Sharing feedback is easy! Isn’t it?
How to transform your feedback conversation into a development opportunity.
We all know this situation in business life when we feel the need to share observations or are asked for feedback. This sounds like an easy exercise, but it can get tough to present your point clearly and in a constructive manner or understand what the other person is saying (might not be what you are hearing). Common pitfalls that lead to great frustration and the feeling of being misunderstood can be easily avoided.
Giving and receiving feedback can feel awesome and be a fast way to learn and grow – if shared in a constructive way. Some of us have a natural talent when it comes to people skills, empathy and delivering difficult messages. Becoming a great feedback giver, listener and people coach can be trained like riding a bike. I prepared a little cheat sheet for you that will help you to remember the golden rules and best practices of effective feedback giving.
During the last years of my work I watched a lot of different behaviours that made the difference between a manager and a leader clear to me. In this article I want to share the biggest NO-GOs and DOs when it comes to providing feedback. If you want to become a trusted leader (you can be a leader at any rank) a good starting point is to communicate your thoughts and development opportunities in an adequate way.
You might be wondering what can go wrong? Quite a lot when it comes to feedback conversations, you do not want to overload other people with your observations or interpretations and leave them behind frustrated and feeling misunderstood. Therefore, to be able to act upon feedback and to take it in, we need to make sure we avoid these common pitfalls:
1) Squeeze in feedback
A very common and severe pitfall is to squeeze in feedback. How would you feel if Bob walks by and says “by the way, your presentation yesterday, XYZ said it had some flaws, let’s catch up later”. This is hard to take in and would leave all of us puzzled. However, quite often we are sharing feedback on the run that can be offending, hurtful or devastating to the person having invested quite some time on a project. Meaningful feedback should be never given on the fly, or at the last 3 minutes of a meeting - especially negative feedback. If you have to point out areas that need development (there is no bad feedback), make sure that you have planned in enough time with the person, have a private room or go for a walk outside and have a conversation. Also ask the person if they are ready to take in feedback. If you get the answer that they are having a bad day and would like to move it, accept it and be compassionate. Consider offering your help. You never know what happens in people private lives, it could be that they lost a family member or have private problems that are taking over their capacity to focus. Once you have started your conversation, make sure that you care about the other person and not simply release all your observations about their behavior. Being able to understand the other person’s point of view while having a respectful dialogue will create trust and help you build up a good and long-lasting relationship.
2) Assume negative intent:
The biggest pitfall is assuming negative intent behind a person’s behavior. We are all shaped by our past experiences that may have formed us and our personality. All people have experienced something negative that we tend to project on others when we are triggered by a certain behavior e.g. “colleague X again did not reply to my email, I bet she is ignoring me on purpose”. We should be aware that this is a very subjective perception of reality. What if the colleague has a sick child to care for and is extremely overloaded by their work? If we assume negative intent from the start, it will be difficult to have an open conversation with this person. We should be understanding and able to describe what happened and what affect it had on us. By giving the other person the chance to explain and share their point of view, we can focus on how to improve things instead of getting absorbed in a blame-game.
- Sticking to first impression of a person: We only need milliseconds to form a first impression of a person. And sometimes it is hard to stay objective over time because Susan had such a great CV and experience, so she must be good at whatever project she takes on. While Tim was a terrible public speaker at his first big presentation with the leadership team. Once we put a label on a person, we cannot give objective feedback anymore, we are sticking to our own bias. Feedback should be about concrete behavior that has happened recently. What if Susan started to perform poorly and Tim took classes to improve his skills, but we do not see these changes due to the focus on the label given to them. Sticking to who you think people are and ignoring current development can hurt team performance badly and result in team members feeling treated unfairly and their efforts not being recognized.
- Interpretation, hearsay and assumptions: People like to mingle at the office and you might hear things about other colleagues. Never make the mistake and use these things to reaffirm your hypotheses that you made about your conversation partner with statements like “yes but there are more people that observed you behaving like this” /“X told me that you were doing that”. Feedback means an observation based on facts and the influence that it had on us, never sharing someone’s observation of an event. Sharing gossip should not be the basis of a feedback conversation.
