The experience we have in life and the success that we achieve are controlled by the stories that we tell ourselves. In the case of providing feedback the results we get are determined by the stories we tell. Consider the anatomy of a story. A story begins with facts and data. These are the behaviors that we observe and the things that we hear. At this point the events have no emotional content. They are neither good nor bad; they are simply the facts.
One of the powerful things that the mind does is to ask the meaning associated with the facts. This natural curiosity about the nature of things has been a very powerful force in human development and rests at the core of scientific advancement. Beginning with the facts the mind adds assumptions, attributions, and judgments. Assumptions fill in the gaps in the story and begin to develop the why behind the results. In effect we are adding the facts that we think are missing. To the facts and assumptions the mind then adds attribution. Attribution explains why others act the way they do. Supplying the attribution provides the why behind the facts. This becomes the reason that others do as they do. Next judgment is added to the mix. Judgment answers the questions about whether the situation is good or bad. This tells us the potential positive or negative value that the events have for us. To the basic ingredients of facts and data we have now added the spices of assumption, attribution, and judgment and the mind then completes the dish by drawing a conclusion and the story if fully formed. The conclusion is a summary that neatly ties all the pieces together in a tangible reality on which we can act.
There is nothing inherently good or bad about this process. In fact, as discussed the creation of a story or, in scientific terms, a hypothesis is the fundamental process by which new knowledge is developed. The problems for managers responsible for assessing performance arise when we begin to treat the story as fact because once the story is firmly implanted in our mind we begin to filter information. We become more aware of information that supports the story and almost blind to information that counters the conclusion that we have drawn.
When giving feedback it is critical to be aware of the process by which we create stories. If we lead with the story when giving feedback by saying, 'Your laziness and lack of attention to detail are the reasons your performance does not meet expectations' it is pretty much a guarantee that no one will be listening after that. Leading with the story is the single best way to create defensiveness.
Managers who recognize the anatomy of a story and who are aware that the assumptions, attributions, and judgments imbedded in a story are untested and unproven will able to avoid leading with their story and remain open to learning and understanding. It is this open approach that is critical to providing feedback which arises from facts and results in meaningful and sustainable change.