behaviour that someone feels is less than effective or even destructive. These behaviours are commonly related to how an individual is dealing with or affecting those around them. In these cases, it is critical to recognise that improvements in performance are really about changing a person's habitual ways of doing things.

Consider this. According to Bruce Lipton, Ph.D. your subconscious mind is running your life. The subconscious has 40,000,000 nerve impulses per second whilst the conscious fires 40 nerve impulses per second. It is clear from this that most of what you do is subconscious, which is the realm of habits.

In other words, the vast majority of what we do, we do not consciously consider. We just do it. These are our habits. When we are giving a person feedback with a view to improvement, we are really asking them to change a habit. No doubt, you have tried to change a habit at some point in your life. It is not easy and the more ingrained the habit, the harder it is to change.

How does this relate to giving feedback?

Feedback creates awareness about habitual action. It can be the catalyst for changing a habit but it is not enough to ensure the change. That requires the creation of a new habit and that requires consistently different conscious action over a period of time. If you expect that simply giving someone feedback once or even twice will be enough for them to change what may be the habit of a lifetime, then you are likely to be rather disappointed and frustrated by the result.

So I invite you to consider this. The next time you are giving someone feedback think about whether you are asking them to create a new habit. If you are then consider how your feedback fits into the process of habit changing and what else has to be put in place for this to occur.

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© 2013 Chris Chittenden