- Focus on rank or looks: We are all different. Do not think you can put people in a box just by the way they dress or by a label that you have defined. Are someone’s ideas less important because they are younger than you, belong to a different ethnicity or are the only women in the room? Definitely not. Stay attentive to your own thoughts and make sure you are not putting people in a box by the way they speak, dress, communicate or look to you. If you are not sure about their behavior, ask and use the opportunity to learn from them.
You might have guessed, feedback and the ability to take in feedback require open communication, an environment of trust and psychological safety.
I had the pleasure to work with leaders that made it extremely easy and anxiety free to receive feedback. I could not wait to have my regular feedback sessions with them, because it was like a guide to become a better version of myself. Let us decode why.
Here are components of constructive and inspiring feedback:
- Suited and save environment, being positive:
Make sure that the person can focus on what you want to share, schedule the session in advance and select an adequate, not noisy environment for the conversation. I personally enjoy going for a walk outside (given that I already have a trusting relationship with the person providing feedback and your office is close to nature). Furthermore, create psychological safety by your presence and behavior. This means, put all your focus on the person you are communicating with, put away your phone and start the conversations with facts or topics that you discussed recently. The other person will feel your effort and focus.
- Assume positive intent
An essential factor for great feedback conversations is always assuming positive intent. We do not enter a conversation with a fixed scenario in mind of how things might have happened.
- Speak, listen, appreciate:
What are the best conversations you had? Being with a good listener. To make a feedback conversation a positive experience, it is critical to allow a dialogue and contribute an even share of speaking and listening. Show appreciation about an open conversation, the learning opportunity and the other person sharing their thoughts.
- Recent and concrete:
Feedback should be shared on a regular level. If we wait until the end of a project, we are missing out on many feedback opportunities before this point. And statistics show that sharing your ideas and what you are working on to get feedback early in the process makes you more likely to create a useful outcome. Look at the design thinking principles or agile ways of working, feedback and communication is essential in a fast paced and unpredictable world. Therefore, feedback needs to be relevant. It does not help anyone to always refer back to something that has happened a year ago quickly share the same feedback over and over again. Be brave, embrace the learning opportunity. Share recent (within this day, week or months) feedback, you can start with the question “how do you think your project is going?”, “is there anything where you are stuck and might need my help”. These questions help the other person to reflect and you can steer the conversation elegantly towards development areas. If not, explain what you have noticed and ask your counterpart about how they perceive a given situation.
- Observation (not interpretation):
A golden rule is always to share what you have observed – try to be as objective as possible. The helps us avoid bias, do not try to connect the dots yourself when it comes to WHY someone behaved a certain way. Even though we might think to know the exact why. To share an observation, it is good to provide examples like “I saw that you were working late hours recently, this made me think that you might be stuck with your project. How do you see this, do you need support?”
- Behavior and impact:
Explain after stating the observation how a certain behavior made you feel. Sharing your emotions (staying on a professional level) and showing vulnerability is a good way to make the other person understand, gives context and triggers a process of reflection. “during our last conversation you only criticized my work, it made me feel not appreciated as I put in so many hours”. Sharing the impact that a certain behavior has on the other person is hard at the beginning. Nevertheless, sharing vulnerability and how it made YOU feel, allows us to speak about difficult situations without blaming the other person. Hence, we can avoid defense mechanisms. This can be a strong starting point to a culture of feedback, trust and psychological safety.
- Acknowledge improvement:
We might see all the things that a person could still improve – especially if we have more experience in a field. Focus on the important behaviors or skills and make sure to acknowledge the development they have already undergone. Focus should be on learnings and small improvements that the other person has acted upon and taken away from previous feedback sessions and projects – improvement and personal growth is a lifelong journey and not a sprint. This shows that you are attentive of their efforts; appreciation of someone’s work can be a great source of motivation.
In an ambiguous and unpredictable world, “soft” skills like leading with empathy and building trust within a team is turning into a competitive advantage. We can see that the most successful and resilient teams in navigating change are the ones that have a high level of trust, psychological safety and level of belonging. Assuming good intent, trusting your peers and sharing feedback is one component of this success recipe.