I spent this morning combing through survey evaluations that included feedback from students, faculty, staff, external stakeholders, and administrators. It was amazing that many of the groups (save the administrative pool) demonstrated the same key feedback faults. Since quality  feedback is essential for continuous improvement, I have some suggestions for you who are about to complete end-of-semester evaluations (only if you want them to have an impact and cause change):
  1. Identify your goal — it’s often clear when someone is venting to try to help themselves feel better. But, I still believe that people feel better in the long run when they see decisive action and change based on their feedback/input. Many become bitter and narcissistic in anonymous surveys because they don’t feel listened to. They are not listened to because their feedback is a toxic vent of a quagmire that is too difficult to extract actionable items from. Or, does not provide sufficient context to be actionable. What’s the one thing you are trying to accomplish with this feedback? We’ll come back to this.
  2. Plan your feedback — feedback is often provided ad-hoc and not planned or structured for efficient delivery. To plan, identify the key points you want to emphasize, then structure those as a skimmable list with the headline for each point at the front (like this list), yes this goes for unstructured text entry boxes too where you have to provide the structure yourself. Remember that the people looking through the survey data are having to weed through 100’s of responses and have limited time to do so. These people looking at the data are indeed people, which can only withstand so much negativity. So structure your feedback in the form of Strengths, Improvements, and Insights (SII). Opening with a strength gets people listening. Opening with an improvement tends to load a different set of neural circuitry and engages defensive maneuvering.
  3. Be specific — my first two rules for engineering communication are 1) relevancy, and 2) credibility for precisely this reason. Most toxic rants leverage vague statements like “everyone”, “everything”,  “all of my friends”, “dangerously close”, etc. It’s likely clear from the survey that not everyone agrees on all topics. Opening with a vague generality that is clearly wrong based on the survey evidence immediately makes the rest of your case a hard sell.
  4. Emphasize common opportunities — we’re often all on the same team and tend to want the same things — success, prestige, good work, sustainability, respect, etc. But so often these days we begin with an un-original in-group, out-group mentality that you’re either with us, or against us. Every suggestion, every engagement, is an opportunity to remind what we can all agree upon, and how we can help get specific action towards achieving this ideal.
  5. Memorably finish/close the dialogue — want your feedback to be remembered? If you structured the prior content such that you’ve kept people listening until the end, then sum it up and finish your comment in a memorable way. I still remember course feedback from 8 years ago when someone helped ‘pay it forward’ by cleverly pointing out how I’d miss-spelled ‘paid’.
If this feels like a lot of work for a survey, you’re right, it is. And this level of work should not just be limited to an anonymous survey. If your feedback is structured this well, take it directly to the person seeking the feedback for a broader discussion. If they are the type of person you want to be around, they will recognize the quality and effort you put in, and you will both get more out of the exchange. If you don’t want to take it to the person directly, refer back to the beginning of this post and ask yourself what the goal for your feedback really is, and whether you’ll accomplish the change you seek.