Somebody drops the word feedback and a subtle discomfort spreads. Does this sound familiar to you? Although feedback is actually there to help you improve and develop, it often comes across as critique and is perceived negatively by many employees and leaders.
Constructive feedback should foster personal development and enrich relationships in a team. It should ultimately help to diffuse tension and build a positive work environment full of learning and development. But still, many people cringe and go into defensive mode when they are given feedback. And it does not seem to be the favorite topic of the ones giving feedback either. Oftentimes feedback givers don´t feel confident in their role and prefer to go with a simple “Good job!” to stay out of more difficult conversations. But how come that our supposedly best friend feedback is so often perceived as a nightmare?
Issues with feedback
Threat and fear.
Feedback or the mere prospect of it might raise red flags for you. This is because we perceive it as potential threat to our self-esteem, desire to belong and positive sense of identity. When we feel threatened our brain has a natural tendency to go into fight or flight mode. Additional hormones are released that heighten our emotions and invite us to go into aggressive or defensive mode. This makes it nearly impossible for us to be receptive to feedback, which in turn also makes the situation uncomfortable for the feedback giver.
Another issue associated with feedback is the so called negativity bias. Stemming from the days where we had to fight for survival and be vigilant of any predators, we remember better the negative experiences. This means that although somebody just gave you a extremely long list of compliments you will remember best the one flaw he pointed out. Causing you to ultimately connect feedback rather with this small negative than the holistic experience.
In our natural language we oftentimes connect seemingly neutral words with positive or negative associations based on their frequent occurrences with particular collocations. Just think for example of the word “immigrant”. Although in the dictionary it is a neutral world like so many other, we frequently see and have it in mind it together with the adjective “illegal”, which gives it a negative connotation. The same is true with feedback. Although it actually is a harmless word it elicits negative associations in many situations.
Those and similar issues occur when feedback is given as well as when it is received. To overcome those, Workpath gathered 6 useful tips for you to give and receive good feedback.
How to give feedback
1. Mind your wording.
As pointed out above, phenomena like semantic prosody can easily change the meaning of what is said without you having the intention to do so. You might therefore want to think a little more about how you formulate things. It can prove helpful for example to use the words “advice”, “praise” or “tip” instead of “feedback”. When giving positive as well as negative feedback be also careful to use “but”, “although” or “however” to connect the two. This can make your compliment sound insincere. Consider alternative connections like “first, …, and second …” to demonstrate that your positive feedback has the same value as your proposals for improvement.
2. Observations instead of generalizations.
Try to base your feedback on observations and facts rather than judgments. Specific examples of situations you observed will help the receiver of your feedback to recall the situation referred to and perceive the feedback as more neutral, objective and understandable. It will probably make it easier for the receiver to recall and agree with “During our last team meeting you interrupted Anna in her presentation to add some thought of yours” than with “you always interrupt people”.
This kind of framing will also make it easier for the receiver to convert feedback in manageable to-dos like “Let the team members finish their presentations in the meetings before adding own thoughts.” Next to focusing on observations instead of generalizations also try to base your feedback on behavior rather than personality. This can easily be done by using verbs instead of adjectives. “You interrupted Anna” comes across more objective and concrete than “You are impolite and inconsiderate”.
3. Stress the importance.
Stressing that a certain behavior had impact on you or others shows the receiver the importance of the feedback. “After interrupting Anna, she did not know where to start again and felt insecure” clearly shows that the feedbacked behavior influenced the performance of others.
4. Put yourself in their shoes.
Imagine the situation is reversed. How would you react if your colleague gave you the same feedback.Trying to empathize with the other side will make your feedback more considerate. Keep in mind though that people are different and some might be a little more sensitive than others. Going one step further you can als ask for feedback in return. With this you demonstrate that you are open to advice and value their opinion, putting you on an equal footing.
5. Give feedback at eye-level.
Try to get across that you are interacting on a level of mutual respect. Be clear that you talk about your observations and opinions and that others might have different perceptions that are valid as well. Understand that you both build towards learning from the interaction.
6. Make it actionable.
Making concrete suggestions for improvement will help others to embrace your feedback. Actionable proposals how to do things differently will turn feedback from only pinpointing flaws into an actual opportunity to develop for the receiver.
How to receive feedback
1. Understand your discomfort.
As pointed out before, your brain has a natural tendency to go into fight or flight mode when it senses you’re being threatened. It is natural to feel that way. Recognizing this is the first step to overcome the discomfort. Once you manage to stop seeing feedback as negative you can prevent your brain from eliciting these kinds of reactions. Try to remember to approach feedback with and assume good intent from others.
2. Recognize the opportunity to develop.
Before you get feedback try to remember what skills you want to develop and then fit your feedback to these goals. Try to think of what strategies you can derive from the given feedback to achieve your goals. Remind yourself that feedback is an opportunity for you to see your actions from an outsider’s and thereby new perspective. This might help you to find out how you can create a better version of yourself.
3. Follow up.
If feedback is not concrete it is not constructive. Remember the example from above when somebody says “You are impolite”. Such a feedback says nothing about which behavior made you come across as such, nor what you does it help you to change. If you don’t understand what the feedback giver is trying to say or if he is this inconcrete, ask follow up questions. Asking “what could I do differently?” or “how could I improve” will help you get down to facts and to make the feedback constructive for you. This is also a good strategy when you feel you are on a too personal and emotional level.
4. Remember your autonomy.
Keep in mind that you as the receiver of feedback are very much in control of how the follow-up goes. You are invited to take the feedback into consideration and make respective changes of a scope and at a time that is fitting for you.
5. Extract learnings.
Revise what exactly your manager or colleague liked or didn’t like about your performance. Is there anything you can do to replicate the liked behavior or transfer it to other situations? Or is a certain behavior like opening your laptop in meetings maybe a habit of you that you can drop to come across more polite? Try to extract concrete learnings from the feedback you get. Especially when you are given feedback in different situations or by different people you can additionally look for patterns. If a certain aspect comes up again and again, it might be worth it to think what learnings you can derive from the said.
6. Accept positive feedback.
A final issue many people have with feedback is to also accept the praise and the compliments. A lot of employees show a tendency to deflect or dilute a compliment. However, embracing positive feedback by acknowledging your hard work can help you to build confidence and boost your performance further. Say thank you instead of playing achievements down!
Feedback is a complex concepts where different opinions, emotions and personalities come together and influence each other. To really create the trust and openness necessary for a good feedback culture, exercise is needed. You should try to make feedback a habit by incorporating it after each project or even presentation. Training and habituation will help people to get more comfortable with it. Also, remind yourself that when people give feedback to you it is there to help and not to hurt you. Recall that in most cases there is a good intention behind it. If you learn how to communicate and receive feedback effectively you can help your colleagues and yourself to grow professionally, diffuse office conflicts and improve your team’s productivity.