Feedback is one of the most effective, powerful tools we have available to us to improve individual and team performance. Feedback can act as a vehicle for growth and positive change; done well, it strengthens team relationships, builds trust, speeds problem-solving, and makes team members feel supported, valued, and heard. Unfortunately, it’s rare for teams and organizations to utilize feedback to its full potential. Giving and receiving feedback are complex skills, and many of us haven’t had the opportunity or taken the time to develop these abilities.
If we want to do our best work, getting good at feedback isn’t optional; it’s essential. Whether we’re part of a small team or a large organizational hierarchy, we can each take responsibility for delivering feedback effectively and accepting it willingly. If we don’t do this, our teams and ultimately our organization will become brittle, unable to change and grow. Unaddressed issues will take root and become toxic, relationships will falter, and we’ll get in the way of our own ability to do great work.
So where do we start?
1. Accept positive feedback graciously. Don’t deny or minimize. Say “thank you.”
Accepting positive feedback is deceptively difficult. When someone gives you a compliment, what’s your natural response? Do you get embarrassed? Do you shrug it off, or worse, push back and explain why you’re not really so great? Do you minimize your accomplishments, or give others credit that belongs to you? Do you simply change the subject as quickly as possible?
When you’re given positive feedback, pause and take it in. Take a moment to appreciate the person who took the time to compliment you. Look them in the eye, smile, and say, “Thank you.”
2. Accept constructive feedback without arguing, pushing back, or getting defensive. Say “thank you for the feedback.”
If accepting a compliment is challenging, graciously accepting a critique might feel just about impossible. When we receive constructive criticism, no matter how well it’s delivered, we tend feel defensive. Constructive feedback often provokes strong emotions: embarrassment, hurt, anger. When we feel emotional, we tend to react instinctively rather than respond thoughtfully.
How do you receive critical feedback? Do you push back, explaining to the other person why their assessment of you is incorrect? Do you feel the need to defend yourself, coming up with justification for your words and actions? Do you disengage and shut down? Do you fight back, making sure the other person knows they’re not perfect, either?
When you’re given constructive feedback, practice receiving without reacting. Listen carefully to the feedback; don’t try to analyze or dismiss it. Look the other person in the eye and say, “Thank you for the feedback.”
3. Allow yourself to “sit” with constructive feedback until you feel less emotional about it; then decide if and how to act.
Imagine you’ve just had a performance review with your manager, and it didn’t go as well as you hoped. Your job isn’t in danger, but your manager has pointed out two or three areas where you need to improve before you can be considered for a promotion or salary raise. You accept the feedback gracefully, but before you’re halfway back to your desk, you’ve come up with three or four reasons why your manager is wrong and her feedback is completely unjustified. She doesn’t know the whole story. She’s too focused on the negative and doesn’t give me enough credit for what I do well. She’s feeling insecure about her own performance. She never liked me in the first place.
When you receive feedback that’s difficult to hear, resist the urge to engage with it right away. Instead, focus on how the feedback makes you feel. Are you hurt? Frustrated? Angry? Disappointed? Tune into those emotions, and simply let them be for a while. After you’ve had some time, check back in with yourself. Once you find that your emotions have cooled off, consider the feedback again. Where is the value in it? What parts of the feedback, if any, do you want to address? Do you need to modulate your behavior? How will you go about doing that?
4. When giving feedback, be specific, thoughtful, and direct. Ask before giving unsolicited feedback.
Whether feedback is positive or constructive, it should be specific and thoughtful. Name actions and behaviors; quote directly if appropriate. Both positive and constructive feedback should follow this pattern. Consider two sets of feedback, one positive and one constructive, for a person who has just finished giving a presentation:
Generic positive feedback: “Nice job, you did great!”
Specific positive feedback: “You were thorough but very easy to follow; I particularly liked the story you told about Project X. I also thought you were very enthusiastic and that made it a lot of fun to listen to you.”
Generic constructive feedback: “That was okay; it could have been better.”
Specific constructive feedback: “You would be a more engaging speaker if you relied less on your notes and made more eye contact with your audience. I thought you could have used a few more examples in the middle section to strengthen your case.”
Thoughtful, specific feedback is valuable because it reinforces what the person did well and/or gives them guidance for improvement. In addition, constructive feedback should be direct, especially if it is significant. Critical feedback that is delivered indirectly (or tucked into the infamous “compliment sandwich”) loses its impact.
Finally, when giving unsolicited feedback, it often helps to open the conversation by asking the person if they are open to receiving feedback on a specific topic. If they say “no,” respect their decision; you might ask if they would be willing to have a conversation another time, or receive the feedback by another method, such as via email.
5. Always assume positive intent.
Feedback is always a gift. When you receive feedback, consider that another person is taking the time to compliment your work or share suggestions for improvement with you. Assume that the other person is coming from a place of support and desire for your growth-- even if you disagree with the feedback, and even if it could have been delivered with more thoughtfulness or sensitivity. When you thank someone for their feedback, you are thanking them for that positive intent.
The process of learning to give and receive feedback well begins with reflection, self-awareness, and a willingness to modify our usual patterns of reaction and response. It’s my hope that these strategies will provide a useful point of departure for the development of two challenging, worthy skills. If you’re interested in digging deeper, I’d love for you to join me at NDC Oslo for my talk “Better: Fearless Feedback for Software Teams.”